2 zakies of great coffee, carefully protected by secret coffeeman code.
We got a long-awaited package in the mail a few days ago, from Amsterdam. Labeled â€œ2 zakies groene koffie bonenâ€ (and although I don’t speak dutch) this was no mystery: this was the much anticipated, occasionally fretted over, often nagged at pre-shipment sample of this year’s Sidama Natural from the Hache Cooperative, part of the Sidama Farmers Cooperative Union.
This is a coffee I fell in love with last year during my first trip to Ethiopia. I actually fell in love with it from across the room at first (smell) sight. I was cupping a selection of the best washed coffees of the year and the next table over samples of the washed sun-dried naturals were being preparedâ€¦suddenly, deep in my cuppers trance, I smelled sweet sweet strawberry. I stopped, interrupted everyone else, and made a fool of myself hopping around on my two overcaffeinated feet asking about that sweet smelling coffee that had just been ground. Later, after I’d settled down, had an amazing lunch of Injera and Doro Wat (Ethiopian food is as great as their coffee, if you ask me), I found the same coffee, this time hidden as sample number 17 or whatever it was.
We bought a whole container of it, and over the past year it’s become a stand-out favorite among staff, long-time customers, and new friends alike. It’s the backbone of our espresso, and a couple other signature blends. Its jammy sweetness, deep heavy body, and sweet berry aroma are unique. These flavors are the result of a graceful coincidence of dozens of critical variables, and hundreds of other weighty factors as well. Ripe, sweet cherries produced by antique coffee varietals, slowly ripened thanks to high altitude, the gentle stress of good contrasting diurnal temperatures, just the right amount of rain to encourage the coffee to blossom and then a dry period long enough to encourage good pollination, followed by enough rain to allow the coffee trees to produce full, juicy fruitâ€¦and that’s all before the coffee has even been picked!
After that it’s selection, and careful drying on raised bends with plenty of airflow and a drying period long enough to allow for some sweet wine-like flavors to emerge through light fermentation, but not so long that sour or dry flavors develop. There is certainly a lot of science going on here, but its at least as much if not more artâ€¦and the result last year was thrilling. This year it is too!
The pre-shipment sample shows that same unique jammy strawberry character. It’s becoming clear that this is the hallmark of natural coffees from Sidama, as contrasted with the distinctive blueberry sweetness of natural coffees from Harrar. Only in Ethiopia, with such elegant and intense coffees, could we get away with waxing this poetic on coffee from specific micro-climates and appellations. But it’s there, in the cup, I’m sure a lot of you have tasted these flavors yourselves. In addition to that syrupy strawberry, there are a host of flavors in this year’s Hache much more characteristic of the washed coffees from Sidama: sweet citrus pith, and heavy jasmine blossom perfume-like elegance. At a darker roast, these flavors will hold and convert to heavy chocolate notes. At a lighter roast, the acidity will shed light on the full dimension of this coffee’s character.
What changed this year is a question burning a small hole in my head at the moment. I’ve already sent out a blitzkrieg of emails, and started comparing plane tickets on Ethiopian Airlines versus KLM. I’m thrilled, and pleasantly surprised. The farmers are happy. And I can’t wait to share this coffee with you. Last year’s Hache is still standing up nicely; if you want to get a final taste of it order soon. And stay tuned for notice of this coffees arrival sometime towards the end of June.
For those of you who have been following the story of Rwanda, our work there, and the intersection of horror and hope, the May 4 edition of the New Yorker has another important report from Philip Gourevitch. Gourevitch is the author of â€œWe wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our familiesâ€ which remains the most comprehensive human chronology and analysis of the 1994 genocide. He returned to Rwanda in April 15 years after the genocide. His report sheds light on the remarkable recovery there, and also the fragile peace, and reminds us that we owe a debt to humanity and to these remarkable people who are living in the shadow of history, still seeking the dawn of a peaceful future.
You can read a synopsis on the New Yorker’s website.
I of course would encourage you to explore the story of the 2,000 farmers of the Dukunde Kawa Cooperative, who are living this story day in and day out. They are remarkable people, farmers, teachers, mothers and fathers, and producers of some of the finest coffees in the world.
