We visited the Mahembe washing station in June last year with Nordic Approach and Joseph from RTC (Rwanda Trading Company). It was very informative travelling with these two, and getting to meet and talk to Justin at his mill, as our relationship with Mahembe has been difficult to maintain since our first purchase back in 2014. We wanted desperately to buy his coffee last year, and so seeing it on Starbucks’ offer list at $40 for 1/2lb was heartbreaking. It is great that his brand is growing and that his coffee is reaching high prices in the market, an inevitably after winning an award at Cup of Excellence back in his first year of operation, but getting to work with him as he continues to develop and refine his practices will become only that much harder for us. Securing a few bags this year is super exciting, as we get to once again roast a hugely rewarding and complex coffee and share the story of Mahembe with our customers!
The harvest in 2016 for Western Rwanda was lower than in an average year, and the introduction of new zoning laws for purchasing coffee cherries has means that Justin has been hit hard with a severe drop in production. As well as coffee from his own 12,000 or so trees, Justin is buying and processing cherry grown by members of the Twitezimbere Mahembe Union, made up by about 70% female smallholders.
With the desire to start processing his own cherry, rather than selling it to another washing station, Justin set about making plans to open his own wet mill in 2008. By 2010 he was up and running, and since then he has been continually working on improving quality through attention to detail, working incredibly cleanly and adopting new techniques and equipment. Justin has recently purchased a new eco- pulper, a Penagos machine made in Colombia to replace his traditional disc pulpers. With traditional pulping machines lots of sugars are left on the fruit, and so extended periods of fermentation, whether dry or under water, are necessary to allow the native yeasts and microflora to break down the mucilage so that it can be scrubbed off easily. This requires time, and also involves a greater risk of the resulting coffee being uneven, or potentially over-fermented. Done well, as it is at Mahembe, it can add more complexity to the cup.
When the Penagos is up and running to process the majority of the coffee for the next seasion, they will be able to use a little less water to feed cherries through the pulper and also mechanically scrub the parchment clean, bypassing the need for extended fermentation periods. It will be interesting to see what effect this has on the flavours in the cup, and whether Justin will opt for a ‘hybrid’ method like that used at Gitesi in Nyamagabe, which involves using the scrubber to only remove some of the mucilage, still adopting a fermentation period in the coffee processing. This way you can still achieve complex flavour, but be able to work in a more controlled and repeatable way, being less wasteful with your resources.
Clean flavours of red fruits and elderflower complement a sweet cup, with a light body and notes of black tea in the finish.