By Paul Katzeff, Co-Founder & CEO | Thanksgiving Coffee
DARK ROAST • HIGH CAFFEINE
Back in 1978 (that’s thirty eight years ago) I was just beginning to learn about coffee. I spent the first six years getting comfortable with the fire and heat it took to convert it from a tasteless seed into a toasted reddish brown carrier of comforting flavor.
Then I turned my focus to understanding the botany and chemistry of this magical “bean.” One of the first things I wanted to know was what made my coffee so much better then every canned coffee on the shelf.
Back then, a one pound can of Folgers or Martinson’s cost one dollar. My coffee, packed in a clear bag, closed with a twist tie at the top, was $3.50 per pound. I wondered, How could those big coffee companies turn out coffee at such a low price?
Back then there was not a lot of intellectual conversation about coffee in print or on the Web. There was no web, the closest thing to it was The Encyclopedia Britannica. Coffee was an unsophisticated cup of Joe and not much more. There were no “to go” cups. You didn’t see people walking in the streets, or driving cars with cups of coffee in there hand. Cars didn’t have cup holders yet. Cane Sugar found its greatest use in coffee and there was no such thing as corn syrup in packaged foods. It was a simpler time, a time before craft beer, and when people smoked in Restaurants.
My investigation led me to Robusta coffee vs. Arabica Coffee.
Back then Every coffee company said their coffee was “Mountain Grown,” an indication that it was High Quality with “Deep, Rich” flavor. But it was pretty much a lie. The canned coffee was basically the lowest grades of coffee they cod put into the mouths of unsuspecting and gullible American consumers. The truth was that the major portion of the canned coffee blends was coffee from a variety called Robusta and Robusta was really cheap coffee with a rough, leathery Flavor with wood notes and an ashy dry finish. But it had a heavy body and packed a punch that my coffee did not come close to.
So what was going on here? I was roasting Arabica’s and they were blending in Robusta’s with their Arabica’s to lower their cost. Robusta was all about volume and price. Arabica was all about flavor . The difference between Specialty Coffee and the 300 year history of coffee leading up to 1978 was the focus on Arabica varieties and the disdain for the Robusta Variety.
The Botany of these two varieties was very different. Although a raw coffee bean is known to have over 1600 chemical compounds, we tend to define coffee by its caffeine content. (Did you know coffee is 20 % coffee oil by weight?) I learned that Robusta varieties have 2.5 -3 times the caffeine as Arabica Varieties . I learned that Caffeine is a waste product of photosynthesis and is stored in the plant only because the plant, unlike the animal kingdom, can not get rid of its waste . So there it is. And being water soluble, and is not destroyed by the high heat of roasting, comes out into the cup when coffee is brewed.
So why do these two varieties produce such different levels of Caffeine?
To get to the answer you need to know that the two varieties do best in different environments. The Robusta variety likes the lowlands where the sun is hot, the air is heavy and moist, and the ground is rich in alluvial soils. The Arabica variety loves the cool dryer climates of the high country between 3,000-6000 ft above sea level. Here the soils are young, with a very thin layer of topsoil, the ground is cool and the forest shade trees essential for the light sensitive leaves of the Arabica tree.
Photosynthesis is the process by which the plant takes in sunlight (energy) and along with the soils nutrients and water, converts these assets into food. In this case, into coffee berries which contain two seeds and a whole lot of sweet juicy pulp that surrounds them. The seeds are the way the plants reproduces itself, and in the two different environments that these varieties call home, the seeds wind up with different amounts of Carbohydrates (food) and Caffeine (waste). Why ?
Germination risk is the reason. The tree evolved to maximize its chances for survival.
When it drops its berries at the end of a growing season, it wants the seeds to have a high success rate, meaning it wants its seeds to germinate. In the case of the Arabica variety, high up the mountainside, the conditions for germination and young seedling survival are slim. The soil is dry and cool , and the rainy season is six months after the seeds are ripe and fall from the tree to the ground. The tree knows that it might be a while for the conditions to become perfect. So it prepares the seed by being very efficient with its photosynthesis.
It produces more food and less waste for each seed. High carbs for the long wait and for energy for sprouting under difficult conditions. The Robusta tree, knowing that the conditions for seed sprouting are good, and that risk of failure low, does not waste its energy on producing allot of carbs for the seeds germination energy, because it knows that the soil is warm and moist, and that the nutrients are there in the soil to feed the plant in its sprouting stage . Why waste energy on producing long chain, complex carbohydrates. So the energy goes into the production of Caffeine.
