East Africa – Transformation Through Coffee
Tagged "Single Origins"
East Africa – Transformation Through Coffee
Divided from the rest of Africa by the immense Rift Valley there are many reasons why East Africa is the granddaddy of the coffee producing world. Encompassing two of Africa's tallest mountains, the world's second largest freshwater and second deepest lake not to mention home to the Big Five of the animal kingdom. This undulating landscape boasts a generally moderate climate with highs of 25c and lows of 15c at 1500masl creating some perfect coffee growing environments, and did I mention that its also the birthplace of coffee?
Although there are some great coffees coming out of many other countries in this region, this blog post will be focusing on four particular countries - Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya and Burundi.
The specialty coffee scene in Africa is dominated by the largest trade platform in Africa, the African Fine Coffee Conference (AFCA) formerly the East African Fine Coffee Association it consists of 11 member countries (Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya, Ethiopia, DRC, Cameroon, Uganda, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Malawi and Zambia) and is a member driven, non-profit and non-political association. Their goal is to create 'Sustainable Businesses for Happy Coffee People', what a great ethos to start from and it is really reflected in the quality beans that we are seeing coming out.
Home to Bourbon, Typica, Blue Mountain and Kent cultivars which are typically grown at around 1350 - 1800masl. Tanzania produces around 800,000 bags of coffee annually and is in close running with Kenya for being the 3rd or 4th largest arabica coffee exporter in Africa.
In Tanzania, we purchase our coffee direct from Acacia Hills, a beautiful estate owned by Mark Stell from Portland Roasting Company and Leon and Aideen Christianakis (local Tanzanian coffee farmers). The farm is surrounded by some of Africa’s most famous landscapes including the Ngorongoro crater and National Park which is teeming with all the quintessential African wildlife which make this area a spectacular and unique part of the world.
Elephants, giraffes, hippos, buffalo, zebras, wildebeest, rhinos, lions, leopards, cheetah and hyenas are all found here — to name just a few! One of the biggest challenges of the farm is keeping its workers safe from elephants stamping through the fields. Acacia Hills Estate has been in existence for over 50 years, but it was only five years ago that it was re-invigorated with a new ‘speciality’ approach.
Now things like variety, processing, soil analysis, sides of the mountain etc. matter and are taken into account over the whole growing process. What had become an old, disused farm is now thriving and green and is finally producing the abundant crops of beautiful coffee which they always knew this region was capable of. It’s a real testament to their hard work and effort — and also their passionate belief that they could make their little place on the top of the ridge into something special. The farm currently harvests Bourbon and Kent varieties and is in the process of experimenting with Geisha, Pacamara and Castillo.
The farm house looks over the lush coffee trees with an unobstructed view of the mountains and Lake Eyasi. The farm itself is the highest altitude farm in the region and they have planted the Geisha and Pacamara varieties at the very top at 1900masl. This small estate has its own purpose-built cupping lab with everything required to analyse coffees onsite. They use a brand new Penogas wet mill and specialise in micro-lots and honey milled coffees; all the coffees are dried on raised beds. It’s all about the small details here and we consider this estate a bit of a diamond in the rough.
The Rift Valley is steeped in human and religious history and often considered not only the birthplace of coffee but all of mankind after 3.2 million year old 'Lucy' and her 4.4 million year old big brother 'Ardi' was discovered here. The latter inspired the name of one of our much loved singles - Ardi Sidama.
Around 10,000 years ago, Ethiopia not only created the perfect climatic conditions for human reproduction but also for the Coffea Canephora T and Coffea Eugenioides to create a little arabica baby. So began a coffee production in Ethiopia.
Ethiopia is the 5th largest producer in the world, exporting an astounding 6.6 million bags a year and employing an estimated 15 million people in some way along the production line. A real powerhouse of on the global coffee market.
We have been working with Sammy at Keffa Coffee for the last five years. Over this time we have managed to secure constantly outstanding lots through the ECX (where most of the Ethiopia's beans are traded) which maintain their flavour and quality consistency.
The coffees from Kenya are renowned for their unique fruit character, intense acidity, rich body and constant cleanliness with many factors contributing to these great qualities in the cup. From Kenya’s location, right along the equator, to uncommon varietals and exceptional growing conditions, Kenya is perfectly suited to growing great quality Arabica coffees.
Ranked 16th as a global producer they have been honing their craft since 1890s and held the first ever coffee auction in the 1930s. Producing a similar annual yield as Tanzania, Kenyan coffee is typically grown between 1400 - 2200masl in its rich red volcanic soils and the shadow of Mount Kenya all creating perfect growing conditions.
Co-ops and private estates produce the majority of coffee which is, for the most part, wet processed or double fermented and then dried on raised beds to ideal moisture levels of 9.5-10.5%.
We work with Cafe Imports to bring some delicious coffee over from Kenya and maintaining the reputation for clean, crisp and consistent beans.
Burundi, not unlike Rwanda, is quite unique as most of the country lies at a very high elevation, the lowest elevation being 700masl with the majority of the land is over 1000masl - perfect growing conditions.
