As the new harvest begins in Kenya, it is always important to dive into the complex relationship between coffee, politics, climate change, industry trends and international trade. The harvest has started this November at a very slow pace, and shows great potential for western coffees, i.e., the Bungoma region and its surroundings. In addition, the big news is a new government proposing deep structural changes to the industry at different levels, large millers and traders, the Nairobi Coffee Exchange and the cooperatives.
In Kenya, there are three major coffee trading companies: Sucafina, Ecom and NKG. These companies also own factories and marketing agencies that were formed in accordance with government regulations, which required that a company could only engage in marketing, milling or exporting if it had companies dedicated solely to that particular service. With the current reforms, these companies lost their licences and were required to apply for a licence for a single service, e.g., marketing only.
Fear of the unknown is something we have all experienced. The exotic, the different, the uncertain, is something we immediately reject, and this is nothing more than a survival reflex developed over millions of years of evolution. Throughout human history, we have been able to survive various threats because we have instinctively rejected the unknown, opting instead for the safe, the familiar and the certain. But on many occasions the unknown can also save your life, bring you wellbeing and illuminate a wonderful path that you did not know before. Sumatra for us has been one of those experiences, one of those coffees that does not leave you indifferent, one of those that you either love or hate. For us it was love at first sight.
Sumatra is the largest island in Indonesia. It is an exotic and mysterious island, with a history that not many know about, making it perhaps an obscure place, but the reality is that Sumatra is a majestic island, with abundant nature and friendly people, like few others in the world. And while most of its coffee production is concentrated in the far south of the island and is exclusively Robusta coffee (perhaps hence its bad coffee reputation), the north of the island produces only arabica coffee and in recent years the focus on quality has been growing. In the world of speciality coffee its reputation has been changing for the better, and in some regions like Gayo, we happily see more and better coffees year after year.
To understand Indonesian coffee, it is essential to understand its geography, culture and history. Indonesia is the largest archipelago in the world, made up of more than 17,000 islands, including Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi and parts of Borneo and New Guinea. With more than 278 million inhabitants, Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world and the most populous with a Muslim majority. Java, the most populous island in the world, is home to more than half of the country's population.
The Dutch governor of Malabar (India) sent Arabica coffee seeds from Yemen to the Dutch governor of Batavia (present-day Jakarta) in 1696. The first seeds failed due to flooding. The second shipment of seeds was sent in 1699. The plants grew, and in 1711 the Dutch East India Company -VOC- sent the first exports from Java to Europe, reaching 1,000 kg shipped in 1717.
It's a question we get a lot, especially when we have popular coffees such as Ethiopia or Kenya coming in. Although the logistical process is not difficult per se, it involves so many steps that this, make it complicated. Therefore, it requires proper planning and coordination. At each of these steps there is a risk for quality of the coffee to be affected if anything goes slightly wrong. As we know, the quality of coffee is determined by the quality of the harvest, i.e., how ripe the cherry is when it is removed from the coffee tree. This is the maximum point of quality in the production chain, after that, everything is deterioration, or at best, maintenance.
The task of getting your coffee from the plant to your roastery is what we call coffee logistics. It is a process that consists of three main stages: production, preparation and export/distribution. Each of these stages contains a series of sub-stages or tasks that are carried out by a large number of people and/or machinery. It is also important to note that a number of customs, legal and sanitary rules and regulations must be complied with. Furthermore, in our role as importers or buyers of green coffee, we must ensure that the highest quality standards are met at each of these stages.
During the early days of our civilisation, in the place where Ethiopia is today, local tribes used to consume coffee by roasting the whole cherry until it was burnt. The charred cherry was then added to a beverage of cow's or goat's milk and butter. The result was an intensely flavoured, protein-rich and nutritious drink that is still consumed to this day in some areas, such as Guji. I had the opportunity to try it and honestly, I didn't like it. The texture and taste of the milk with the butter plus the burnt cherry is not a good mix for my understanding of taste, but as I was invited to the home of a very traditional brewing family, it is frowned upon in Ethiopia to refuse what you are offered, and I had to drink it anyway. I was offered a second one, but that I refused because I couldn't take it anymore.