For further reading, I would also suggest Gourevitch’s book, Stephen Kinzer’s â€œA Thousand Hillsâ€ and Mahmood Mamdani’s â€œWhen the Victims Become the Killersâ€.
It was a big day in the cupping lab. Starting with a sample roasting session that went well after dark the night before (I got started a bit late thanks to a fan belt breaking on the company rig coming over the coastal range from San Francisco—that’s another, not so fun story) and picking up at 8am I had a chance to sort through, taste, and ponder this year’s crop from Cooperativa Solidaridad, in Aranjuez, Nicaragua. The exciting (and labor intensive) part of this cupping is that each of the cooperative’s farmers processes their coffee on-farm, and then keeps their beans separate all the way through to shipping. This enables us to explore the variety of flavors being produced by different farmers spread out over a mountainous area of about 30 square miles high in northern Nicaragua.
I came to work with my game face on (and a hearty bowl of oatmeal in my belly) and settled into a final check of the coffee roasts. Roasting each of the 100gram samples identically is critical; any difference in roast profile, time, or color will impart a variability that makes it impossible to compare one coffee to the other, which is the simple (and challenging) goal of this exercise. I spent about 5 hours yesterday roasting, checking, and re-roasting the samples. It’s an exhausting and enthralling task. There is a rhythm to the process, and pretty soon you find yourself immersed in a world of steam, smoke, flame, and smell. The end result, double and triple checked this morning, was 15 samples identically roasted, and ready to be scored and ranked.
I have to do this blind, otherwise I start to think about the farmers. I know these people, and have spent time on their farms taking shelter from a rainstorm, eating a delicious meal of chicken soup and potatoes all raised within 50 feet of their kitchen, or underneath the shade of their trees talking about coffee, farming, and their cooperative. They are friends, teachers, and partners, and I can’t help but think of them when I taste their coffee. Knowing that tasting with this kind of relationship is quickly an emotional experience, the first thing I do when the coffees arrive is number them, and tear off the tags identifying farmer, quantity, etc. Quite the scientist, I knowâ€¦
Then there’s the moment of truth: small 10gram samples are scooped out, and ground. Water is boiled. The perfume of sweet fresh coffee fills the room. And the hints of Aranjuez begin to float around tooâ€¦I move from sample to sample, spinning the rotating table underneath me smelling sweet maple syrup in some, deeply carmelized butterscotch in others, yellow raisins, and lightly toasted cashews. I pour equal amounts of freshly boiled water, and smell again. The aromas intensify. It’s almost as if the coffee blossoms. A timer sounds. 5 minutes is up. I break the cap, smell deeply, and clean away the wet grounds. Spoonful by spoonful I taste the coffees. Bright and lively they score well on acidity. Most are fantastic. A few really jump out. They are round, deeply toned with the clean characteristic sugary maple syrup-caramel that is the hallmark of these coffees. A number of the best blossom in the cup: their taste begins sweetly and with a lively citric acidity, a new dimension of flavor opens a second later (deep maple syrup rich sweetness) and a full buttery richness envelopes your palate. The flavor fades gracefully, and exits leaving a sweetly toned cacao bitterness. Damn, that’s good coffee!
More than half score over 90 on a scale of 100. That’s a full step up from previous years. The farmers’ hard work and our shared investment in the future of coffee is paying off.
We’ll load two shipping containers, the first with the 90-plus coffees. These will head for single origins, and our espresso blends. The balance will add a deep sweetness to our dark roasts. While the coffee heads north from Nicaragua, copies of my scoring sheet will head south. Benjamin Rivera, the Cooperative’s quality control officer and I will confer on the scores, and he’ll visit the farmers one by one to share the results. Where coffees are great, we’ll try to replicate the farmer’s craft at his or her neighbors. Where the coffees need help, we’ll dig in to identify and fix the problems. Already these coffees are greatâ€¦they get better each year, and I’m looking forward to sharing the new crop Nicaraguans with you soon—you can find them in our new single origin â€œJoya de Aranjuezâ€ 12oz. package.
