Picking of coffee cherries from the tree is a very important part of the process of producing a great cup. Skilled producers know when is best to start picking and often work very long days ensuring that only the best quality cherries are selected, as fast as possible.  Pascale visited farms during the picking season and also tried her hand at it herself.

Coffee picking in Guatemala

It is always exciting to see (and taste!) red ripe coffee cherries. These are ready to be harvested, dried and processed into a nice cup of coffee. If you eat the fresh cherrries out in the field, the best ones are deliciously sweet.

Coffee pickers collect between 100 and 200 pounds (45 and 90 kg.) of coffee cherries per day. Only 20 percent of this weight is the actual bean. All coffee in Guatemala is processed with the wet method, this means that the pulp of the coffee cherry is removed from the beans within few hours of harvesting.  Even after a full day of picking there is still a lot of work to do.

Coffee Picking in Costa Rica

Here, Pascale joined in to see exactly what is involved in a day of picking – which is challenging work.

Coffee picking starts early in the morning, when temperatures are more pleasant. Depending on the size of the harvest and the amount of labourers available (after picking the coffee needs to be processed within a few  hours)  normally a day of harvesting ends between 3 and 4 o’clock. As Union Hand Roasted Coffee buys only the best quality Arabica beans it is important to pick only the red ripe cherries and separate these from the green ones. Beans should be picked selectively, ideally by hand rather than machine, and not stripped from the tree.

In the village of San Jeronimo the pickers are mainly family members – wives, siblings and inlaws and sometimes neighbours too.  Both men and women participate in the coffee harvest.

Picking only the red ripe cherries is easier said than done. I really tried, and was picking the slowest of everyone, but after an hour I only managed about a quarter of a basket. It didn’t help that the basket, which you wear around your body, fell off…so I spent quite some time collecting cherries from the ground. I dont think I’ll be offered a full time job next season.

What is a cajuela?

So how did Pascale do? Looks like she maybe filled a “cajuela”.

The wooden box being filled up with cherries is called a cajuela, the volume measurement used in Costa Rica to measure the amount of red cherries harvested. It is a rather complicated system to explain.

“What is a cajuela?”

“Well, a faneja has 20 cajuelas.”

“So what is a faneja then?”

“A faneja will give around 46 kilograms of coffee.”

A roaster might buy 400 fanejas of  coffee at one time, but because here at Union we handroast in bespoke quantities, we can take much smaller quantities of very special beans.  Some of our microlots may be as few as 10 fanejas, making them rather rare indeed.

USEFUL TO KNOW:

1 fanega in coffee cherries equals 250 kgs. gross weight, once it has been pulped and then dry milled this equals 46 Kgs.  Which is 1 quintal of green bean net weight.

So for example Union bought 345Kg of coffee from Finca Genesis, which is 7.5 quintals. To produce this required 10 fanegas (or 2500Kg) of coffee cherries to develop this microlot.

 

 

 

Our first exceptional lot from this up-coming origin finally arrived.  It’s been a labour of love to actually get our hands on this small parcel of great bourbon coffee, with our
journey starting back in August 2010. For those of you who follow our exploits, you may recall my first exploration of Burundi’s coffee production scene was on
Burundi-road-trip-june-2010 and with progress being made during the 2010 – 11 harvest season, the decision was made to apply to the Alliance for Coffee Excellence (A.C.E.) for
Burundi to be considered to host a Cup of Excellence Competition.

Wonderful Burundi print on curtains

 

Before any country can host the Cup of Excellence programme, countless operational challenges have to be overcome – from establishing the producer and chain of custody for all samples, through to ensuring adequate roasting and cupping facilities are professionally managed.  The most important aspect however, and one of the prime legacy effects of the competition, is the development of a team of national experts from the local industry that are capable of screening samples to the high standards expected by the international quality coffee market.   This National jury is responsible for screening all lots entered by farmers, repeatedly tasting until just around 40 – 50 samples remain for the invited international team and representing the best coffee that the country has to offer.

