I still haven’t made it South of the Equator in my life but I got pretty close this time. A trip to the Huila region of Colombia for two weeks, organised by Café Imports and Fairfield Trading in November 2013, meant that I got within a few hours drive but never broke through. I did however experience a tiny part of a huge country that saw the group I travelled with welcomed openly into farmers’ houses, offered produce straight from the allotment and witness a fraction of the immense amount of work that goes into the cultivation of the coffees we buy.
Workers return from the fields of Omar Cardenas, Finca La Esperanza, Acevedo
Based at San Agustín, a small town at the southern point of Huila, the goal each day was to cup coffees from different groups in the region at the newly built Los Naranjos group cupping lab in the town centre, before visiting farms of coffees that scored highly. With cuppings set up and cleaned down by a pretty slick team of young locals led by Eduardo Sanchez, and all just starting their careers in coffee, we had but one task: cup. Over the course of four mornings more than 50 coffees from the groups of Gigante, Primaveral, Coocentral, Nariño, Palestina, Pitalito and Los Naranjos were assessed and happily each table offered up a few stand-outs that I could really focus on.
Eduardo (in red) and the local cupping team
The first table of the first day threw up a clear winner; a Caturra lot stood above the rest in terms of clarity, sweetness and aroma. Produced by the current president of the Los Naranjos group, it just so happened to be the first farm we visited too; Asturias, owned by Miguel Augusto Ortega, a modest 4 hectare farm just outside of San Agustín. At an altitude of 1650 masl and planted with well established yellow and red Caturra alongside the more disease resistant, newer strain of Castillo, Miguel keeps his two varietals separate at all times through production and processing. Fertilising twice a year, he uses no insecticides to minimise dependancy on chemicals, however, as with all the farms we visited, Roya is present and has to be contained using fungicides when necessary. His farm was impeccable in its presentation with all trees showing healthy and abundant growth in the first few weeks of main harvest, and more importantly the cherries picked showed uniformity in ripeness before pulping. As soon as I could get a quiet word with the guys at Café Imports I expressed my interest and we are now pleased to be able to offer Finca Asturias as our next Single Origin espresso release.
Miguel Augusto Ortega, President of Asociacion Los Naranjos
Ripening Red Caturra
Fully ripe Yellow Caturra
Feeding red and yellow Caturra down through a disc pulper at Finca Asturias
Unfortunately not every farm visited showed the same consistency of ripeness in cherries pre-pulping. Even though each farm washed and skimmed the floaters once pulped, the quality of the finished product at some of the farms will inevitably be debatable due to the amounts of under and overripes that make it through. From a roaster's perspective, no doubt each batch roasted would require a fair amount of hand sorting in the cooling tray to remove these defects.
A mix of ripe red and yellow Caturra with green unripes and black over-ripes
The step of pre-pulping sorting is not the norm across Colombia but one farm is leading the way whose coffee Workshop know well, Finca Tamana. As the rest of the group returned to their respective countries after a week full of cuppings and farm visits with Café Imports, I was lucky enough for Alejandro Renifo of Fairfield Trading to arrange for me to spend two nights at Tamana, his son Sascha acting as interpreter. I already had the pleasure of meeting Elias Roa, Tamana's owner, earlier in the week when we'd stopped in at his other farm in Acevedo but now I was to be a guest under his roof and shown the workings and practices that make Tamana an example for others when it comes to specialty coffee production in Colombia.
Elias cleaning pre-pulp sorting tables
Pre-pulping hand sorting
Working closely with Tim Wendelboe of Nordic Approach, Elias has embraced a number of additional steps and controls required to increase the overall quality of the final cup. Hand sorting, a zinc-lined cherry hopper that is kept spotless, a washing process that makes ample use of the natural spring found on the farm and more besides; all contribute to coffee that has superior cleanliness and clarity of flavour. Paying his workers 50% more than other farms in the area to ensure that the extra steps are duly followed, and as a man with long-term vision and a desire to produce the best coffee he possibly can, Elias is now seeing the results after just a few years hard work. The innovation doesn't stop either. With Wendelboe visiting regularly, further improvements and procedures are being introduced and experiments carried out in areas such as drying, all with the same objective of attaining a higher level of green quality and longevity.
Colombia is somewhat different to most producing countries due to it's production being split into two harvests over the course of the year; the main harvest and the mitaca, a smaller harvest that produces about a third of the main crop. Fairfield Trading explains it as follows:
Colombia has an unique advantage in terms of offering fresh coffee all year around because it has two distinct alternating harvesting seasons. Regions, located to the north, have their main primary harvest during the second semester, and a smaller secondary mitaca harvest during the first semester. The reverse occurs in the regions towards the south
Factors like altitude, luminosity, soil and unique micro-climate patterns cause exceptions to this rule. In these areas the harvest cycle tends to be evenly distributed during the year, or a single short harvest.