It is with mixed emotions that I write to formally announce that I will be leaving my position with Thanksgiving Coffee Company. Some of you may know from following my adventures in Uganda that I’ve had a long-standing interest in medicine and serving the under represented. Within this context, I am ecstatic to announce that I will be attending the VA Commonwealth University’s Accelerated Master’s Degree Program in Nursing to become a Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner. Within my joy, however, is a deep sorrow at having to move on from a most inspiring line of work. It has been an honor and privilege to share the dream and work for peace, social justice, and sustainable economic development with you.
I am pleased to introduce Jenais Zarlin as the new Mirembe Kawomera Project Director. The following are a few words from her:
â€œI am excited to be joining the Thanksgiving team in a capacity that uniquely combines my passion and professional experience: social justice and food systems. Holly has worked diligently to share the inspiring story of the Mirembe Kawomera cooperative and her efforts have resulted in a strong community committed to spreading peace through tolerance. She leaves big shoes to fill, but I look forward to getting to know all of you and to continue sharing this message of peace and poverty alleviation together. â€
I’m sincerely grateful for the last four years I have worked with you. I’ve learned more about coffee, true friendship, and what can happen when a network of dedicated people harness their power throughout the world for something important- change; and for this I am indebted. I have confidence that Jenais will serve you and the farmers in magnificent ways and take the Mirembe Kawomera Coffee project to new heights.
With utmost appreciation,
Please feel free to stay in touch. I can be reached at VWILcycler@yahoo.com and on Facebook.
"Natural" drying method in Ethiopia (photo credit: Menno "the Dutchman")
About two weeks ago Ben came back from Uganda and Rwanda after visits with the coffee cooperatives we are working with . You can read his blog entry to learn what he does when he makes the long voyage to Africa twice each year, and why such visits are so central to the way Thanksgiving Coffee does business. In fact, the way we “source ” our coffees is the defining difference between Thanksgiving Coffee Company and all other specialty coffee companies in the USA. On his way home Ben stopped in Amsterdam to visit with our Ethiopian Coffee intermediary and exporter at his office which happens to be less then 500 feet from where the first coffee exchange was set up over 500 years ago. There is a great book about the way coffee and coffee tree seeds were smuggled out of Yemen in the late 1490’s by a Portuguese Jewish man( who escaped the Spanish Inquisition seeking religious freedom in Holland) and his financial partner, a Dutch woman of great stature. The name of the book is The Devils Cup . It reads like a cross between a Hunter Thompson Gonzo monolog and a John Steinbeck travelog . A thoroughly enjoyable read. But I digress… While in Amsterdam Ben received a dozen samples of various Ethiopian coffee samples to bring home for us roast up and taste. This we did yesterday and the results were just wonderful . All the samples were from the Sidama Region . It is traditional in the coffee trade here in the USA to call the region “Sidamo” but I have been told by knowledgeable people that Sidamo means monkey and is considered a racist slur in Ethiopia. Regardless, the coffees were produced using the “washed” or “wet” method as opposed to the “dry” or “natural method”. I am partial to coffees produced via the wet method and Ben is partial to coffees produced using the dry method. The difference in taste each produces from the same coffee is profound and worth noting for your reference. Dry or Natural coffees are processed by allowing the cherry pulp to dry while still surrounding the coffee seeds within the cherry. This allows the fruity/fermenty flavors in the pulp to penetrate the seeds as they dry, imparting a sweet-sour flavor that reminds one of Blueberries and strawberries . When the whole cherry is totally dry, it is taken to a mill and “dehulled” to expose the coffee beans(seeds). The best “naturals” have so much personality you almost believe they have been altered with fruit syrups . Ethiopia and Yemen do the best jobs with naturals in my opinion. The blends we created for The California Academy of Science and for the Danville Chow Restaurant are based on Ethiopian naturals that ben discovered last year while trekking through the coffee regions of Ethiopia in search for a great Natural . I believe the one he found at the Hache Cooperative is one of Ethiopia’s best.