Burundi is a land locked country but it has access to the 2nd largest fresh water lake in Africa but means they must export through neighbouring countries rather than directly themselves but they still manage to export around 200,000 bags annually.
We work with the Long Miles Project which is headed up by Ben and Kristy Carlson. They started with just one washing station and have gone on to set up three more, working with over 140 family units at the stations. They produce beautiful washed and natural coffees here such using bourbon and local bourbon hybrids.
It used to be that going out for a coffee was a bit of a treat but in recent years we have seen specialty coffee joints popping up all over the island so we are never far from a decent brew.
The so called third wave coffee movement hit Singapore in the late 2000s, a movement to elevate the status of coffee appreciation and promote sustainability by opting for direct trade which has been sweeping over the world for nearly two decades now.
Still in its teenage years here in Singapore, it's interesting to reflect on what was on offer, if anything(!), back then compared to what they offer now; and really evaluate whether it is worth spending your hard earned dough on a cup of joe.
A well-known US coffee chain first opened its doors here back in 1996, they offered branded coffee made on shiny espresso machines, meant to impress and wow the crowd with frothy milk techniques. It was really all about the brand and and selling this to the consumer, along with a fountain of other merc including t-shirts, caps, cup holders, pens, barista bears etc.
Then things started to change, a type of cafe started to emerge that cared more about the product than the fluff of the brand. What they wanted was fresh roasted specialty coffee made on good equipment by well trained, passionate people — and they were willing to pay for it.
Some of them lifted the price of their cups of coffee to better represent the quality they were offering and the additional (and significant) cost paid by them to achieve this higher quality. Some of the pioneers of the increased prices were slammed by the news media, but it appeared that what they were offering had already won the respect and appreciation of the discerning coffee-drinking public. If anything, the media attention, which was intended to be negative, had the opposite effect. The upshot of all of this is was consumers were getting a much better product than they were before, and they were happy to pay for it.
Much of the world’s Arabica comes from growers with very small levels of production. Historically, this coffee has been sold to mill/exporters who then load it into their vast silos, blend it in with all the other small lots and sell the blended result by the container load to everyone around the world. The main difference now is that cafe owners are collaborating much more closely with roasters, and roasters are collaborating more closely with the growers — mainly for the purpose of providing the end consumer with an opportunity to taste and enjoy specific coffee from specific growers.
Achieving this is not easy. Firstly, one of the main reasons for offering microlot coffee is for it to showcase the potential of a particular region — meaning that it’s all a waste of time and effort if the coffee isn’t excellent and doesn’t reflect the characteristics you might expect from the geographical location, growing conditions and processing methods. This needs people on the ground working with the grower to make sure that they are employing the best agricultural and processing practices possible, and that their coffee, once ready for sale, is kept aside from the rest of the tons of coffee going into mill/exporter production lines and is hulled, bagged and shipped separately as small, individual lots.
All of this costs a great deal. The labour inputs are much higher. For example, farmers need to employ more pickers over a longer period of harvest to ensure that they are only picking ripe cherries. The labour inputs are much higher for the mill, as they need to handle the small lots manually and keep the coffee off the automated hulling lines. This separate handling of the coffee continues all the way through the process right through to the cup.
I really enjoy walking into a cafe knowing that I have an opportunity to order a single origin, micro lot coffee. I must admit that I’m sometimes guilty of taking a choice of a micro lot for granted. As an insider, I know what additional costs have gone into taking coffee from the tree of a particular farmer and I love knowing that it’s the very same coffee in the hopper I’m about to order from.
Celebrate the grower and their efforts by ordering a micro lot single origin when you have the chance. Celebrate the cafe owner who has also gone to the effort and expense of giving you the bean.
After all, it’s all about the coffee.
We've just had a pretty exciting shipment of Colombian green which we will be bringing to you as a special filter taster box, more to come on this shortly but in the meantime have a read of this story from our partners' over at Five Senses Australia on their experience of working with Colombian giants, the Primaveral Association and the rigorous tests a bean must go through before getting to your cup.
'I won’t lie – buying coffee can be fairly complicated. Sometimes I am simply astounded that the whole supply chain works and that we receive the level of quality we enjoy in Australia. Last November, I left Colombia ecstatic about the potential of our new relationship with the Primaveral Association. Up until recently everything had gone peachy. We received two shipments of the Acevedo group’s coffee and the feedback was extremely positive. Then came time for the Mitaca, the fly crop, and reports of extremely wet weather left us wondering when coffee would arrive and whether it would be of high quality.
Crazily, it has rained non-stop for nearly two months in this part of Colombia. Over the last month, one farmer told me that the Acevedo area had had only three dry days. You can imagine what this type of weather does to coffee production. For one thing, the trees do not follow their normal producing patterns when the climate is wet like this. Trees that do have cherries on them are all but green. Without the sun, the fruit cannot ripen. So while in some sense it is encouraging to see trees producing the beginnings of fruit, it is also worrying because the longer they stay on the tree, the more they are exposed to danger, particularly in the form of broca and frost.