In common with Rwanda’s own debut into the competition, and before final approval could be given by A.C.E. that Burundi possessed the organisational strength and resources required, a test event entitled the ‘Burundi Prestige Cup’ was held in August 2011 that would replicate and examine all procedure and protocols for competition. Having been so closely associated for around 10 years with the development of quality coffee in neighbouring Rwanda, I was delighted to be invited to participate in this inaugural panel and to
have the opportunity catch up with some of the people I had met a year earlier.

Jeremy cupping action with Steinar Paulsrud (Kaffebrenneriet, Norway) and Head Judge, Paul Songer (Songer Associates, USA)

The National Jury working under A.C.E. Head Judge, Paul Songer, who has also been heavily involved in Rwanda’s successful rise as a quality coffee producer, worked their way through 96  samples eventually passing 46 as being representative of the highest grade of coffee.  Along with 10 other experienced cuppers from the USA, Norway, Australia and Japan we then spent the following week tasting and re-tasting again to eventually pass 22 lots as being representative of a cup of excellence finalist selection.  Significantly, one lot achieved a score of over 90 points, qualifying for what would in a formal competition be a Presidential Award –a great achievement considering that the washing stations and cooperatives here had only had one season experience in producing for the quality market.

Burundi smallholder awards

Looking back over my notes from the previous year’s tour, it was quickly apparent as we got into the real business of cupping that there had in the past year been some real improvements in many areas of Burundi coffee production.  Many of the samples that we cupped showed good characteristics overlaying clean and sweet coffees, and with
consistency over the week as samples passed through each round. (we only know the identity of lot numbers at end of the week and through tracing these back
through the rounds scoresheets).  At the most basic level, the incidence of potato taste, a defect that is prevalent in this region of East Africa was far lower than expected, and lower than I experienced on the previous year’s tour.  Given the scale of many of the washing stations so far constructed in Burundi, I had expected this issue to be more obvious, and it is testament to the process management improvements that this has not been seen to be so.  More exciting however was that for the first time, I started to get some real East Africa/Great Lakes regionality with the Bourbon character coming clearly and cleanly through, and a range of cup styles from light floral sweet citric, through to rich raisin sweet bodied cups.  Diversity arises from soil and microclimate differences but without careful growing and clean processing, these vibrant characters just won’t be found.  Through the week there were interesting comments from different Jury members and clearly there were coffee styles here to suit all the Judges (we are all buyers) personal and national style needs.

Usually when attending Cup of Excellence as a jury member, the results are declared at the end of the week with a big ceremony and awards before the coffees are sold on the internet auction some three months later. One of the perks of being invited to such a test competition however is that the winning lots which have been held back from conventional sale are auctioned between the invited international jury members on the final morning of the week.  With only 10 bidders in the room and without the luxury of hiding behind a screen in another country, we raised arms to bid under the eye of the Burundi Coffee Sector directors and government representatives.  As ever, our Japanese
and Nordic representatives were not shy of high prices and with a few keenly contested lots I kept having a go to see what I could get for our friends back
home.  After a few technical problems with the auctioneers bid recording, and having just been edged out of a lot that I thought I had bought – until the hammer came down – I finally and very happily secured a lot from the Kinyovu Washing station in the northern Kayanza District that had got everyone talking about in round 1, had shone in round 2
before dropping down the rankings due to just one cup on one of the very final tables that didn’t present as well. Very happily, this was one of the stations and areas I had visited the year before and which I knew had good altitude in the surrounding hillsides (around 1880M)and good regional support for the coffee sector. My final score for the coffee was 87, just shy of our own 88 point Microlot selections but a really good effort given we are in year -1 of the competition!

Twa (Pygmy) tribe women at Busekera Village, a crafts village where the women make traditional clay pots and earthenware.

 

Burundi clay pots

It’s an understatement to say it’s taken a number of months to get the coffee ready to ship due to the fact that it’s a very small parcel and in the height of the season, the mills preparing coffee for export really don’t want to have to look out for just a few bags.  We waited until after the main export season therefore so that we would be able to control the milling quality and ship the coffee along with some additional coffees from the region.