Coffee blossems have a fine aroma
We purchased 37,500 lbs of it last year and we anticipate the coffee will be just as fruity in 2009. I, however, prefer the wet processed ethiopian coffees. The pulp is removed from the seeds within hours of picking. The seeds are soaked water for 24-36 hours depending on water temperature, and then the seeds(beans) are set out to dry on cement patios to get down to a stable 11-12 % moisture . Coffees processed this way have a distinct citric brightness or acidity , showing hints of lemon and stone fruits like apricot and peach. They are bright and lively in the cup , which I prefer over the heavy and mellow mouthfeel of the naturals. But dont get me wrong, my preference is for washed coffees but a good natural is a wonder to behold. We are now at 601 words. Enough! You all are in for some great Ethiopian washed coffees this year in addition to the great naturals we found last year. We will keep you posted as to their arrival date and availability
Children singing, playing, laughing, burdened by reality, hopeful for chance, thirsty for knowledge, yearning to be heard and understood. Meet the Youth of Peace Kawomera.
The second project I completed in Uganda was a note card project for the O Ambassadors program. For about a year, I have been corresponding with Nadja Atkinson, an Oprah Ambassador from Miami, Florida. Before I left, she and I spoke about ways to open her students’ eyes to life in Uganda, inspire, and motivate them to take action.
Nadja has been a wonderful supporter of the Peace Kawomera Cooperative, and when I told our friends in Uganda that our goal was to bridge the gap between cultures, provide Ugandan youth with the opportunity tell their story, and hopefully connect with Oprah, the farmers and their children were very excited to participate.
The only instructions I gave to the youth were to write their name, age, village, and â€œsomething about meâ€ on a note card I provided. Then I collected the cards and took a photo of the student with their card. Those who were too young to write drew pictures. Everyone was eager to share a part of him or herself. Students asked if they could take cards home for their siblings and neighbors, and promised to bring them back as if it were a life and death matter. To them, their stories and opportunity to be heard were.
I’m proud to share some of their photos and cards with you. Please, Meet the Youth of Peace Kawomera.
In addition to providing Nadja’s students and you with a glimpse into Ugandan life, our ultimate goal is to have Oprah read the cards and see the photos. Maybe with time, the villages of Peace Kawomera can become affiliated with Oprah’s education network. Most of the cards say something about the desire to learn and the struggles faced by students to pay fees. As we all know, education is the window to the world.
Fair Trade pays above market price for the harvest. This extra money is usually used by families to pay for school fees, uniforms, and materials. Many children who were unable to attend school in the past are now able to thanks to Fair Trade prices. However, the average family in Uganda supports 8 children. While the system helps a great deal, there isn’t always enough to go around.
In the Meet the Farmers section of our site, you can read stories from farmers on how fair trade has provided extra money and with that money how many families are now able to send some of their children to school.
Back in Uganda, after a year. Everything is intense. It’s hot. The earth is red. The roads are dusty. The farmers gather around me and welcome me to my other homeâ€¦
There are moments when I feel like the luckiest person on earth. After days traveling, long bumpy bus rides, excitement, worry, discomfortâ€¦suddenly I’m here!
Peace Kawomera is now working on its fifth year. The cooperative has grown tremendously, and as is the case with many fair trade organizations, they are focusing on their core business, while rising to the challenges facing their members and the community at large. It’s an amazing thing to see. Here, perched on the side of Mt. Elgon, in a place long-neglected by the Ugandan government and exploited by giant multnational corporations, farmers have built a strong, dynamic, and responsive organization that’s membership run, and membership owned. With leadership from JJ Keki, and support from the co-op’s GM Kakaire Hatibu the cooperative now counts over 1,000 farmers as members. This year they produced three containers of great coffee, triple their first year. And they are on pace for 5 next year—moving towards a business built to scale, sure to yield profits, and dividends to its members. They’ve also recently completed their first international business in vanilla, selling over 22 metric tons of green beans to be cured and sold to a buyer in the US at prices well above the local market. It’s what we’ve been working on since the beginning: development of coffee, growth of a strong business, diversification of incomes and business activities. If I started to count the conversations, work sessions, meetings, and arguments we’ve all been a part ofâ€¦
While in Uganda I had a chance to taste this year’s crop—a thrill. Central to everything we do is the development of quality. And here it is, taking a giant step forward. The cooperative instituted strict penalties for defective coffee. Each lot was carefully screened by buyers, and farmers who brought in bad beans were sent home to sort out and improve their production. I was thrilled to be able to offer a 25 cent/lb increase for the co-op’s coffee based on the tasting scores!
