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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This week we officially launch our new espresso blend “Rogue”. Gestation started back in June 09 when Andrew Tolly at Taylor St Baristas came to us with his desire to create an espresso that would continuously challenge his baristas so they could hone their skills discovering new and different flavours in the espresso blend they use in their shops every day.

With Andrew, Jeremy and Vic, we started with our palette of single origin coffees. We needed to understand the flavours each produces in espresso shots and then with the influence of steamed milk and make adaptations in the roasts to define and refine the nuances. Over the coming months, stealing time where we could, we began putting the coffees together.

In some sessions, after extensive espresso tastings our brains were scrambled and couldn’t speak in complete sentences from the effects of caffeine—it’s a wonderful feeling.

Then through the week, texting and emailing our tasting notes … “I’m getting lots of cocoa, big body, a hint of wineyness…..- works very well in milk: is smooth, rich and chocolatey.”

By November we felt we we’re getting close so we sent out “No Name” to get feedback from friends.

“I was dialled in on the grinder from the word go, and every single shot has been coming through beautifully rich. I’ve only tried it as a flat white so far (my staple diet), and it pushes all the right buttons -lots of body and sweetness, pleasing fruity high notes……. So I think my machine must be well-matched temperature-wise
My tasting headline – ‘Apricot and cinnamon crumble’.

After a few more tweaks—”can there be too much blueberry?” We introduced “No Name” into Taylor Street Baristas shops for a soft outing. We got some great comments and we’ve worked to get more familiar with the roast style over the last few weeks. As roasters, our philosophy is to introduce some of our personality into the coffee; those roast notes of caramel, chocolate & cocoa: it’s what defines us and contributes more to the intrinsic and complex fruited & floral notes from the bean.

So now we can introduce Rogue: by name and by nature.

An espresso blend designed to change. We believe that Rogue takes an original approach as it is not a traditional ‘seasonal’ espresso, nor do we intend it to be conventional in concept either.

It is a little bit roguish.  It doesn’t aim to mute flavours so that we can maintain a consistent flavour profile.  It is designed to change in order to highlight and promote coffees that are in their prime and to showcase the diversity of coffee.   

The coffees we use to create Rogue will centre on those exclusive to Union.  These coffees are special, unique, and exceptional and a direct result of a trading model that is focussed on quality, but benefits everyone in the supply chain.

Experienced Baristas like the ideas of seasonality, new flavours, knowing about the farmers and about the coffee processing techniques. It has to be real and it’s a natural evolution for anyone who is becoming more interested in coffee.

This is part of the concept behind Rogue espresso. It is a little unconventional in that it is not just a blend focused around 3-4 flavours and designed to be constant throughout the year. It is a blend that has a distinctive character now, layered and complex but perhaps dominated by the new crop Gashonga that is really outstanding at the moment.  This is going to change in a month or so as new-crop Lambari from Brazil and tge latest organic Sumatra Gajah arrive. If they work well in the blend or are particularly exciting we’ll adjust the blend, if not, we’ll add something new and explore a different flavor route.  The blend will change as the new crop coffee harvests move from the northern to southern hemispheres, and not according to our Autumn Winter Spring & Summer.

Rogue is currently composed of four origin coffees, two different processes from Lambari farm, Brazil, our Harar, Gashonga from Rwanda and Gajah Organic Mountain from Sumatra. These have been selected, not just for their flawless quality, but also to reflect quite different and individual flavour notes that also harmonise. We have spent the last 8 years working directly with small farmers and this work is showing dividends in the form of outstanding and vibrant coffees. 

But, even the best coffees in the world—on a journey from origin to the cup—can be ruined at the hands of a poorly trained barista.  Extracting the best flavours by manipulating coffee and water volumes, pressure, temperature and time is a treacherous craft that only skilled and knowledgeable hands can consistently do well.  A skilled barista needs to identify the desired flavours and manipulate all these variables to bring these out. This metaphorical ‘graphic equalizer’ of flavour will not be set to the accepted equilibrium—muting the flavour notes as they change over time. In the shops, it will be enhanced by the Taylor St Baristas,  who can create different flavours by adjusting shots to allow each of the coffee origins to sing its arrival. The collaboration with Taylor St developing this blend has benefited from their passion and dedication to getting the most from our coffees. 

Does coffee have a gender? We want Rogue to change ‘her voice’ over time, yet still keep her soul; it will take a skillful barista to get to know her personality and then the delight as her character changes. I hope you like her.