Having seen this coffee from the beginning of the competition through to roasting here in East London we are delighted that the quality has held up so well. I hope that you will enjoy drinking it as much as we are– the cup shows many of the aspects I love about this region; silky body and mouthfeel, great delicate milk chocolate praline undercurrent and a wonderful sweet delicate acidity, less aggressive than other East African coffees.

This parcel only represents a tiny amount – about 3 sacks of coffee that will not last long. Seek it on our online shop. If the quality improvements seen this last year continue, then Burundi may become as important an origin for us in the next ten years as the wonderful Rwanda had been over the last.

In my last post about visiting farmers in Rwanda during the current season, I discussed how high market prices can bring difficulties to the farmers. In this post we’ll look at how prices can affect quality.

Quality is not an Accident

The second negative effect of high coffee market prices shows its hand in the overall quality of coffee reaching consumers.  In years of low market price, farmers  producing high quality specialty coffee know they have to maximise that quality to attract best prices. They achieve this by careful and selective picking which is more labour intensive, and careful post-harvest processing of the cherries.  This year, not only in Rwanda but as we have seen in many countries, farmers understandably take the view that they will be receiving more than last year without the extra effort – so why bother!  Again we have taken a great deal of time – including Steven visiting them earlier this year – to encourage them to work carefully and reinforcing to farmers that our agreement to buy, at a premium to market value, is linked to producing high scoring speciality grades.

If all of this market turbulence was not enough to cope with, the weather also added its own challenge.  Usually, the cherries ripen and are harvested over a period of around twelve weeks.  This year however, due to lots of rain and warm sunshine, the full crop came in over just six weeks and the Coffee Washing Stations, where the cherries are processed, were inundated by huge volumes of coffee cherries which need to be pulped really quickly. The beans must be separated from the pulp in a timely manner. If this is not done, fermentation in the bean can occur, or insects are attracted and damage the cherries, both of which can cause unpleasant taste effects in the finished coffee.  As we are in regular contact with producers that UNION buy from, we were aware of the problem and knew that there would be issues in the harvest quality so careful selection was needed more than ever.

Each individual lot has to be sampled

It’s this last matter that really drove me to spend a chunk of July in the cupping Lab in Kigali, working with Leatitia, a cupper I had helped to train some five years ago and who helped select our lots last year.  Together we cupped and scored hundreds of individual production lots from three Cooperatives and to get the coffee Union requires this year, we discounted just over 50% of the lots as not being up to our standard, and that was after Leatitia had pre-screened the lots to offer me a choice of those she considered the best.

To make the selections, a sample of green coffee is taken from each lot passing through the stations on any given day and labelled with the district and control reference number and is sent to the cupping lab in Kigali.

First the lots are sample roasted

300g of the coffee is prepared and roasted the day before we cup the lot; first we assess the roasted fragrance of the dry grounds and then pour the water, steep before evaluating the wet aroma, and then tasting the coffee brewed simply in a glass. We evaluate for a range of characteristics to produce a final score and description for that coffee that enables me to make a selection and construct the overall quantity, quality and flavour profile when the lots are put together.

Water is poured into the grounds

In each cooperative there are districts that each have their own terroir and hence character.  My job was to select the best lots and bring them together (blend them) to achieve an overall standard for the cooperative that reflects the style of the district.  Maraba for example produces a rich full bodied and smooth coffee with an
elegant orange/citrus acidity to balance the cup; we offer this as our Single Estate coffee, Rwanda Maraba Bourbon.  COCAGI cooperative in Gashonga yields a coffee that is sweet, fuller bodied and has more red fruit flavour notes which we’ve also selected as a core component for our Revelation espresso.  Karaba Co-operative was new to us this year and being out in the cupping lab to taste tens of lots from the district was fascinating and wholly informative.  I’m looking forward to UNION being able to offer this coffee, which is distinct from the others having a lighter body with clean fresh apricot and white fruit, almost floral notes and a silky milk chocolate mouthfeel.

