As Rounton Coffee Roasters nears its 5th birthday, we’ve decided that rather than telling you the story of the last five amazing years, it might be much more useful and interesting to run a series of blogs which will tell the bigger story – Coffee – From Origin to Cup. These are blogs that we wanted to write in our infancy, but at that stage, we didn’t feel that we had enough experience to speak with any authority on such topics. These days, we’re still trying to learn as much as possible, but now that we’ve roasted more than a hundred tonnes of coffee and travelled across Africa, Central and South America to meet many of the farmers we work with, we think we’re a bit more qualified to tackle these topics than when we started out.
When January 2019 rolls around and we hit the big 5, we’ll be celebrating the occasion with plenty of coffee (and probably plenty of beer), but in the meantime we’ll kick off the first article of the series with a look at origin- Where and How Coffee Grows…
With best wishes,
The Rounton Coffee Team
Where and How Coffee Grows
Our coffee journey started in Sumatra when Dave Beattie was backpacking across the far East. During a day of trekking in the mountains, Dave stumbled upon a beautiful coffee plantation where the branches of fertile, healthy trees were weighing heavy with bright red coffee cherries. That moment would later lead to the launch of Rounton Coffee in another beautiful rural location – thousands of miles away, here in North Yorkshire. But the bigger story of coffee goes back a little further than 5 years – more like 2000 – and it began in the highlands of Ethiopia. Nobody can be sure exactly when coffee was first discovered, though there is some evidence to suggest that it was initially used as a food – the green, raw beans ground to a powder and mixed with animal fat to create a superfood of its day – these ‘patties’ were eaten for sustenance during long journeys.
Legend has it that coffee was discovered by Kaldi, a young Ethiopian goatherd. It is said that he had noticed that when his goats ate the cherries of a certain tree (the coffee tree), they became lively and frenzied. Inspired by his goats, Kaldi ate a few cherries in the hope that they would keep him awake during prayers and sure enough they did! But when the preacher learnt of this, he was furious, and demanded that Kaldi hand over his evil cherries, declaring them the devil’s work. He threw them onto a nearby fire but as the beans within the cherries started to roast, a wonderful aroma filled the air and the preacher was forced to relent, declaring that such a heavenly scent could only be the work of God.
Ethiopia is coffee’s home, but it was the Yemen that became the first country to produce coffee on a commercial basis. Sudanese people had been enslaved by marauding Arabs and were forced to walk across Ethiopia before crossing the Red Sea to Arabia – and specifically to Yemen. They ate coffee cherries for energy during their arduous journeys and took a few with them to the mountains of Yemen where they were planted. The resulting coffee trees flourished. Trade soon followed as Yemen became a nation of coffee farmers and traders. Soon an interest in coffee took hold in Europe, as coffee began to spread across the globe. The Dutch planted it in colonial Ceylon (Sri Lanka) where it later failed after rust, a parasitic fungus, wiped it out. They tried again in the Dutch colonies of Java and Sumatra and soon after, coffee began to have a significant impact on Dutcheconomy. The French tried growing it in some of the country’s wine regions, where it spectacularly failed due to the low winter temperatures but then introduced it to their island colony in the Caribbean, Martinique, which soon became an important producer. From there, it wasn’t long before it spread to other islands and eventually the mainland of South and Central America – a region that would soon become the powerhouse of coffee production – as it is today. The British introduced coffee to Kenya in the late 19th century during the days of colonial rule.
These days, coffee grows in around 60 countries around the world. They all fall between the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer since coffee is strictly a tropical plant that cannot withstand low temperatures. Approximately 125 million people rely on it to make a living and after oil, it is the second most heavily traded commodity in the world.
Two of the first coffee farmers we ever met, out in Sumatra
Coffee is an evergreen that only grows successfully in equatorial countries and within the tropical boundaries of Cancer and Capricorn. It is part of the genus, Coffea, with 124 species – but just two of importance to us in the coffee consuming and producing worlds; C.Arabica and C.Canephora or more commonly; Arabica and Robusta. The latter offers very little to those of us working within the specialty coffee world. It is, as the name implies, robust and can withstand certain diseases and greater environmental extremes but in the cup it is very disappointing and is often dominated by strong burnt rubber and cardboard nuances. It belongs to the commercial world of cheap, low-grade blends and instant coffee. Here at Rounton Coffee we’re only interested in Arabica coffees.
Despite hailing from just a few species, coffee has evolved naturally or has been cultivated commercially to create a huge range of varieties and selections which provide the basis for great diversity – especially when terroir, processing and roasting techniques are factored in. This means that Arabica can be as varied as the grape, and offers endless taste characteristics; florals, citrus, tropical fruits, caramel, butter, spice, chocolate and malt – to name but a few.
In its most simple terms coffee can be described as the seed of a cherry – not a bean, despite the use of this term. From the time of planting the seed it will take a further three years before a harvest is produced. As the coffee tree reaches maturity it will produce a flush of delicate white flowers with a heavenly jasmine scent followed by a cherry will take up to 9 months to ripen. The coffee tree can reach considerable heights of up to 100 feet, but commercial production requires a height between 6 and 10 feet to facilitate harvesting. Coffee cherries rarely ripen simultaneously so the vast majority of the world’s coffee is hand-picked making it a labour intensive industry. This is something Beattie was struck by during an origin trip to Rwanda where he saw people picking coffee for 8 hours a day resulting in around 3 sacks of cherries – backbreaking work that results in only 20KG or so of green beans after processing has taken place. Experiences like these provide reminders to us here at Rounton Coffee of the importance of paying sustainable prices for high quality coffee.
Once the cherries have been picked they must be processed immediately since natural fermentation will ultimately destroy the coffee’s flavour unless it is managed correctly. In our next blog, we will delve into processing (the means of removing the beans from the coffee cherries) and explain how it works and how it allows coffee farmers to create a varying range of flavours according to the techniques that they use.