While we take great pride in all the coffees that we bring into our range, and share with our customers, Olke Bire, Ethiopia is certainly a special one, and a coffee we'll remember for a long time to come.
The coffee is named after the man in the photo above, Mr. Olke Bire; a coffee farmer and now washing station owner, located just outside the village of Suke, in the renowned Ethiopian coffee growing region, Yirgacheffe. Until recently, Mr. Bire just grew coffee cherries, and like other farmers in the region, sold them to a local trader at a fixed price, regardless of the quality of the cherries. By participating in a new programme ('One Farmer, One Roaster'), Mr. Bire has been encouraged to take out a small loan to finance his own washing station, allowing him to control the quality of the coffee from the tree, right down to the dried green seeds that we purchase from him. In this way, Mr. Bire can take control over how the coffee is grown, processed and dried, and most importantly -- how much the coffee sells for.
Through this program, we've been able to identify farmers and washing station owners that are committed to quality coffee production, and reward them financially for their superior quality. Last year's additional revenue allowed Mr. Bire to build a well on his land, cutting out the need for his family to walk a 6km round trip for fresh water.
Though unfortunately we arrived quite late at night, we were able to visit Mr. Bire's farm and washing station on a visit to Ethiopia in February this year, so we were delighted when the samples we took with us turned out to be of such great quality! Of more questionable quality was the local 'hotel' we stayed in that night, resplendent with cockroaches, bed bugs and toilets that flushed onto the floors... But that's a whole other blog post.
This coffee has a wonderfully silky mouthfeel, carrying fresh peach and Bergamot orange sweetness. It was a very small lot, and we secured just 10 bags, so don't take too long to get your hands on this one.
Another coffee that we're very proud to be showcasing this year, and one that is really standing out on cupping tables and domestic kitchen benches alike, is the Gichathaini AA, Kenya. Again, we were fortunate enough to visit the Gichathaini factory a few months ago, not only to look at the facilities for coffee production, but to sit down with the managers of the co-operative society that runs the factory and to talk about what our coffee purchases mean to them.
In addition, we were shown through an on-site nursery, growing a range of coffee varieties; from the more usual SL-28 and SL-34, right through to newer, experimental varieties such as Batian -- a more disease and drought resistant cultivar. These seedlings will be nurtured here until they're ready to be sold on to the co-operative member farmers at a heavily subsidised price.
Gichathaini has produced consistently excellent coffee for many years now, and as a result, it's a name that crops up on the offer sheets of great roasters all around the world. While often we're hoping to carry coffees that people are less familiar with, the bright, super-sweet rhubarb characteristics evident in this particular lot meant it was a coffee we couldn't pass up.
We're currently serving this coffee on Aeropress, and have retail bags available in both our stores, as well as online at in our Dispensary. Don't miss out.
Saturday morning we arranged a USA takeover of our cupping table, and invited London coffee lovers to come along, and taste what some of the best US roasters are producing. While the more or less unanimous favourite was the Thunguri AA, Kenya, from Heart Roasters in Portland, a full list of coffees featured were:
Heart (Portland, OR)
Thunguri AA, Kenya
Intelligentsia (Chicago, IL)
Kunga Maitu, Kenya
La Tortuga, Honduras
Toby's Estate (Brooklyn, NY)
Bajo Mirador, Colombia
Santa Ines, Colombia
Sightglass (San Francisco, CA)
Stumptown Coffee Roasters (Brooklyn, NY)
Joe (New York City, NY)
Be sure to keep an eye on Twitter as we plan to hold plenty more of these events.
The thing about visiting friends in the States is that you invariably come away with a lot of gifts. When your friends just happen to work for the best coffee roasters that a nation has to offer, you invariably come away with gifts that are also delicious.
And there's too much coffee here for just us to drink, so we'd like to share it with you all. Come and taste the freshest offerings from Heart (Portland, OR), Intelligentsia (Chicago, IL), Toby's Estate (Brooklyn, NY), Sightglass (San Francisco, CA), Stumptown Coffee Roasters (Brooklyn, NY) and Joe (New York City, NY) with us, this Saturday morning in our Clerkenwell store.
This tasting is open to anyone, coffee professional or not, and it's free to attend (just drop us a line to let us know you're coming).
Cupping: Treats from the United States
When: Saturday, July 13th - 11:00am
Where: 27 Clerkenwell Road, EC1M 5RN
Who: Open to all, just drop us a line to let us know you're coming
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's over two years since we went from solely roasting coffee for our own stores, to also working with a number of wholesale partners; initially in London alone, then further afield around the UK. As more and more cafes and restaurants are making the choice to improve the coffee they serve, we need more people to help us train, educate and support those partners to serve the best coffee possible.
We're hiring a Wholesale Support Manager, who will be another vital link between coffee producers at origin, our Production Department, our wholesale partners and in turn, their customers.
More details about the role are online here.
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.