Occasionally during the cupping process, a lot comes up on the table that has a really outstanding flavour, with clarity and balance coupled with unique flavour notes and which also receives a high score.  In these cases, I have requested that these small lots are segregated all the way through and are delivered to us as our micro-lot selections.  We will release information on these as and when we get closer to them arriving in London and have checked and approved the arrival samples ensuring nothing untoward has happened during shipping.

Samples cooling before cupped

It’s only by getting out to the farms that we can know what has occurred during the harvest each year and I have no doubt that there may, sadly be a lot of very variable quality Rwanda coffee reaching the international market.  But it’s through our Union Direct Trade relationships and putting the miles
and work in, also personally a very enjoyable process that UNION Hand-Roasted Coffee will again be able to represent the very best of Rwanda’s speciality coffee
harvest for 2011-2012.

Working out the final scores

 

The complexity of sourcing coffee in Ethiopia has always given us an edge of excitement, one mixed with a healthy tinge of anxiety that arises from the fiercely independent spirit of the Ethiopians and their determination to do things in their own ways.  From our first visit back in 2002, where it felt like we’d stepped back into the bible, on every subsequent visit the country has held a fascination for us and a desire to get inside their heads to figure out how it works.  I realise I’ll probably never achieve that understanding, but during this trip I got to know the country a little better. 

As the birthplace of coffee, Ethiopia rightly commands it’s place on the pedestal of specialty coffee, but in the last couple of years the changes created in the mechanism for bringing Ethiopia coffee to the market has changed radically.

Those of you who have followed our adventures in sourcing over the last ten years will know that at Union Hand Roasted, our goal is to find identifiable groups of small farmers who we feel have already some great coffee in cultivation and with whom we can work to tease out the very best of what can be produced in a truly sustainable manner for both the crop and community.  In Ethiopia (as with many areas we source from), the coffee is grown in small garden plots and the community cooperatives rely on large numbers of farmer members often over a relatively wide geographical area, altitude and terrain. This structure allows us to target resources on those micro-areas where not only a great quality coffee (clean cup, natural sweetness and balance) can be produced, but also ones with distinct character and regional flavour profiles that we enjoy as diversity of style (think French wine – big full bodied Burgundy or light floral Beaujolais from the south).  Two coffees may be assessed  in cupping to have top quality scores yet still exhibit dramatically different flavour profiles – our approach is to find systems where each of these special lots can be kept separate and traceable (se we know who produces it and who receives special premium payments) and bring these direct to you for unadulterated enjoyment.

The recent creation of the Ethiopia Commodity Exchange (ECM), where specific lots of particular quality (but not necessarily flavour profile) are sold to licenced exporters only permits the sale of coffee of a specific designated grade and quality, and does NOT permit isolation of traceable lots. Some exporters have devised ways around this restriction, to give a level of provenance but this is not easy to verify.   The process for the Commodity Exchange requires farmers to deliver their coffee cherries to designated Exchange Warehouses, which are out in the rural areas. Here producers are paid the current market price for their coffee. The cherries are then processed through to exportable grade but there is no segregation or separation to produce traceable lots. Equivalent grades from all farmers are mixed to create consistency and homogeneity, but with no recognition or reward to individual farmers for truly exceptional lots. This coffee is sold through the Commodity Exchange (ECX).  Coffee not deemed of sufficient quality to achieve export status is destined for the local market.  Indeed, it is not legal to sell export quality for local consumption; it has to be exported to bring maximum revenue to Ethiopia. 

The Direct Specialty Exchange (DSM)  introduced last year allowed buyers- roasters and importers- the shortest route to gain access to selected Q Graded lots  of highest quality Ethiopia certified (organic and or Fairtrade) coffees.   At the inaugural auction back in February 2010, we were able to acquire four different lots all produced from the Yirga Cheffe Farmers Cooperative Union  (YCFCU).  The Union is a regional organisation that represents and is owned by the cooperatives, and it is the Union that has the licence and capability to export the coffee produced at co-operative level for example the individual co-operatives  like, Konga, Haforsa, Koke, and Sigigia- the coffees we bought.