I like to think of the Robusta as a Buick that will operate without being highly tuned and the Arabica tree as a Ferrari that will not run unless it is highly tuned. – Paul Katzeff
Hardy Robusta, Fragile Arabica. Arabicas taste better because they have the need to put food in the seed. That food is a complex starch that under high heat , breaks down into simple sugars which caramelize and produce the flavor of coffee. Robusta has starch to convert to sugar in the roasting process and thus, it is less sweet. Now, Caffeine being one of natures most bitter substances adds a distinguishing bitterness to coffee and 3 times more in Robusta. Arabica coffees have less caffeine , and more carbohydrates so it is sweeter and less bitter. The major negative in Robusta, Caffeine, becomes a positive when you forget the flavor and use it for the speedy pick-up that its caffeine gives the drinker.
In 1978 Thanksgiving Coffee Company introduced Pony Express, “The Jackhammer of Coffee,” the start your day with a “Blastoff” drink.
It is natures natural five-hour power shot. It is not Death Wish coffee, but it will make your heart race, it will keep you on your toes, and if you want to stay awake you will stay awake!
Today, Robusta coffees are quite a bit more flavorful, mostly because the way coffee has evolved over the past 35 years. Flavor counts for value and value means higher price. When I first created Pony Express, the flavor was metallic with a petroleum aftertaste. It was rough and not to satisfying. Today, our Robusta comes from places like Cambodia, Thailand , and the Philippines. It is clean and has a flavor that will take you back to a time when coffee was “Just a cup of Joe”, but this time , you might just develop a taste for it and never look back.
DARK ROAST • HIGH CAFFEINE
by Paul Katzeff | CEO, Thanksgiving Coffee
“Rust” is a word with an ominous sound. It ruins older cars, renders tools useless, and is a major reason for the use of paint to preserve everything made from iron. In Central America there are two kinds of rust. The kind that corrodes iron and the kind that kills coffee trees. The latter rust, called “La Roya” is a Fungus that is pernicious. It lives on the leaves, sucking the life out of them. They fall off and do not return. Coffee cherries never ripen, and the tree eventually dies. This is not a good thing for a coffee farmer whose survival depends on coffee.
La Roya is worse than a 60 cent per pound market price, which is a monumental crisis, but there is always another season, and hope for higher prices for the farmer. La Roya is no crop, then three to five years of rehabilitation of the coffee farm. In other words, it is the end of family life on the farm. It is the end of a way of life, of culture, of living on the land. It means hunger, it means migration to the cities, it means over crowding and the deterioration of family life as country people are forced to work in urban factories making clothing for two dollars a day.
La Roya is here and unless a major battle is waged to beat it back, Central American coffee will be a thing of the past, and coffee prices will rise as the supply of quality coffee is diminished. This is not Chicken Little talking here. This is absolutely a disaster about to happen – this year.
This February, I was in the Nuevo Segovia Region of Nicaragua on a coffee buying trip. I visited the farm of a member of the PRODECOOP Cooperative. Alexa and her two teenage sons live two kilometers from the Honduras boarder. Many of their coffee trees are affected by La Roya, and are starting to lose their leaves. They got a crop this year, but next year they expect to get 50% less. I have no idea how they will be able to continue making a living. They produced 10 sacks (1500 lbs) this year, for which we paid $ 2.75 per pound. That was double the world price and the highest we could afford to pay.
Alexa’s coffee is fabulous and we want her coffee farm to thrive. We want her to be able to refresh her trees and beat the Rust. Next year, she will need to get $ 5.50/lb. to survive on her farm. Will you support our effort by paying $2.75 more per pound for her coffee next year? Would you pay more than $15.00 for a bag of her coffee?
Well, first you have to taste it. We will present her coffee to our public in July when it arrives. It is going to cost her about $8,000 to rehabilitate her farm. We are going to try to raise that money between now and December.
That’s the way Direct Trade works – we are all in this coffee thing together.
Paul Katzeff, CEO
Thanksgiving Coffee Company
– By Paul Katzeff, Co-Founder of Thanksgiving Coffee
The year was 1994, the place was Washington DC, the event was the first Coffee Sustainability Conference; the host was The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. The issue that brought 150 environmental activists and coffee business owners together was the fact that the new practice of growing coffee in the sun, which was begun in the early 70’s, had been discovered to be the cause of the disappearance of 60% of North America’s migratory songbirds. When you cut down forests to expose the land to sun, you remove the homes and habitat of birds that spend their winters in the southern hemisphere, vacationing in the warm climate, in wait for the Northern Spring to begin their migration back home.