Flavour notes: Intense almond and fruited aroma, fragrant with winey floral notes, the espresso shot gives an overlaying of marzipan, plum with a cocoa finish and lingering creamy body

Rogue is roasted every Friday, sleeps through the weekend gaining vigour, and dance into the new week.

…a new coffee is born.

We have been beavering away here in the Roastery with our coffee roasters Steven, Matt and Ben over the last few weeks at what we do best – crafting great tasting coffees roasted in small batches to develop their natural flavours to the full.

We decided to set them a challenge: create a tantalising, rich, great tasting coffee for winter.

We said it has to be deep and dark in style, be able to keep the frost at bay, and evoke dreams of roaring log fires, and the taste of traditional Christmas fare.

And definitely no nasty artificial flavours – it’s just not what we do!

This Winter Blend is all the rich colours and spiced scents of winter in a cup. Dark, seductive and very full bodied.

Indeed it’s many layers of flavours nod to Christmas cake and figgy pudding.

The taste leads with sweetness resembling candied fruit peel, followed by gentle notes of all spice and nutmeg.
Creamy butterscotch and dried fig follow up to finish with a wonderful aroma of marzipan.
Visit the shop today to purchase wholebean or freshly ground Winter Blend or a limited edition seasonal Gift Box.

Enjoy the festivities,

Jeremy Torz, Steven Macatonia. Union Hand-Roasted Coffee, UK.

The story of Rwanda’s coffee

Locked away at the heart of East Africa, Rwanda is a tiny country about the size of Wales with a rural, subsistence-agricultural economy. With a population of 9.3 million people, land is divided into small family plots with no or very little large-scale commercial agriculture. In recent years, the country’s coffee sector has undergone a remarkable transformation unlike any other coffee producer. It has seen the establishment of a now-vibrant grower and export community dedicated to working with the speciality sector.

Although Rwanda had been producing commercial coffee since the early 1900’s, the majority production was purchased by the state-owned RWANDEX and exported as Rwanda Ordinaire. This product was usually below C market due to the general perceived lack of fine cup quality and consistency. This situation was exacerbated after the 1994 civil war, when the entire country’s social and economic infrastructure broke down, displacing the population and condemning even greater numbers of people to poverty and subsistence. Our own journey through this country, its coffee and in reality its reformation to producer of premium speciality really began just a few years later. In 2001, a fledgling development programme brought us together with the first newly constituted Co-operative, Abahuzamugambi Ba Kawa to form a relationship that has lasted to this day.

The Co-operative started life as an association of small farmers in 1999 in the Maraba district (now called Huye). It’s purpose was to present a single voice to RWANDEX and sell coffee at a collectively agreed price in excess of the low prices often paid by rural collectors. Around this time, the USAID funded development programme, Project to Enhance Agriculture through Linkages (PEARL) was also active in this area. PEARL—directed by Dr Tim Schilling—was putting a remit into action to produce smallholder, fully-washed coffee optimised for quality, not volume. With this support from USAID as well as OCIRCafé (the coffee department of the government industrial development agency), a new model was created for coffee farming and specifically the centralised post-harvest processing into exportable beans under an economically sustainable model.

To bring the project to life, Abahuzamugambi Ba Kawa (based near the small town of Butare and close to the National University of Rwanda campus) was selected for the pilot project which could be developed as a model cooperative to mentor other communities. Agronomy Extension workers focused on creating, training and developing farmers’ understanding of better crop care to improve quality. In 2001, the critical turning point in developing cup quality was the construction of the first coffee washing station (CWS) in recent years.

Previously, all coffee cherries were processed to parchment by hand —pounding with stones, using home made wooden pulpers in front of the home or through the use of manual pulpers provided by OCIR Café located around the countryside.

Because washing water had to be collected from streams up to an hour or more walk away, washing and cleaning was a haphazard activity. The crop further suffered from an inherent regional potato taste defect: a starchy, astringent and pungent flavour that seemed to appear randomly throughout the crop.

The centralised CWS thus took the task of processing the cherries out of the hands of the individual farmers, who previously sold parchment coffee at low prices to intermediaries. Instead, farmers would now sell perfect, ripe cherries to the CWS at a premium with the lesser quality crop sold through traditional commodity channel.