Our relationship with YCFCU goes back to our first visit in 2002, and we’ve been buying their coffee every year, but for a short blip. For a period of time, YCFC experienced numerous challenges around management and governance issues, and the result was a turbulent relationship between the farmer members and their board of directors with the consequence that support for the group and participation was greatly reduced. Unfortunately, this is nothing new in the complex world of coffee, particularly when dealing with so many farmers- each co-operative can have up around 2000 farmers each working 0.5 ha of land.

Conflict within cooperatives often occurs when there is lack of transparency. Farmers forget or just fail to appreciate that they own their Union, and a long process of education is all too often necessary give them the skills and confidence just to ask for, or get access to the information that belongs to them.

Ensuring there is transparent two–way transfer of information is therefore critical to a strong Union and this had been missing from the equation.  However, the impact that Takele, the new General Manager of YCFCU has had on their performance cannot be overstated.  It was encouraging to observe his strong leadership skills distilled to confidence at farm level.  In addition, our visits and continuing relationship with the group demonstrated the support of a committed buyer and has helped to provide the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ for the producers.  The second payment (distribution of the cooperative’s profits fund) given to farmers from last season signalled a new re-energised level of activity at Konga and has attracted an increase in membership this year. We are delighted to see that they are back on track. The board of directors of a Union has to be accountable to their farmers at the level of the primary cooperative. What was now apparent to me at YCFCU office was how the farmers have direct access to what the YCFC Union does, every day.   

Back at the cooperative level, in the office of Konga co-operative, it was enriching to see the activity at their cupping laboratory; they are currently the only farmer group within YCFU that has this facility, and it undoubtedly goes a long way to explaining their high quality.  The Secretary of Konga, Sisay Daka told me how aware the cooperative is that the cupping lab is the instrument that enables Konga to improve their quality and to increase the selling price of their coffee. This is their “only income source and the current farmgate price is shining towards a bright future”. Maintaining and crafting the quality at Konga is enabled by the activity of the cupping lab which gives direct feedback to the manager of the pulping station, advising when protocols have been effective or in the event of problems, they are immediately detected and can rectified before they adversely impact quality and therefore price received.

In addition to the quality of this coffee, the second strength is the traceability through to each primary producer group.  They and I consider this the strength of the certification system, whether Fairtrade or Organic – both reveal the producer cooperative and gives visibility and hence added value to the producer.  It reinforces my schizophrenic approach on the benefit or demonization of Fairtrade.

After my visit to Konga, I travelled on to another group in the YCFU, Dama Cooperative who we are just about to begin a relationship with, and from whom I received a massively hospitable welcome.  I wanted to visit this particular group because aside from having cupped some amazing coffee from them this year, they are new recipients of a training grant to develop their governance and management skills. This programme is funded by Progreso Network, an NGO who is providing vital pre-financing* for our coffee from YCFCU this season. At Dama I saw the preparation of some special natural process coffees that we are seeking.  This was a special 2010-11 preparation that commenced with advising a democratically selected group of farmers to deliver perfect red ripe coffee cherries to the pulping station. These whole coffee cherries are carefully dried on shallow square wooden trays for up to 21 days as they gradually darken and dry out to resemble dried a dried black cranberry (or real cherry).   This process intensifies the sweet, syrupy pulpiness and makes this preparation so distinctive and irresistible.

This lot, along with our new season harvest of Konga Cooperative and a few other interesting Ethiopian coffees will be arriving at our Roastery in the next few weeks and it’s your chance (amongst our other origin micro-lot offers!) to get to really understand how much magic and diversity can be contributed by different micro-climates and the diligence of small committed farmers . 

 *Pre-financing refers to a buyer providing the cooperative with working capital with which they can fund the purchase of coffee from individual farmers during the harvest season.  In the absence of this, cooperatives have to secure commercial loans at high local interest rates which are repayed some months later when all the coffee has been collected, processed and sold.  Union Hand Roasted’s participation in this pre-finance has enabled us to build deep relationships with many communities and has been largely responsible for the consistent cup quality we are able to provide through the year.

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