Last month we completed a short internship here in London, with Zacharie from Café de Maraba, Rwanda.

Our relationship with the Rwanda farmers at Maraba & Gashonga, is through Direct Trade in its truest sense and we’re assisted by Rwashoscco (Rwanda Small Holder Specialty Coffee Company) which exports and markets the superb specialty Rwanda coffee grown by the 11 Co-operatives on behalf of the farmers.

Rwashoscco is owned by the Co-operatives and is a for-profit business. It also operates “Cafe de Maraba”, a small coffee roasting company, now in Kigali but previously in Butare, nearby Maraba.

Cafe de Maraba sells to the local restaurants, hotels and grocery in Rwanda. It is the best known coffee in Rwanda, and when I’m in Rwanda and ask a waiter in a restaurant “what coffee am I drinking?” they always tell me “Café de Maraba”. But ask to see the package, and it can be another story. Sometimes its one of the competitors, and you can tell because they don’t taste as good.  So Zacharie, the Manager of Café de Maraba, was with us in London to pick up some ideas on how he can grow and develop Café de Maraba and market it successfully.

The coffee which Café de Maraba roasts and sells creates additional revenue stream for the co-operatives.  So, the strategy is for the farmers to participate in a business which provides value added “roasted coffee” as well as earn income from their crops through selling to the co-operative.

The team at Café de Maraba is very small; they are very good and committed to what they do, but the barriers which they face – high taxes, low internal coffee consumption, constant power failures and delivery issues make managing a business incredibly difficult.  Despite the challenges, they are selling roasted coffee in a market which is leading the continent in business growth. With the interest in tourism, there are many new hotels, and restaurants are busy and new openings too.

Zacharie had the opportunity to observe how we navigate Union on a daily basis. We visited clients (thank you to Giraffe, Canteen, Taylor Street Baristas and Royal Festival Hall).  He has to wear many hats; managing the Roasting Facility, Sales & Marketing, Administration, Distribution. We know exactly how that feels when you only have a couple or three people in the team so hopefully he picked up a few tips.  I think the more people Rwashoscco is able to have with the passion and enthusiasm that Zacharie expressed, the greater the chances are for them to be successful as a company and of course that will bring success for the individuals too.
So if you are fortunate enough to visit Rwanda, perhaps drinking coffee in a restaurant, check that it’s Café de Maraba, & pick up a pack at Kigali Airport before you leave.

In early February 2010 I visited a new producer group in south of Costa Rica that we’re working with this year for the first time. But more about that in another place. So whilst down near the Panama border I took the opportunity to travel to one of the remotest areas of Costa Rica called, Bioally, to visit Gonzalo Hernandez Solis at his Finca Coffea diversa. The concept of his farm is a coffee varietal botanical garden (Jardín de Variedades) which is in the midst of creation.

Generally coffee farms are limited-varietal plantations, where just one or two of the most common botanical cultivars, Caturra, Catuai, Catimor, Typica, or Bourbon are planted.
Almost all of the planted arabica coffee varieties grown in the world today are derived from the C. arabica Typica and C. arabica Bourbon. So, for that reason the genetic composition of almost all of the arabica coffee grown all over the world has low level of heterogeneity.
Therefore, Gonzalo suggests the main differences in cup profiles are generated by the microclimates and geographic conditions where the coffee is grown, with less influence from genetic heterogeneity of the coffee plant. The homogeneity within these populations is further enhanced by the predominantly self-pollinating nature of Coffea arabica.

Gonzalo at Coffea diversa has acquired the largest private collection in the world of rare species, mutants, and cultivars, and has a project to test the source of diverse cup profiles offered through genetic heterogeneity.

These rare and exotic varietals have not been commercially available, mostly because of extremely low yield and susceptibility to disease.
So, the question he is asking is what is the effect of genetics on cup quality? It’s answered through working with an extensive range of different cultivars, giving genetic heterogeneity, under controlled planting conditions and with the potential to create an enormous source of different taste profiles. Gonzalo has created an astonishing and beautiful coffee farm laboratory to examine possibly the most overlooked and under-researched factor influencing taste profile.

Garden Setting:
As I approached within reach of the farm gate entrance, I could see why Gonzalo describes this as a botanical garden. It was delightfully planted, with a large range of flowering shrub and tree species bordering the rows of young coffee trees. This first section of the farm is separated into different plots for each species, each plot contains up to 25 different identical coffee trees; many are rare botanical varietals. When these trees have matured to produce sufficient beans to sample roast and determine cup quality, then if the coffee is deemed worthy, a micro-lot sized plantation is created in a different section of the farm.

Gonzalo first bought the land more than 20 years ago; geographically it is difficult to reach so just a few have tried to grow coffee there. Although only 1200-1350 mASL, Gonzalo is enthusiastic about the extremely good micro-climate and soils which he believes have the capacity to grow excellent coffee. The farm is close to La Amistad International Park, the largest forest reserve in Central America with about 500,000 hectares of protected primary tropical rainforests. The farm extends to around 150h; nearly 30% remains as forestland and the natural streams are protected by 50m boundary of wooded area.

It is hugely impressive and the results of an obsessive and visionary Gonzalo Hernandez Solis. Through the next few years as his results emerge, it will be interesting to discover which of the many varietals produced under the growing conditions at Finca Diversa, has the potential to reveal excellence in the cup. Coffea diversa will make these rare coffee species and cultivars available, maybe even for the first time, so coffee devotees can discover these cup profiles.

The Mother of Arabica
Genetic studies suggest that Coffea arabica originated about one million years ago, somewhere in the vicinity of southwest Ethiopia, southern Sudan or northern Kenya as a result of a spontaneous cross between Coffea eugenioides (maternal) and Coffea canephora (robusta) that gave birth to Coffea arabica. There is still some debate about which was the paternal progenitor as some scientists say that it was not Robusta but Coffea congensis. There is unanimous consensus as to the maternal progenitor, Coffea eugenioides. This is supported by means of molecular markers, gene sequencing and genomic in situ hybridization.