I had come to D.C. “armed” with a Keynote Address that was more of a challenge then a speech. It was titled “Beyond Organic.” I had been frustrated with the way the industry was developing and promoting organic coffee. We at TCC had been importing and selling Certified Organic coffee since 1990 but demand was slow to develop because “organic” was a health issue in America, and who wants to think about health issues when you begin your day with a cup of Joe. I saw “organic “ as a much bigger issue and so did the people at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center (SMBC). They saw sun grown coffee as the way toward an environmental disaster being created by the removal of habitat needed for birds, monkeys and all sorts of forest canopy dwellers. The Conference was called to expose this problem and to stop the practice of cutting down forests to grow coffee in the sun.
Why coffee, a shade-loving evergreen tree, which was shade grown for 500 years was now being grown in the sun is a conspiracy story that involves The World Bank, national governments, chemical companies, the oil industry, international timber companies, the greed of Plantation owners and the hope of getting out of poverty by small scale coffee farmers. It is an interesting story about the early use of oil based chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides on coffee farms, and the US furniture and housing industry’s need for the hardwoods coming out of the virgin forests of Central and South America. (A story for another time).
IMAGE: Coffee Buyers Value Chart – 1994
This Sustainable Coffee Conference became a turning point for the industry. I introduced a TCC brochure that included our “Coffee Buyers Value Chart” which created a point system for buying and identifying sustainable coffee.
I challenged the attendees to think about Sustainability as more then “organic” and this set in motion the next evolution in coffee cultivation, and subsequently, the marketing of “shade grown” coffee as an essential to saving migratory songbirds.
Attending the conference was the Executive Director of The American Birding Association who, like me, was an Alumnus of Cornell University School of Agriculture. He approached me with the idea of creating a shade grown coffee package to both educate bird lovers about buying only shade grown coffee (yet to be found on the shelves), and also, to raise funds for his organization, The American Birding Association. After a handshake and three months of graphic design by Chris Blum, Songbird Coffee was launched.
In the fall of 1994 the world of coffee changed with the Songbird Coffee introduction. Coffee became a focus for America’s 73 million backyard bird lovers, the 1,000 Bird Business’ like Wild Birds Unlimited, and the 2 billion dollar bird food industry. Thanksgiving Coffee Company had used birds and shade to move organic coffee away from a health discussion and into an environmental discussion with Habitat preservation as the mission for buyers of shade grown coffee.
We have been selling Songbird Coffees for 19 years. By 2010 Songbird sales had raised $142,000 for ABA’s Birders Exchange, which purchases and donates scientific equipment to ornithologists in poor countries so they can study and preserve bird habitat in their countries to the south.
After 20 years, it is time to reintroduce Songbird Coffees to this generation of bird lovers. Lets make our 40th year the year we put bird friendly coffee and the forest canopy it comes from into the climate change discussion.
Shade is good when it comes to coffee because the coffee tree is a shade loving, evergreen deciduous, tree whose leaves are too tender for direct sunshine. But they do need light to grow and thrive . In the sub tropical rain forests where most coffee grows, all the trees in the forest reach for the sun and left unchecked, the taller trees will completely block out the light needed for those coffee trees. Things grow fast in the tropics so shade management is an integral part of the coffee farm work load.
There are many quality levels of shade as one could imagine. It is really great to wander through a coffee farm shaded by old growth Mahogany and Rosewood trees that are ancient and massive, needing no more then two to four to shade an entire acre (400 coffee trees). That kind of coffee farming must come from a deep respect for the land and a long , continuous relationship to it over many generations, otherwise those incredibly old trees would have been cut down long ago. Gives me goose bumps just thinking about that Jaguar stalking me as I wandered off the path to touch one of those monster survivors.
Then there are farms that have no ancient forest on their land so they plant bananas for shade and maybe a local species of nitrogen fixing leguminous tree to rise above the Banana Trees. Here are two types of shade to give you a visual understanding of what I have described. The first picture shows how compatible the coffee and Banana Trees are together. Shaded by the wide fronds the coffee tree at bottom center is a deep dark green , indicating adequate nitrogen in the soil and a healthy and hardy tree. The next picture shows a very different kind of shade application, one that will support a much greater biodiversity . In the foreground, the coffee trees are under Inga trees which have obviously been planted to provide shade for the coffee trees. You can tell by their even spacing. In the background lies the undisturbed forest .
Shade is good for ecological reasons too. Tropical rains are intense. Tree roots hold topsoil and stabilize mountain sides. The over story absorbs the full force of the rain and softens the impact of torrential rains.
Shade produces “leaf litter” that decomposes on the ground providing nutrients to the soil. Shade provides homes for migratory song birds, monkeys, and a host of species that derive their sustenance from the e land also. And the birds take care of the insects so less pesticide use results . It is good to know that coffee is the perfect forest cash crop . There is no need to clear land , just the need to manage the shade that is already there . Most encouraging is when farmers start restoring their forest And that is what we encourage when we shop for coffee with shade grown on our mind (and yours).