Quality was further increased as the project agronomists trained workers to understand the post-harvest production techniques. Through this training and implementation of controlled separation and grading, a notably and dramatic reduction in potato taste became apparent.

During the time the first CWS was constructed, we become aware of the PEARL Project in Rwanda. We also heard that the country had retained cultivation of the traditional Red Bourbon varietal, and that it might be interesting to look at the coffee from this previously non-speciality producer. After making contact with Dr Schilling we received carefully-graded and prepared samples from smallholder households. Our cupping determined that although variable, there was a flavour profile that was exciting and distinct from the other East African origins in the better lots. The coffee was outstandingly sweet, with an underlying milk chocolate component, and vibrant, but controlled citric acidity, possibly softer and more rounded than other coffees of the region.

In 2002 we visited Abahuzamugambi Ba Kawa to meet the leaders to understand how we could work to support their efforts. We began to receive crop samples direct from the new CWS and cupped daily lots to select grades achieving speciality status. A contract was agreed for the resulting green coffee from the first managed production of Fully Washed Rwanda Arabica, the world’s first to market as Rwanda Bourbon single origin, under it’s new, speciality philosophy.

Between 2002-2004, we began to change the focus from volume production to a strategy of developing capacity to produce quality coffee. We launched a marketing programme to attract buyers to this fledgling specialty origin. Those bold enough to take up the challenge worked closely with their chosen washing stations to select lots of a consistently high standard. If Rwanda coffee exports were to be a commercial success, this lot selection needed to be undertaken in-country. In November 2003, Coffee Corps (USA) sent the first cupping trainers to construct and deliver a formal Cupper Training Programme to develop this expertise. Previously, all technical training had been solely concerned with raising “overall quality”; but a successful future for Rwanda coffee depended upon its being able to exploit its regional microclimates.

Over the following 3 years, significant progress was made in coffee quality and technical skills. With over 100 CWS in operation, the strategy was to bring the Cup of Excellence to Rwanda and to use this spotlight to facilitate additional buyer relationships.

Before this could be agreed, a pre-cursor competition—the 2007 Golden Cup—facilitated by the SPREAD programme and Rwandan coffee industry, was held to trial the logistics of selecting traceable lots and working to an international protocol. Coffee farmers worked to produce exemplary coffees for this internal competition. 24 diverse and exceptional coffees were selected to represent Rwanda’s top coffee production zones.

The head judge for CoE Rwanda, Paul Songer of Songer Associates, said: “The primary idea of the Golden Cup (and CoE) was not to sell coffee but to develop the market—and the way to do this is through a more thorough evaluation of what the flavours are in a particular coffee (and where they are coming from) then extend this idea further to determine what conditions were responsible for creating these unique flavours.”

Access to the competition samples provided Paul Songer and Tim Schilling with a research opportunity to take an original approach asking two key questions:

  1. Do these exemplary coffees from different regions within Rwanda offer a sufficiently diverse spectrum of flavours to offer points of difference?
  2. Can these flavours be correlated to particular geographic variables and be further used to direct farmer activities?

The coffee selected from Golden Cup and CoE were used as the analytical samples in an extensive sensory analysis conducted by Songer Associates and volunteers from CoE jury panels. Samples from each of 8 different geographical regions were repeatedly cupped for consistently identifiable flavour characteristics. If these were not present in multiple samples from the region, the attribute was discounted. Through this protocol a list of attributes and identifiers was compiled that would ultimately represent three consistent “appellations”.

With the SPREAD Project’s links to the National University of Rwanda, a collaboration was established with research by Dr. Michele Schilling (Director of Geographic Information Systems Research Centre) on soil types and geographical profiling to create a link between appellation territory and the observed flavour attributes.

Rwanda in the Cup

Since the first Fully Washed coffees were developed in Rwanda, there has been consensus amongst specialty buyers that there is indeed a distinct flavour profile present within Rwanda coffee. This has most often been noted as the presence of soft citrus, slightly floral, with pleasant milk chocolate mid palette notes. It’s balanced and sweet, making it extremely versatile for filter (drip) and espresso with the appropriate roast.

Paul Songer further notes one distinctive finding, that there were often unique “mouth-feel” aspects to Rwanda coffee which some described as “soft” or “silky”. This is important to note as an especially original attribute, when compared to the other fine quality East African coffees.