And as is the case with true community-led development, a group’s sense of time grows and evolves. From taking care of today’s urgent challenges, to planning for next year’s business, to developing long-term strategies to confront the challenges that will face your children. It’s like the horizon becomes clearer and clearer with each successful year.
As is the case with farmers everywhere, climate change threatens to destroy ecosystems and farmers’ ability to farm. The cooperative has already mapped out their strategy: reforestation, watershed protection, topsoil conservation, and diversification of incomes. But they are not content to hold on to what they’ve got. High on a ridge above the Aisa Tekho zone, Nathan Watendena shows me the land he and his neighbors intend to bring back to life. â€œIt was forest when we were children,â€ Nathan remembers, â€œwe cut down the trees for wood. Now we know that those trees protect us, and we are going to bring them back.â€
Thanks to you all who support our work, and sustain these remarkable farmers building peace and sustaining the earth. Enjoy their great coffee, and the knowledge that this is your story too.
Nathan Watendena points to hillsides that may one day be covered in forest again.
Nathan and Peace Kawomera's head agronomist John Bosco survey deforested land.
Back with my old friend Somaili Bissaso, one of PK's first members.
They call this place the land of a thousand hills. Depending on who is counting, that might be an understatement. And in a country this small, it’s a striking geographic signature. In the north of Rwanda, high atop a meandering series of ridges, our partners the Dukunde Kawa Cooperative link over 2,000 small farms and families. Five years into their existence, Dukunde Kawa is actually one of the oldest cooperatives in the country, an early part of a national movement of economic recovery and reconciliation after the horrors of the 1994 genocide. They’ve climbed a long way, but as with any path in Rwanda, there are always more hills to climb.
The Cooperative, like others in Rwanda, is struggling to cross the threshold from a small incubating business, to a growing and self-sustaining enterprise. And this within the context of global financial crisis and an early history of overambitious sales expectations. In their early years, The Cooperative produced only one container (37,500 lbs) of coffee annually. A handful of neighboring cooperatives produced about the same. And thanks to strong support from the Rwandan government and USAID-funded PEARL Project (now SPREAD), the quality was fantastic from the beginning. Buyers flocked, and prices soared. But now, as the small group of forward-moving coffee companies who were the first buyers either move on (or like us, stay committed as ever to a good volume at high prices—but not keeping up with growth in production) there is a shortage of new buyers for the additional volume. The result is a downward drive in prices, and a high-stakes season as cooperatives try to regroup and restructure to make a profit at larger volumes but at a more moderate average price.
I came here first and foremost to select the best of this year’s harvest. But also to advise the cooperative on this challenging situation, and help, as I can, to connect them with the additional buyers they now need.
I’m happy to report that I’ve got a container of the best of this year’s coffee shipping from Mombassa next month, which should arrive in our warehouse by May. The lots I selected came from growing regions at the highest elevations, which the cooperative recently separated out from the bulk of their production. This year’s coffee is grown at a minimum elevation of 2,200 meters. Some of it is grown as high as 2,600 meters. If that’s just numbers to you, let me tell you this: these are some of the highest-grown coffees in the world. In fact, if it were not for the consistent equatorial sun and heat (Dukunde Kawa is about .1 degrees south), coffee couldn’t grow here at all. Like wine and apples, altitude stresses the plants, and produces sweeter, more intense flavors. Fruit matures more slowly, and later. Beans are harder. The complexity of the acidity is greater. I’m looking forward to sharing this year’s coffee!