As we know, Ethiopia is the birthplace of the Arabica species and the place where the history and culture of coffee in the world begins. The natural processing method is the oldest way of processing coffee, and it is also born in Ethiopia, then implemented in Yemen and spread all over the world. Before someone invented the washed method, which by the way nobody knows who and when it was created, all coffee was processed using the natural method. In Ethiopia, natural coffees have been produced for centuries and to this day, to a lesser extent than washed coffees. But due to climate change and desertification in Ethiopia and many other coffee producing areas of the world, natural coffees are projected to regain prominence.
We recently saw on social media that a roastery was promoting an Ethiopian coffee, emphasising that the altitude of 2,000m above sea level at which it was grown was impressive!!!! And this made us think about how incomplete the information we receive is and how little is known about all the factors that influence the cultivation of coffee and its impact on quality. Because altitude alone does not tell us much, if it is not accompanied by latitude (location of the place where the coffee has been grown with respect to the Equator), microclimate, soil quality, species, variety, process, etc.
All this information boils down to the need to produce denser coffee beans. Density in coffee is synonymous with quality, because a bean grown at the right altitude and latitude is most likely to grow in a cold microclimate with less oxygen, which will slow down the ripening of the cherry on the plant. Slow ripening is essential to produce quality coffees, because the longer the cherry spends on the plant, the more sugars the cherry will absorb during its development and the more complex its flavour will be.
Burundi is an ideal country for the production of high-quality Arabica coffee, which could generate a solid and recurring income for thousands of farming families. An average altitude of between 1,500 and 2,000 metres, abundant rainfall and a tropical savannah biome combine to create exceptional growing conditions, with coffee accounting for 80 per cent of the country's exports.
Despite this, the Burundian coffee sector faces many challenges. Poor soil health and inadequate maintenance of coffee trees result in low and irregular yields. Production is also threatened by climate change, which increases the frequency of both droughts and heavy rains, resulting in increased soil erosion. Meanwhile, poor processing practices reduce the quality and price of much of Burundi's coffee, and the country's cumbersome business and political environment makes it less attractive to global exporters.
The long journey of coffee has come to an end. It has been several months of arduous effort in which thousands of hands have worked together for a single goal, the production of coffee of the highest possible quality. Although the logistical situation has improved compared to last year, the departure from Ethiopia to Djibouti is chaotic and slow, which risks affecting the quality of the coffee and its moisture content.
Ethiopia, the world's second largest producer of "arabica only" after Colombia, has only one harvest per year and in a very limited period of time. Producing so much coffee in such a short time is a major challenge, especially when there are deficiencies in such important aspects as infrastructure, capital flows, inflation, climate change and the lack of organisation so characteristic of Africa, but particularly present in Ethiopia.
Once we have selected our new lots from Ethiopia and have signed the contract with all the import specifications (or export in the case of the producer), the coffee needs to go through a very important stage of the production chain called "Dry Milling", this process includes hulling, various types of classification, and finally packaging and loading into the container. Each of these stages is described in detail below:
1. Hulling: One of those essential steps in the elaboration of coffee and which consists of the "liberation" of the bean from its wrapping or parchment. This is done by means of hulling machines that use friction and pressure to carry out their task.
When it comes to the selection of Ethiopian coffees, the possibilities of flavours, fragrances, and aromas are virtually endless. Cup profiles are so varied that most importers or roasters do not expect a specific profile for an Ethiopian coffee. The same does not hold for origins such as Kenya or Sumatra, where roasters are looking for berries or chocolate, respectively.
From a sensorial perspective, the acidity of Ethiopian coffees is as diverse as the number of acid components that a coffee bean has. Like sweetness, cleanliness and texture, acidity is fundamental in our sensory analysis and selection work. It is important to note that in the long journey of coffee from the plant to the cup, the acidity and all the sensorial attributes can be modified, enhanced, damaged or eliminated.