We are really excited to announce that we will be bringing a little slice of Workshop Coffee to Northern Ireland next week. Working in conjunction with our friends at Established Coffee in Belfast and Lost & Found in Coleraine, we will be hosting two evenings of tastings. This is a great chance to try some Workshop Coffee and hear a little bit more about us and what we do first hand.
The focus of the evenings will be on our Kenyan selection. We can’t tell you all the details right now, but we will have three different Kenyan coffees, including the outstanding Githiga AA from Murang’a.
Hope to see you there!
It was about this time last year that four of us here were getting excited; one of us was having a baby, and the other three were off to the MAD Food Symposium in Denmark. Fast forward twelve months and the excitement swells a-new; one of us baby-proofing their apartment against London’s most curious crawler, and the other three are packing their bags again.
This year, James, Richard and Sara (replacing Nico, who has moved on to pastures new) will be taking themselves and our coffee to Copenhagen, to represent Workshop Coffee Co. by serving around the 600 attendees of what is without doubt the greatest symposium, anywhere.
Last year’s event saw Dario Cecchini take to the stage, butchering a whole pig that hung from an overhead beam while AC/DC’s ‘Hells Bells’ resonated through the marquis. After passionately explaining the importance of a cultural and respectful approach to the meat we eat (all of it, not just the ‘nice’ bits) and the dying craft of the butcher Dario closed with a spine-chilling recital from Dante’s ‘Inferno', and accepted an uproarious, room-shaking applause.
This was only the opening act.
For this year’s event the curators of the coffee service, Tim Wendelboe and Jens Nørgaard, requested coffee sample submissions from across the world, in an effort to identify the very best coffees from the very best roasters that they could. Amongst a great many others, and some incredibly tough competition, we submitted two espresso and two filter coffees for judging in Oslo and waited for what is always very honest feedback.
A few weeks later I was in a dilapidated Land Cruiser, bouncing around on horrible dirt roads of the Kibuye region of Rwanda when the email came through to say that our coffees had scored very well in the blind tastings; well enough, in fact, to be offered one of just four Gold Sponsor positions at MAD 2014. To say I was pleased doesn't really get to the heart of the matter; for me, it's the kind of evaluation-by-one's-peers that is a real test of the efforts that we put in to our coffee, day in and day out. And I was elated by the result.
And so, as the end of August draws near, and my colleagues are busily and excitedly preparing for what will undoubtedly be one of the best weekends of their year, I’m busily measuring for and installing baby gates on the stairs at home, all the while incredibly proud of the people that I get to work alongside.
We usually put a good deal of the attention onto the producers, the exporters and the importers we work with, who all handle our coffee from tree to port, but this time I'm more specifically interested in throwing the praise behind the roasters, the cuppers, the packers and the baristas we have on our team, who have all focused their attention on the best coffee possible, and are being recognised and rewarded for that care.
They deserve it.
We’ll be serving Githiga AA, Kenya and Finca Tamana Espresso, Colombia at the MAD Food Symposium in Copenhagen, Denmark August 24th and 25th, alongside fellow Gold Sponsors Tim Wendelboe, Drop Coffee Roasters and Koppi, and Silver Sponsors Mecca, Phil & Sebastian, Square Mile Coffee, The Coffee Collective, 5 Elephants and Da Matteo.
African beds at El Rodeo. Parchment awaits milling (above) - (below) Drying yellow honey processed coffee
One of two Costa Rican coffees found on Workshop's first trip to the country is in the UK and roasting. El Rodeo, situated in Tarrazu, was discovered at the cupping table during a hot day in February at the Exclusive Coffee lab in San José. Five quick-fire tables in the morning before flights out of the country, featuring coffees from all over Costa Rica, threw up a couple of standouts including this white honey processed coffee.
Owned by Roger Solis, El Rodeo is processed and milled ready for export at the La Casona mill built to service his two small farms in the region. In processing his white honeys Mr Solis leaves somewhere between 10 and 15% mucilage, using a mechanical demucilager, on the coffee before leaving to dry on raised beds for around 15 days.
We have been working hard on the profile for this one and think we have cracked it, bringing out flavours of walnut and sultanas, a rich malty biscuit and toffee sweetness and a lovely soft mouthfeel. A real comfort coffee and a perfect counter to the Africans of Kenya and Ethiopia currently making up the rest of our range.
Mechanical Demucilager (above) - (below) Micromill dehuller
Back in December last year, the coffee-buying world became aware of a political situation developing in the Nyeri region of Kenya that indicated this region’s coffee would not be for sale this season. We kept an eye on things as best we could from London, and then traveled to Kenya in February/March to speak with those involved on the ground to get a sense of whether anything could be done in time to bring the co-operative societies’ coffees to market.
Unfortunately, there had been little to no improvement and most of the coffees from the washing stations we were interested in were sitting in a warehouse; lots all mixed up, traceability questionable, but most importantly under lock-and-key, not even available for tasting.
So, instead we looked further afield. While each year we travel to places like Kenya in order to taste through hundreds of samples for prospective purchase, this year’s buying in Nairobi was particularly tricky. First off, we needed to widen the spectrum of coffees for potential inclusion dramatically, beyond Nyeri and Kirinyaga that we normally purchase from, to Murang’a, Thika and Kiambu.
While a grueling and challenging prospect - several consecutive days of little more than cupping, note-taking and decision making - the process was significantly more rewarding than we had expected. Countless lots across a variety of grades from these ‘inferior’ regions truly sparkled, showing depth, character and playfulness that in previous years we may have skimmed over. We spent a lot of time referring back to our copy of the Kenya Coffee Directory, looking up the location and co-operative structures of washing stations we’d never heard of before.
What we anticipated to be a buying season in which finding enough coffee of a quality level we expect from our Kenya offering, ended up being the usual difficult process of narrowing the field of extremely worthy contenders down to the handful of lots we can responsibly purchase. And it seems we weren’t alone in this approximation of things.
Purchasing is usually competitive, with every coffee buyer doing their best to secure for their customers what they see as the greatest coffees of that season, but this year seemed especially so. This, combined with the fact that the Nyeri coffees were held back, meant that prices were more aggressive than last year - a fact reflected in the retail price of our bags - but we find it hard to begrudge the co-operative societies trying to do the best they can for the farmers they represent, and we agreed to pay.
We’re extremely happy with the coffees that we have managed to secure from Kenya this year, including the return of Kabingara AA; a top grade selection from the Kirinyaga region that we adored last year. But a small part of us has to wonder — If the coffees from neighbouring regions are this delicious, just what did those top Nyeri lots taste like?
Be sure to pick up your copy of the latest Caffeine Magazine, as I talk to David Burrows about Fairtrade certified coffee, why we don't buy it, and our focus on a cycle of quality instead. Additional insights from Steve Leighton and Tim Wendelboe make it an informative article for those confused about the role of certifications in specialty coffee today.
“I see better quality coffee and better prices for producers as being inextricably linked,” says Williams. “Without us committing to providing a reliable and appropriately priced market for the best quality coffees, we can’t expect farmers to go to the extra efforts and lengths that the production of that quality requires."
Caffeine Magazine is stocked at all Workshop Coffee Co. locations, and many other quality purveyors throughout the UK.
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.