Due to the factors mentioned above, farms separated by as little as 100km can be in different harvests, so whilst the region around San Agustín was in full harvest, Tamana, 200km to the north but still in Huila, was in mitaca. Elias only had his core picking team of eight tasked with clearing the mitaca harvest, working the farm in separate lots to a set schedule each day, yet it is not only picking duties this team perform. All are coached in spotting the early signs of roya and combatting Broca so walking through the farm it was obvious the trees remain in great condition regardless of the problems that can befall coffee, a combination of training and teamwork being the most effective weapon.
A few isolated spots of roya, a sign of excellent farm management at Tamana
Elias and Tim are rightly very proud of what they have achieved in the space of a few years at Tamana, so much so that Finca Tamana by Tim Wendelboe has just been released, a beautiful photographic documentation featuring insight into the farming practices that make Tamana the coffee we know and love. Workshop are under no impression that the work is finished at Tamana, however we are glad that we have helped through our purchase of the coffee and look forward to tasting new crops to come and further visits to see Elias and his team at the farm. What we do have is a greater understanding of the amount of effort and dedication that goes into producing coffee both at Tamana and also the work of other farmers around the region of Huila, Colombia. And boy was this little guy awesome.
If you enjoyed any of our spectacular coffees from the Nyeri region of Kenya last year (and to be honest, even if you didn't) you should be bringing yourself up to speed with a frustrating and somewhat worrying set of developments in the region that are poised to have a dramatic effect on the traceability and quality of its coffee.
We'll be heading to Nairobi in a few weeks time to decide on the lots that will comprise our Kenyan selection for the coming season. We're hoping that for our sake, your sake and most importantly, the sake of the farmers, millers and workers of Nyeri who depend on coffee, that the situation is sorted by then.
Just as there's many ways to skin a cat, there's a number of ways to turn a ripe coffee cherry into the dried seed that we know as a raw coffee bean. At one end of the spectrum (and forgive us for painting in painfully broad strokes), the cherry skin and all sticky fruit flesh is removed from the seeds, which are then laid out to dry. This method is know as the 'washed' or wet process method.
At the other end of the spectrum (and yes, there are lots of variations in between) the whole cherry is picked from the tree, and dried in its entirety; skin, sticky fruit flesh and parchment layers all surrounding the seed. This is known as the 'natural' or dry process method. This method is known to produce intensely fruity, and sometimes quite dirty, fermenty or rotten flavours; not characteristics that fit in with our ethos of buying clean, sweet and fresh coffee.
Those that have been paying close attention over the last couple of years will no doubt be aware that we've never purchased a naturally-processed coffee for inclusion in our range.
Today, that changed.
For the last couple of years, we've come across a lot of naturally-processed coffee, and nearly all of it has fallen into the category of being dirty, musty, fermenty, and we've rejected them all. Indeed, on my most recent trip to Ethiopia I came in at the tail end of the harvest, and the drying tables and patios were full of coffee being naturally-processed; a mixture of ripenesses, flies swarming on the cherries, birds picking at them. Hardly an inspiring or appetising sight.
That being said, also over the last few years we've been aware of a particular range of naturally-processed coffees being produced at Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza in Brazil that have been amazingly clean, balanced, and delicious on the cupping table. And not clean (for a natural), but just plain clean and wonderful. This year, we've decided to purchase coffee from a selection there, Sitio Canaa #351.
We're really looking forward to sharing this coffee with you in a week or two's time, and giving you a bit more information about why this particular natural coffee has made the grade, after three years of shunning the process entirely. It's a special coffee, indeed.
Where does the time go? It seems like only yesterday we were unveiling our very first iteration of our Cult of Done Espresso, and yet here we are today, releasing version 15.
This time round, Cult of Done is a foray into everything that we want a really great espresso blend to be; complex, satisfying, sweet, clean, enduring and memorable. An espresso that would make it into the '10 or so great espressos of your life' category.
I visited Justin at Mahembe on a trip visiting producers in various parts of Rwanda earlier this year and was very impressed with the processing facilities, as well as his approach to standards, inspection and financial reward that he undertakes with the farmers that contribute cherries to his washing station. Understandably, I was delighted when the results in the cup matched the effort being put in, and we bought up what we could of particular lots for this blend.
Coupled with it is a terrifically sweet and silky coffee, forming the foundation of this espresso, and is the first time we've worked with the guys at Third Wave Coffee Source. Finca La Esperanza comes from Huehuetenango in Guatemala; a part of the world we're terribly excited to begin to explore, and we're looking forward to working with Nadine and her team on finding great producing partners on the ground there.
It's available now. Get involved.