I spent few days with the Coop’s GM Abraham Twilingiyamana and his board of directors, discussing their challenges, especially the need for a restructuring of their marketing and operations plan, and a long-term growth strategy. We still need to find a few more buyers for their coffee, but I’m confident that with the exceptional quality of all of their production, we can find the right partners to join in this effort.
We then turned to the other long-term challenges: facing the challenges of climate change head on, understanding its impacts, and preparing to adapt to them. We spent a day surveying the landscape, mapping ecologically strong and diverse areas, deforested and eroding land, and the underlying watersheds that connect the two with the towns below. As you can see from these pictures, the land is steep and intensely farmed, making it vulnerable to flooding and erosion during heavy rains. It’s also impossible to irrigate, so unless the water table is stable, roots are going to have a hard time finding any moisture. Already, farmers say, they are losing topsoils and seeing yields of food crops decline.
The good news is that the solution is simple: trees. Well, not that simple. Detailed surveys need to conducted, strategies mapped out, and pilot projects launched, but the cooperative is clear about their strategy: reforest the ridge tops, establish water breaks on the slopes, and use their coffee farms to rebuild diverse agro-ecosystems composed of coffee, and a variety of shade and food producing trees and crops. I’m looking forward to developing this project with them, and to sharing more as our work unfolds.
Underscoring the point, a heavy downpour greeted me after a dusty 4 hour bus-ride back to Kigali. It’s supposed to be the dry season. But weather is changing and everyone knows it. As we face the may challenges of producing coffee, sustaining farmers and the earth, I think of the resilience of these amazing people and ask myself what’s to doubt, given everything they’ve built out of the ashes of their past?
Greetings from Kigali, Rwanda, home to this year’s East African Fine Coffee Association’s annual meeting and conference. EAFCA is a trade association of 8 producing countries, but their annual gathering is much more than a chance to vote on some motions and coordinate marketing. It’s a gathering of industry players ranging from big to small, banks, development organizations, and government agencies. Everyone converges to make deals, make plans, and hopefully, develop mutually beneficial partnerships.
I’m here along with our friends from TransfairUSA, and a host of private and public sector partners to spend some time with our three East African coffee suppliers: the Dukunde Kawa Cooperative, from Rwanda, Peace Kawomera, from Uganda, and the Sidama Farmers Cooperative Union, from Ethiopia.
And after a long day of presentations, meetings, and negotiations, I’m happy to report that while we are small fish in a big sea, we’re strong, and our partnerships are dynamic, deeply rooted, and capable of adapting to new challenges and going after new opportunities. I can’t help but feel a familiar sense of happy marginalization—while big multinational traders talk about volume, efficiencies, and risk management, we talk about quality improvements, social benefits, and environmental sustainability. The analogy might be a little clumsy, but its kind of like going shopping at the farmers market where you meet the farmer, and maybe get a little dirt along with the sweetest carrot of the season, versus going to Wal-Mart and getting these strange pre-cut and wittled-down carrot sticks from a few continents away. Actually, that’s a pretty good analogy.
I’m happy to report that the fair trade cooperatives are stronger than ever. They’re seeing increased interest in their coffee, and with production volumes down this year, have seen good prices and have pretty much cleared their books of coffee from the 2008/2009 season. They still face a lot of challenges, especially around their needs for affordable finance which is a perennial challenge made more difficult by the global economic crisis and banking freeze-up.
I’m also happy to share that we’re making good progress on building an alliance of private and public-sector partners around a new pilot project that’s going to map out strategies available to cooperatives as they look to reduce the impact of climate change and enhance the adaptability of their farm systems. We’re looking to start that project here in Rwanda this year, and scale it out to Uganda in the next three years. After that, if all goes well, we’ll have a working model we can take to Ethiopia, and to our Central American partners.
I’ll be here for the next two days attending the conference, then traveling to Musasa in the north of Rwanda to spend a few days with the farmers at Dukunde Kawa. After that it’s on to Uganda for a week, so stay tuned for more news and reflections on the current state and future of our work here with family farmers in East Africa.