Interestingly, Coffea eugenioides has a low caffeine content; Coffea arabica has an average caffeine content of 1.2%, Coffea canephora has a caffeine content range of 1.5-3.3%, Coffea eugenioides has only 0.3.-0.6% caffeine content.

Coffea eugenioides is now native to the highlands of East Africa, where it occurs in the eastern part of the DR Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya and western Tanzania.

We had the delightful Sheila Dillon visit last week along with food broadcaster Dan Saladino to record a special for BBC Radio 4’s the Food Programme on coffee. We had an intense morning session: Jeremy cupped Konga Yirgacheffe, Lambari pulped natural and Los Crestones with Sheila. They were charming and we talked at length about everything from sourcing & certification schemes to origin flavour attributes, appellation & cultivars. Our very modish Matt demonstrated performance art whilst roasting 8kg batch Lambari. Unfortunately, as the beans cooled in the tray, the closing arm of the cooling tray got knocked causing about 1Kg to hit the deck. A tad mortified but fortunately not broadcasted!

So it’s a shame there was no hope of including more detail on the programme. They had an ambitious brief to cover everything that’s going on in the coffee scene. It was great to hear Daniel Young (young&foodish.com) giving a compressed overview of the skilful craft of the barista, and Stephen Hurst (Mercanta), eloquent on what continues to attract and drive upward interest in the joy of coffee. Maybe its just me but I don’t get the point of including how instant is made, & POD’s ?? surely not.

One twitter follower, Zach Beauvais, summed it up:

“Why the HELL are they talking about pod-coffee? bleurgh, bleurgh, sputter, tin-aluminium flavours coming forward. I’m getting burnt-erasers and charcoal mixed with rusty tins and… hmm? Fish? My take on coffee suppositories ;)“

Hear Jeremy slurp & Matt roast http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00rzmhb

My Micromill Revelation

As a roaster, we look in one direction and speak with farmers, face the other we speak with consumers. Because I visited so many farmers during this visit to Costa Rica it really brought this home to me and what a privileged position we have to tell the stories of what’s going on in the fields.

In Costa Rica what I’ve seen over the years as the main issue, has been the system of coffee production with big mills creating their own brands to major exporters and roasters inevitably at the compromise of achieving high quality. So for small roasters like Union actively seeking high quality, this has never had our attention or met our needs.

Against that tide, in more recent years, enlightened farmers have been moving away from selling into the big multinational mills and massive powerful co-operatives farms, towards empowering small, independent smallholder farmers with their own wet mills (beneficio) and drying patios.

This form of production, where small individual farms pick and process coffee cherries from start to finish, controlling quality right through, although still a small niche, has become more widespread and available in Costa Rica in recent years. We’d been fortunate to participate in this movement since its early days, having worked with Cafetelera Zamorana for several years now, when they first built their own mill. Over the years Zamora family have gradually built up a small Estate farm. But I’ve now got in deeper and explored into this “Micro-mill revolution”and visited more than 10 different nano- & micro-mills which are an even tinier scale indeed. The opportunity to cup their coffee became my revelation.

This quality-driven micro-mill enterprise is emerging from tiny volume and defined-farm, coffee producers who have taken total control of the process and now separate their daily lots, mill it themselves and produce the best possible flavours and get the best price. This revolution is possible due to new, small mill equipment and the awareness by small producers who were previously selling coffee into the multinational mills at market price, where it became anonymous by blending with average, poorly harvested lots. Now, with an independent micro-mill, a small farmer can become a true artisan and maximize the cup quality of their coffee, dividing lots by elevation or cultivar and receiving the highest prices for their micro-lot coffees. In return, we get exceptional small-lots and a transparent relationship with this small farmer. As a small roaster this gives us an opportunity to bring these boutique lots in a way that is not economical for a larger coffee company and in these cases the farmer receives 200%+ more than the Fairtrade price.

I’ve heard this micro-mill phenomenon described is part of the bigger food movement shifting from industrialised agriculture that’s failed to feed the world and the return towards the small scale farmer as artisan producer. It’s bringing Costa Rica away from the agribusiness approach that it’s followed for years that focussed on high yield, disease resistance and driven by (false) economics and scale.

Costa Rica is now experiencing innovation and creativity; we’re enjoying pure cultivar micro-lots and honey coffee. The varietals now produced, Typica and Bourbon, and the natural mutations Villa Sarchi and Caturra can be productive and sustainable for many decades, and offer exquisite nuances of aroma and flavour. Compare them to the commercial grown Catimor-based varietals grown to produce a commodity with phenomenal yields but collapses with fatigue in a decade. That’s what you’ll find in your “big brand” pack of “Cost Rica single Origin”. The small scale artisan farmer cannot take this route.

With 150 + micro-mills in different microclimates, the revolution is happening and many small-scale roaster buyers like Union are joining because as more, small artisan farmers work to increase cup quality, rather than increase yield, they need like-minded buyers prepared to pay a fair price for their coffee.

Parchment Preparation Honey preparation is a pulp natural lot, where the fruity mucilage from the coffee cherry is left on the parchment during drying. The yellow coloured honey is about 50% removed, Red coloured has about 80% mucilage left on. As the coffee dries it gets gummy, coated in “honey”, feels (& looks) like sugar puffs. The result is parchment that dries to a rich yellow or red colour depending upon how much mucilage is removed. In the cup it is milder acidic and plenty of body. A stimulating richness sensation to espresso shots.

You can click below to watcha slideshow of images from the trip (hint: click on any image for a description)

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