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Cult of Done Espresso v.15 - £9.50/350g
The next chapter in our continued relationship with Elias Roa and his farm, Finca Tamana, will be revealed tomorrow when we release the April - June harvest. Our Head of Production, Richard, is just back from two weeks in Colombia, visiting a number of producers, but spending a good amount of time at Finca Tamana, bringing back some incredible photographs.
Today is just a teaser; stay tuned for more.
If you've been enjoying our Santa Clara Microlot (or the espresso version) from the Antigua Valley, Guatemala, we strongly suggest that you head over to Eileen P. Kenny's always excellent 'Birds of Unusual Vitality' blog, to learn a little more about the man behind Santa Clara, and a number of other great farms in Guatemala, Ricardo Zelaya.
“The challenge is to keep up quality, try to improve always, and get the right buyers for each of your coffees and the quality that you produce. Then, hopefully, you’ll get a price back that will make you sustainable and make it profitable for you to keep going with your business.”
As Ricardo outlines, “You just can’t try to save money in key parts of your farming or process… producing quality coffee is a lot more expensive, because you have to be more careful, and you have to maintain the quality and the name that you’ve built after many years of work.”
We're very proud to be roasting and serving coffee from Ricardo for the first time, and look forward to opportunities to continue to work with him and the number of farms that he helps run.
Birds of UV - Ricardo Zelaya: http://cargocollective.com/birdsofuv/Ricardo-Zelaya
This is a coffee we're really excited about.
Over the last couple of months, we've spent a good amount of time in Africa, travelling between Kenya, Ethiopia and Rwanda visiting producers, millers and exporters, to get more of an understanding about the challenges and opportunities inherit to a producing part of the world we're huge fans of.
In February we went to Thunguri - a wet mill (or 'factory'), where coffee farmers in the neighbouring area bring ripe cherries for processing into the raw, green beans for us to purchase. Located in Nyeri, Kenya, and owned by the Rumukia Co-operative Society, Thunguri is a staggeringly beautiful place to visit, surrounded by agriculturally subdivided hillsides, where macadamia nuts drop from the trees, ready for cracking between two rocks, and immediate consumption.
Back in Nairobi some days later, we tasted through a number of different lots, looking for one that stood out as our favourite. We chose CK170202; a code meaning that the coffee was sent to Central Kenya Coffee Mills (CK), in the seventeenth week of the season (17) on truck number 0202. After dry milling and vacuum sealing into 15kg bricks for transit, the coffee was ready to be moved to Mombassa by truck, and shipped to us in London, via Oslo.
And that's the coffee that we're excited to share with you now: Thunguri AA -- a wonderfully sweet, full and complex coffee, with a candy-like, sugary blackberry sweetness, and a defining stone fruit acidity. Available in both of our stores now, or delivered to your home or office via our Dispensary, there's limited stocks so don't miss out.
It was supposed to be quite simple. A leisurely cab ride to City airport, the short hop to Amsterdam, and then change planes and into Economy Comfort for an 8-hour shuttle to Kigali, Rwanda. Catch up on some emails, a glass of wine and maybe a little sleep. It wasn’t to be. Delays in London meant I missed my Kigali connection, and after an 11-hour wait in the Netherlands I got bumped to a Kenya Airways flight, which unfortunately was going to Nairobi, Kenya. Then Bujumbura, Burundi. And then eventually Kigali. To make up for lost time, it was straight into the Land Cruiser for a 10-hr drive south-west to Cyangugu. 40-hours door-to-door.
While it wasn’t the start I’d have scripted, at least I was in Rwanda. We’ve been buying coffee from this beautiful country since the day we started, but this was my first visit and I was looking forward to getting a better understanding about some of the challenges and opportunities that are inherent to Rwandan coffee production. I was traveling with my friend Cory, a coffee trader with Falcon Speciality who lived some years in Kigali, and Sam - one of the roasters from Caravan. We were collected from the airport by Zachary who works with RWASHOSCCO (Rwanda Smallholder Specialty Coffee Co.) and after a quick visit to the office we collected his colleague, Sam, and were on the road to visit some washing stations.
Our first port-of-call was the Cyarumba washing station in Maraba, about 150km from Kigali, which produces the well-known local brand of coffee, Cafe de Maraba. Similarities to the Kenya washing stations I’d visited earlier in the year were striking, and closer inspection showed that the disc-pulper being used was actually manufactured in Nairobi. Despite being well known, the quality of coffee produced at Cyarumba is not really what we’re looking to purchase, so after a brief tour it was back into the Land Cruiser to continue our journey.
The day’s intended destination was an exciting one for me personally, as we were headed to the Nyarusiza washing station - one of the two stations that contribute to a coffee we’ve bought every season since we started roasting; Buf Cafe. The story of Buf Cafe, and in particular that of it’s owner - Epiphanie Mukashyaka - is a sad, yet ultimately hopeful and uplifting one. It’s also a story that has been told a number of times by more eloquent people than myself, and so instead of re-telling it, I urge you to read their versions instead. Suffice to say, however, that with Epiphanie’s son, Sam being good enough to drive us here from Kigali, and give us the tour of the washing station and take us for a road-side lunch of brochettes and Primus (goat meat kebabs and beer... speaking my language) the frustration of such a long journey to get to Rwanda was dropping out of consciousness rapidly.