Much of this taste profile may be attributed to the Red Bourbon varietal which exclusively dominated cultivation until 1999 with the first releases of Catuai and Caturra varietal by OCIR Café and ISAR (Institute for Science in Agricultural Research). Of the two, Caturra was found to be more popular but is estimated to be less than 2% of Rwanda production. Unverified anecdotal evidence is that the Rwanda Caturra originated from Kenya, with similar characteristics to a population derived from a Jamaica Blue Mountain varietal that produces a Bourbon-like plant type.

It is believed that some Bourbon derivatives such as Jackson from the 1940’s or 50’s may have been present but these have low productivity and are very rust susceptible. They have since been replaced over time with newer Bourbon strains, with higher productivity and improved disease resistance. According to Tim Schilling, “before the PEARL project, Rwanda producers were unaware of the specialness and desire of roasters to seek the Bourbon varietal they were producing, it was just coffee. We have been able to put Bourbon’s name on a pedestal and relate it to Rwanda, it’s a very positive thing for the country to hold onto”.

Between 2003-2005, Rwanda started to release Pop & Harrar as two new varieties with seeds supplied through OCIR Café. It is up to the farmer to select which variety they choose to grow, and are not currently selecting specific varieties according to region. The cupping analysis that follows was performed to identify attributes by region and not varietal.

Exploring Appellation

The analytical cupping work is refining the flavour map of Rwanda coffee and has identified candidate samples that displayed consistent and unique flavour profiles for appellation designation; Northern Region, Central Kivu and North Huye Region.

Norgh RegionThe North region sample was the winner of the Golden Cup Competition and was one of the most complex samples analysed, with 33 flavour attributes found. Beside aromatics that included nuts, spices, fruits and flowers, the sweetness and phosphoric acid components were amongst the highest intensities of any in the set of samples. It also had several descriptors applied to the mouthfeel and the cleanest, sweetest and longest finishes of the set of samples.
Central Kivu The Central Kivu sample was also noted for its floral and fruit characteristics, including lime and a small amount of violet fragrance. The mouthfeel of the sample produced several descriptors, indicating that it was an important aspect of the sample. The finish was clean, fruit-like and of medium length.
North Huye samples have some unique flavour and aromatic qualities, most notably including black fruit (blackcurrant fragrance and flavour, blackberry flavour, black cherry flavour) a unique mouthfeel described as “mouth-coating” and “syrupy”, and a medium long sweet finish.

At this current stage of work, the other regions studied did not provide the panellists with a strong consensus of around 5 or 6 attributes, usually required to define a coffee’s character.

“With Rwanda we’ve been hard pushed to keep it to that level, usually its 12 or so”, commented Paul Songer. The attributes were not sufficiently consistent or unique in their cup profiles when compared region to region to apply appellation designation.

North Region cup profile was characterized by floral aromatics, heavy black fruit (blackcurrant, prunes) and phosphoric acid.

Central Kivu cup profile demonstrated more red fruit (red apple, cherry) and dominated by malic acid (apple-type acidity). The coffees also consistently showed attributes of lemon/lime flavour and apricot.

North Huye Region has floral aromatics, with flavour attributes of red cherry, with less heavy black fruit notes, black cherry, blackcurrant and citric notes of grapefruit and orange.


Rwanda’s coffee industry has made a spectacular journey since 2001 possibly more than any other producing country in developing and understanding what added-value (speciality) buyers are seeking.

The project is at the early stages of developing an appellation designation which is the capacity to reproduce defined flavour profiles, unique to a region, with reasonable consistency. Once this has been achieved the next stage will be to uphold and safeguard the standards of the appellation.

To achieve this requires good process control (picking, fermentation, drying, and milling) provided by good technical assistance and extension services to farmers. Variation at this level can amount to such capriciousness that could overwhelm regional differences in many cases. So the first stage has to be solid post-harvest control and then with appellation development achieving a basic level of consistency and it is encouraging to note that the level of achievement to date is significant with a professional national cuppers employed by most CWS and co-operatives.

Out of this work, the impact will be in the development, marketing and eventually consumer awareness of regional flavour characteristics – leading to the creation and protection of geographic appellations. This can make a huge difference in the economic development of a coffee producing country as well as bring more excitement and curiosity to the marketplace.


With grateful thanks to Paul V. Songer (Songer Associates Inc, Boulder Colorado. USA.) and Dr Timothy Schilling, Director for Enterprise Development and Partnerships, The Borlaug Institute, Texas, USA, for interviews and published materials.

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