Secondly, the farms which have been able to harvest a small amount of coffee are struggling to dry it properly. Colombian fincas are not like those found in Costa Rica or Brazil. There are no large scale electric dryers. Every farmer dries their parchment on patios or beds and hopes that the weather will be conducive to proper drying. Thus far, it simply has not been the case.
Understanding all this, you can bet I was a bit worried about heading to the cupping lab.
It was just as I remembered it: clean, sweet and full bodied with a solid acidity. After giving due credit to the farmers who persevered through some really difficult circumstances, all credit must also go to our friends and partners on the ground, Fairfield Trading.
The Primaveral Association is a group of 50 farms. However, not all their coffee is sold under the Primaveral name. That name is strictly assigned to the best of the coffee; coffee that goes through a stringent testing process. In fact, if I am honest, I learned a lot about the Colombian notions of preparing coffee for export. As such, I’d like to share how rigorously the coffee is tested before it can lay claim the coveted Primaveral name – and the financial incentives that come with it.
First, it must check out as having a 10.5% – 11% moisture content. However, because of the weather conditions, this is actually proving to be rather difficult. In fact, in response, Fairfield has actually lowered the range by .5% from last year to ensure that after transportation, it remains at the proper level. The second test (and this was my biggest learning curve) is what they call the ‘yield factor’. I will spend a bit of time here as I thought this was pretty interesting.
Broadly, yield factors refer to the amount of parchment it takes to achieve 70 kilos of exportable green coffee; essentially, the lower the number, the better the coffee in parchment. The FNC(Colombian National Federation of Coffee) assigns a price and quality status to parchment that achieves a 92.8 rating. So Fairfield uses this particular number as the starting point for the parchment, but they also offer a financial incentive for any parchment that tests better.
Fairfield arrives at this incentivized number like this: As the coffee is received, a member of the team takes a portion of parchment from every parchment-filled bag until they have a 250g sample. They then mill the coffee and remove all the beans which are under a screen size of 14. Then they pick out all the beans with defects (i.e. broca, black beans, chipped beans etc.) and tally the total weight left. They divide this number by 250 and get a percentage or “rating”. If the coffee does not achieve a 92.8 rating the coffee is rejected and the farmer must sell at a local mill and at the listed FNC price for the day. When a coffee does achieve a 92.8 rating, the sample passes the yield factor test and the farmer is theoretically in the running to receive the 170,000 peso premium. If, the farmer’s coffee achieves a yield factor of below 92.8, then another calculation is inputted. They take the FNC price, add the 170,000 premium and multiply it by 92.8. They divide that number by whatever yield factor was achieved and, presto, the final price is theoretically achieved.
Now, I say ‘theoretically’ because there is still one test to pass and it is the most important – how does it taste in the cup? Fairfield has three cuppers in the lab and to accept a delivery of coffee the cup score must average an 86 or above.
This may sound harsh, but this is the real work of preparing specialty coffee. At the consumer level, we too face intense competition. It wouldn’t matter how sweet our smiles and how great our service, if our coffee did not live up to its specialty label. This is the hard truth that we all play by in this industry and, just as the farmers must go through rigorous tests to achieve exportation at a specialty level, we too are tried and tested by our customers.
Our Mitaca shipment will most definitely be delayed and realistically, will probably just slot into the start of the main harvest. However, that disappointment is somewhat lessened by the encouraging fact that the foundation is in place to prepare quality coffee, even in the toughest of uncontrollable circumstances.'
You can try the latest batch of Primaveral yourself by buying a bag from our online store here, enjoy!
This article first appeared on the Five Senses Australia website.
Launched just over a year ago the UnCommon range is an opportunity for us to showcase beans from high scoring harvests and micro-lots.
Chosen for their impeccable quality, distinctive attributes and their ability to translate unique origin character, they are a continual rotation of limited release coffees available for you to enjoy.
You may now be asking, 'what is a micro-lot'? well, in simple terms it is an area of crop that produces an exceptional bean - one more juicer and delicious than all the rest and instead of mixing this in with all the other beans it is picked at a later time and packaged by itself.
This micro mill revolution began in 2000s and has a strong following in Costa Rica as well as other coffee producing countries. Whereby previously selling to larger Co-ops, farmers saw another way to make more money and combined to invest in infrastructure. This saw an increase in their prices and more control and pride over their coffee. There is immense support for these micro mills, with banks giving loans and as many as 6 new micro mills per month.
Benefits are not just for the farmer. There is now traceability and direct contact for the consumer. Less blending and more distinct characteristic coming through.
Alongside the Kenyan Kiminda AB/PB, which if anyone joined us at Cafe Malaysia back in January would have tried with us, we have just added the Tade GG Estate from Ethiopia. With tangerine and ripe banana flavours, creamy texture and delicate floral aftertaste we're sure it will be a regular on your coffee bar from now on.
Shop the collection now.