It’s an interesting feeling, traveling such a long way to visit the origins of something that has been so much a part of our business over the last few years, and an important element of our arrival calendar for our Baristas and our customers alike. Shelving this, I was conscious not to over-indulge in sentimentality as there were a thousand questions that needed answering; How was the harvest this year? Had the rains had a big impact on yield or quality? What challenges were the farmers finding this season? How did the factory manager feel about the quality of cherries arriving? What price was the factory offering for cherries? How did that compare to the neighbouring mills?
It was at Nyarusiza that I was first introduced to the concept that there was competition between Rwandan wet mills (or factories) to buy coffee cherries. Traditionally, I’d not really considered competitive purchasing outside of what we experienced in Europe or more broadly, as roasters or importers competing to secure particular coffees or microlots. In Rwanda, and more dramatically this year due to low yields, washing stations were competing to purchase coffee cherries from farmers, lest the cherries be delivered to another washing station and take away from the overall production volumes, and ultimately, profits.
Great coffee can only come from fresh, ripe, intact coffee cherries, harvested from healthy trees and delivered promptly to a wet mill, and we’re only interested in buying the greatest of coffees. Coffee farmers, on the other hand, are unlikely to have ever tasted the coffee that’s produced from the cherries they grow, so while they’re strongly encouraged by the best wet mill managers to only pick and deliver the highest grades of cherries, in Rwanda we saw that due to a shortage in supply, everything delivered to the wet mill was purchased at the same rate: anywhere from 140 - 170 Rwandan francs per kilogram. Factory managers appeared to be in no position to turn cherry away, or even to offer one pricing level for ripe, clean cherry, and another for the lower grade. While most of the cherries that we saw arriving all around Rwanda were of a good standard, there could easily have been another stage of dry pre-sorting (before pulping) to separate out quality levels even further. No-one I spoke to considered this feasible or likely, due to the shortage of cherries.
The upside of having just one price, and allowing some less ripe and some more ripe cherries into the system is that the wet mill gets greater volumes of coffee cherries to process, dry and sell. The downside is that the processing and subsequent sorting of the coffee into various grades and qualities is more arduous and labour-intensive, and it has to be a consequence that some of the cherries of questionable ripeness make their way into the lots that we buy.
It’s usually said that years of low coffee cherry yield on trees equates to higher quality in the cup; trees can focus more energy into fewer cherries, and farmers, producers and sorters can put more energy into turning those cherries into dried, green coffee. What about this other factor of a requirement of a certain volume of production to meet overheads necessitating a ‘moving of the quality goalposts’?
One of the main reasons I was in Rwanda was to get to understand these challenges more completely, to encourage continued efforts to be more, more and more selective, and to identify ways that we might be able to separate out the highest quality coffee from a number of pickings, from nearly 7,000 farmers, that would likely be blended down into more larger and homogenous lots. And if this alone wasn’t a challenge enough, the most important element here was that it made not only a positive financial impact on the livelihoods of the contributing farmers, producers and exporters, but that it was also sustainable and had the potential to be on-going.
I won’t pretend that I came away with any clear cut answers on how this could be achieved, and even the many, many ideas that I have are a bit messy, and in some instances overlap with other problems. What struck me as crucial though, is that so much of what I would like to see happen is directly in line with what people like Sam and Zachary -- as representatives of the farmers and producers -- would also like to see happen; a continuing development of quality which in turn fetches a higher price, and an ongoing effort to bridge the perceptual gap between where the coffee is grown and where it is consumed.
Sam checking over parchment coffee on the skin drying tables.
For me, as we climbed back into the car for even more travel, this time to the Cyangugu where we’d be staying the night, and could finally sleep horizontally, I started to realise just how important trust, a relationship and dialogue is going to be for anyone who wants to source great coffee in a fair and sustainable way. It’s one thing to fly in, shake hands with some producers and then hit the cupping tables, bidding on the best lots before flying out again with a container of coffee purchased. It’s another to try to understand the challenges at a grass roots level, before looking for avenues to exploit opportunities. It’s one thing to visit a washing station and start barking instructions about cherry selection, drying times, and fermentation times. It’s another thing to take a step back, and to try to understand how all of the pieces fit together, and just how insignificant the desires of coffee drinker could be considered in the bigger picture.
It’d been a long two days of travel, and now simultaneously tired, inspired, confused and full of hope, I did my best to sleep on the bumpy, rain-affected roads, ultimately extremely happy to be back in the beautiful surrounds of rural Africa.