I recently returned from Rwanda, my first trip to origin, courtesy of our long-standing green bean supplier Falcon Specialty Coffees. There are so many great things to say about this country - its remarkable beauty and friendly people spring immediately to mind - but the main thing I took away from the trip, and the thing that I want to impress on you most of all, is just how special that cup of delicious coffee that you drink every morning is and how much planning and hard-work goes into producing it, regardless of origin.
In countries like Brazil the majority of coffee is produced on vast estates, or fazendas. Growing, picking, washing, drying, sorting, grading, hulling and packing are all done within the boundaries of the fazenda. In Africa this is very rarely the case. More commonly, coffee is grown by numerous smallholder farmers within a certain region. As harvest approaches and the coffee cherries ripen these farmers will make a pass of all their trees and pick only the cherries that are ripe. In Africa this is usually done by hand due to the steep and uneven terrain on which the coffee trees tend to grow. As the cherries don't ripen evenly this will happen a number of times throughout the harvest season. As soon as they are picked, the cherries are then delivered to the local 'wet mill' where they are subsequently processed.
We visited numerous wet mills on our trip and saw the farmers bringing in huge 100kg bags of coffee cherry throughout the day and late into the evening, usually on the back of their single-speed bicycles!
At the wet mill the cherries are first floated in water to separate the ripe, dense cherries that sink to the bottom, from the overripe and underdeveloped coffees which float along with any sticks and leaves. The remaining ripe cherries are then passed through a machine called a 'depulper' that removes the majority of the fruit flesh that surrounds the coffee beans. These machines can also provide an initial rough sorting of the beans by size, and as they pass through the machine the small, medium and large beans can be channeled into separate pools for fermentation overnight.
The overnight fermentation of the beans loosens the remaining thin layer of sticky 'mucilage' that clings to the bean. In the morning this is removed by stamping barefoot on the beans in the fermentation pools. Once this process has been completed the beans are then funnelled into washing channels where they are cleaned of the mucilage and further sorted by density. At the end of the washing channels the washed coffee, now covered only by its protective parchment layer, is transferred to raised beds under cover of shade.
Whilst the washed coffee is still wet, the protective parchment layer is transparent. In this state it is painstakingly inspected by hand, bean by bean for defects.
The coffee is then transferred to outside beds for drying in the sunshine. Again, this process must be carefully monitored. If the sun is too strong the beans must be covered to prevent the protective parchment layer from cracking. Likewise they must be covered overnight and if it rains. They must also be turned frequently to allow the beans at the bottom of the pile to dry as well otherwise they may undergo further fermentation which can result in a decrease in quality. It is worth bearing in mind that up until this point, apart from the depulping stage, all of the processing of the coffee has been done by hand (or foot!).
Once the beans are dried to the correct moisture level, they are packed up and taken by lorry to the applicable 'dry mill', in our case the Rwanda Trading Company in the capital, Kigali. This is a huge facility where beans from around the country are brought for storage and further processing.
At the dry mill samples from all bags (of which there are thousands) are taken and cupped for quality by a dedicated team in the cupping laboratory. The coffee, still covered in its protective parchment layer, is then taken through another network of machinery where it is hulled of its parchment layer and further sorted by size before being sealed in the GrainPro and jute bag that is so familiar to us roasters, and loaded into containers for shipment to its destination. Once the coffee reaches its destination it is again cupped for quality by the team at Falcon Specialty Coffee and approved for the speciality market. Only at this stage do we, the roasters, request samples of the tastiest lots from around the world and make our decisions as to which ones we want to buy and roast for our customers.
Now every morning when I prepare myself a cup of delicious coffee, regardless of the origin, I pause briefly to consider how much work went into it and what a privilege it is to be able to drink it. That knowledge makes it taste even better than it did already!