One of my favorite shade-grown coffees right now is our SongBird Costa Rican Coffee. It is sweet with nice caramel notes with a soft finish.
Another one of my favorites is our Songbird Guatemalan coffee , same sweet notes but a bit more bright and lively in the cup.
The coffee tree is an evergreen . It does not shed its leaves . They are on the tree year round. That makes them good for indoor beautification. You can get them to grow into a tree that is 5-8 feet tall or you can train them to be a bush 3-4 feet tall. They are pretty flexible.
Where to find coffee tree seedlings:
I have found them most consistently in places like Safeway, Longs, Rite Aid and Whole Foods flower Departments. These places carry mostly impulse items when it comes to plants. I think they all have the same supplier, or it seems that way. Your local florist may have them too and if they don’t carry them in stock, they will order a pot or two for you.
What to look for:
Seedlings in the stores are no more then 3-4 inches tall and are about 3 months old . They were grown from seed. Usually, they will come in a 2-4 inch pot, and there will be four to six little starts bunched together in the center to make it look substantial. Price is usually between $4.95 – $8.95.
What to do when you get the pot of seedlings home;
You have purchased one pot but you have acquired six trees. You don’t want them to grow up together so you need to separate them and repot each seedling in a 4 inch diameter pot. Here’s how you do it: Submerge the pot of seedlings in a bowl of warm water that is on the cool side of warm. Leave overnight . This does two things. It allows the seedlings to load up on water and it softens the potting soil . Get your potting soil and 4 inch pots together for your replanting . Now remove the loose ball of soil with the seedlings from their pot and lay on some newspaper . Slowly and softly pull the seedlings apart. Don’t be afraid of killing the trees ,they are very hardy and strong. Now repot each individual seedling in its own 4 inch pot. Six trees for the price of one !
Lets talk soil and repotting;
For the four inch pot and your initial repotting, you should use an organic potting soil. It is rich enough in nutrients to feed the plant until it is eight inches tall. You won’t need to add fertilizer to get the trees to 8 inches. Now things begin to change because at eight inches tall, the tree has spread out it’s root system throughout the small pot and unless you repot to a larger vessel, the tree will not grow much more. So, move the tree into a 12 -18 inch pot . This â€œhomeâ€ is large enough to add soil amendments. At this stage of the plants growing history it needs lots of Nitrogen so keep that in mind . We are helping the tree grow trunk, branches and leaves. That requires lots of nitrogen. This pot stage should take your tree up to the 24-36 inch size. (this should take 12 to 18 months) .
When the tree gets to the 24-36 inch size it is time for it’s final repotting into a half wine barrel or the equivalent. Now your tree is ready to kick into high gear because it senses that it can grow a root system that can support full production. Within one year from this last repotting your tree will have grown to four feet and it will begin to create beautiful white flowers that will fill your home with the scent of Jasmine and orange blossoms.Nitrogen is no longer needed in growth level amounts . Now it is the flower and fruit supporting supplements that are needed. Rose food is my favorite coffee food but try to stay as organic as you can. It effects the flavor of the coffee you will be getting and you don’t need to support companies that manufacture oil based chemical fertilizers.
Flowering Phase: It lasts about a month. The sweet aroma will blow you away, but that will come to an end just about the time you are tired of coming home to paradisiacal aromatics. Coffee is self pollinating so do not worry about pollination. The flowers form at the nodes on each branch, just behind the leaves. Each flower will become a fruit (coffee cherry). The flowers will turn brown and fall off the branch. Not to worry. Left behind is the carpel, a small round ball that over the next six months will grow into a fruit with one or two seeds. The seeds are known as â€œcoffee beansâ€
Jungle Jasmine : Coffee Flowers
The Fruiting Phase:
This phase lasts about six months. Coffee cherries ripen slowly. For the first 5 months they will be green and rock hard. Then they will begin to lighten and turn pink and then cherry red, then dark red to purple. Dark red is when you pick the cherries.
Watering; Coffee trees like water and need enough to feed the leaves and support the fruit. But they don’t like to sit in water so water from the top, like rain waters forests. Water until the water comes out the bottom of the Pot. Use warm water. That is what the tree would get in the tropics. Why shock the tree as if it was jumping into an ice cold lake? Warm water feels good to the tree just as it does to our face when we wash. And if you live where the air is cold at night , you can bet the soil is cold too. So warm up the soil and you have better growing conditions, conditions that the tree will recognize and be thankful for.
