From crop to cup

 

chloe_blog Chloé Fedio

With a 20kg sack balanced on her head, Juliene Njirantibankundiye walks 4km up and down Rwanda’s hilly countryside to deliver her freshly-picked coffee cherries to the washing station in Rushashi. She’s part of the Abakundakawa cooperative, an organization of 1700 smallholder coffee farmers established in 2004. The cooperative produces some of Rwanda’s foremost coffee in the country’s growing specialty coffee market.

Juliene Njirantibankundiye weighs her bag of cherries after sorting out the ones with defects. It comes in at 20 kilos.

Juliene Njirantibankundiye weighs her bag of cherries after sorting out the ones with defects. It comes in at 20 kilos.

Less than a decade ago, most farmers worked independently and processed their coffee at home. Their beans were only semi-washed and not attractive to the international market. But a movement sponsored by the Rwandan government and a host of international organizations has helped organize farmers into cooperatives, giving them access to loans to buy equipment to better process their coffee. The number of washing stations in the country has exploded. Together, farmers are refining how they sort, wash and dry their coffee, creating a higher quality product that they sell in larger quantities to international buyers.

But while coffee washing stations help improve the quality of coffee, farmers are still faced with a tremendous amount of work. And with so many steps from crop to cup, it’s not a foolproof system. It takes a minimum of three years before an Arabica coffee tree — the variety grown in Rwanda — will produce its first batch of cherries. Most farmers, like Njirantibankundiye, have to travel several kilometres to reach a washing station, either carrying the sack of cherries on their heads or strapping it to a bicycle. If the cherries are not processed the same day that they are picked, the quality of the coffee produced goes down.

Once at the station, the cherries are sorted by hand. Those with defects are picked out. They are considered low-grade and sold in local markets for next to nothing. The best cherries are soaked in giant vats and sorted again. Those that float to the top are picked out, while those that sink to the bottom are passed through a de-pulping machine. Each cherry gives two beans.

coffee-treesortingtossing

The beans are then washed and fermented to bring out the flavours. Finally they are dried on giant outdoor racks, which can take up to 15 days depending on the humidity in the air. The beans are separated into lots, based on the day they were processed at the station. At this point they are white — still covered with parchment.

Even after all that work, it’s not guaranteed that the coffee will be sold in the specialty market. A sample of each lot is sent to cuppers for quality testing. They remove the parchment revealing the green bean. Defective beans are removed and the rest are sorted by size to ensure consistent roasting. Roasted beans from each lot are measured evenly into at least three cups and then ground.

The aroma test is done in two parts: first the dry grounds, then the wet grounds. There are 700 discernable aromas in coffee. Chocolate, nut, fruit and floral aromas are some of the best while potato, earth and metal are some of the worst.

After the dry aroma test, boiling water is added. The grinds rise to the top of the cup, forming a thick crust. The crust is broken with a spoon, and cuppers slurp the coffee — sucking in as much air as possible along with it to bring out the flavours. The entire process is graded on a sheet and the final marks are calculated. The grade each lot receives helps determine its price — or in some cases if it’s even good enough to be considered specialty coffee.

Aleco Chigounis is a coffee buyer from the Portland-based Stumptown. While some buyers rely on local cuppers, Chigounis takes part in the process before making any purchase.

Aleco Chigounis is a coffee buyer from the Portland-based Stumptown. While some buyers rely on local cuppers, Chigounis takes part in the process before making any purchase.

Coffee production is a detailed and lengthy process. But it’s easy to take for granted when you’re living in a city with a coffee shop on almost every corner. During a visit with some cuppers in Maraba, I met Aleco Chigounis, an American coffee buyer for Stumptown. He told me he didn’t really appreciate the complexity of the coffee industry until he worked at a coffee plantation in Costa Rica in his college years.

“That really changed my perception of what exactly it takes to create and outstanding cup of coffee and how many hands touch your coffee before you get it in your cup,” he said. “There’s literally a story in every cup of coffee.”

Leave a Comment

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.