Where to place tour growing and mature tree;
Coffee is a shade loving tree that grows under the canopy of the forest . It needs little direct sunlight . Direct sunlight after noon time will fry the leaves and kill the tree. Yo need to position your tree so it gets morning direct sun. This is perfect light . East facing windows do the trick. As the sun goes to the west , the light coming into your home from an easterly window is soft , yet still bright enough to provide the equivalent of shaded sun. If you bring your tree outside, remember, a 10 minute frost will kill it and so will 3 hours of direct afternoon sunlight between May and November.
Cherry Picking and Roasting:
When the cherries are ripe, and they will all ripen over a 2 month ripening period, you have to take them from the tree. With a simple twist and pull they will come off easily.
Pick once a week , only the true red all over ripe cherries. Squeeze the seeds out of the cherries and drop them into a bowl of water for 24 hours. This softens the remaining pulp stuck to the beans and makes it easy to remove after the beans are dried. Place the beans onto some newspaper ( it is important that the stories on the page are positive and uplifting) and allow them to dry slowly. Sun drying is good but watch out you do not bake them. They should take about a week to dry to a stable condition. Repeat the process until all your cherries are picked and put to dry. Don’t forget to taste the pulp !
Roasting is the next step in this cycle. That is for another time and another blog entry.
When I was growing up in the Bronx in the 50’s my mom would stick three toothpicks into an avocado pit, balance the pit on the rim of a water filled glass, submerging the bottom half in the water. In a few weeks up would pop a plant with iridescent green leaves.
Today, 60 years later, I follow in my moms footsteps and plant coffee seeds in a 2 inch wide flower pot, wait 3 months for the seeds (beans) to pop up, and then nurture the seedling through three successive repottings into larger containers until the tree is 7 feet tall and producing thousands of beautiful red cherries.
Me with a three year old coffee tree. Note the small amount of the deep red cherries of the trees first crop sprinkled throughout the tree.
Last month I received a letter from Woody Hastings . I gave a him seedling coffee tree back in the summer of 2006 . He took the gift seriously.
He wrote to me last month and sent along these photos by way of a “tree progress report . His letter inspires this blog entry.
I’m Woody, the guy you gave?/sold? a coffee plant to at SolFest 2006. You and I have crossed paths at SolFest ever since and I think a few times at GreenFest too.
Here’s what I look like…
Or maybe you recognize my wonderful wife June who works at Global Exchange.
Anyway, I wanted to show you a couple of photos of the fantastic coffee plant you gave me. It is now fruiting with about 20 cherries and I plan to roast them per your instructions at the last SolFest and have a cup of my own home grown, home roasted, home-brewed coffee! And the plant, which is about 3 feet tall…
Really just thought you might like to receive such a good progress report, and wanted to thank you for giving me this living thing that has brought me (us) so much joy and entertainment!
Happy New Year to you.
See you at SolFest!
PS, Almost forgot to mention, Mr. Coffee, as the plant is known, was dressed up with ornaments and served as our “christmas tree” this past December. What a hoot!I wrote back…….
I wonder if I can put your letter and photo on our website so other people can learn and see your success with the coffee tree, I am proud of you. You found the magic within you. I Thank you for the photos. You will need about 30 beans (15 cherries) for a cup of coffee. about 12 -15 grams) What is your cycle ? When does it flower and when are the cherries deep red? Where do you live?
Feel free to use whatever I sent you for your website, plus the following info too if you wish. If memory serves well, I think I first noticed the flowering in mid-summer, cherries emerged in the fall, and started turning red in December. Judging by the pace at which they are all turning deep red, I will have harvested them all before the end of February.
I live in Noe Valley, in the geographic center of San Francisco, west of the Mission, east of Twin Peaks. We have a tall east-facing window in our living room and that is where Mr. Coffee spends most of his time. You had told me that they like morning sun, and he gets a lot of it there. On nice warm days we sometimes put “him” out on our deck that gets a lot of sun. Only problem with that was that one day we put him out when it was very hot and a few of the leaves “burned.” The soil I potted it in is a mix of bagged planting soil and other soils from various plantings, plus a small amount of worm castings. I’ve fed it diluted worm tea from my worm bin about once every two months. I think that helped a lot. Since I have 20 cherries, it will be one strong cup!
I think the one thing we have been mystified by is how the blossoms could have been pollinated. I was happy to see the blossoms and figured they would just drop and produce nothing. So surprised and gratified to actually get cherries, but how does that work? Self-pollinating?
Tomorrow I will continue this blog with my Tips for growing coffee trees at home successfully . Look for EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT GROWING COFFEE TREES AT HOME