I was anxiousness as I woke up today. I didn’t get much sleep but that was okay, today I was going to live a dream. I can remember years ago, speaking with coffee colleagues about how beautiful a trip to a coffee origin country would be. We spoke about what it would be like to meet a farmer, to see coffee as a red cherry and not a brown roasted bean. My journey has taken many paths, including abandoning the dream of ever meeting a farmer or seeing a tree. Yet today I woke up and the 2 hour drive up Ruli Mountain to our washing station felt like it took 10 minutes, these were moments to be cherished. We drove on our first dirt road as we passed all different kinds of houses. Today everything in Kigali was closed until 1pm because it is a nationwide community day. Manu told us that even the President is doing community service today. We passed some of that work being done. We received screams from children calling out “Muzungu!” which pretty much means white person. They don’t see them too often in the upper hills of Rwanda.
The commute was beautiful, we passed a river that Manu affectionally called “Sarah Lake” After the Kula Project Co-Founder Sarah Buchannon which is doing amazing things with coffee farmers in Rwanda. Sarah used to stop every day on their commute up the mountain. Along the river were people washing clothes, gathering water, and others farming.
Soon after the stop… BOOM There was the sign I had been waiting to see. We made it! Aime who is in charge of fermentation and Geraldine the accountant quickly greeted us with open arms.
The Washing station is also next to land that our company owns with around 5000 coffee trees. These are young trees about 2 years old and won’t start producing a crop until next year but they had several green unripe cherries on their branches. After about 3 years a tree is able to produce Coffee Cherries and is in full production after about 5 years. Every few years the trees will be pruned and will remain healthy upwards of over 30 years. After taking some pictures of the beautiful sign I had seen over and over again in other photo’s we began to explore the coffee plantation going higher and higher. Each tree needs to be planted about 2 meters apart and can even have other plants like Banana trees in the plantation as well to help with shade when necessary.
I studied each aspect of the tree. The leaves were stiff and almost leathery, branches were tough but flexible. Some of them had green cherries that were tough, some ripe cherries that were hard. I found a cherry that looked appealing and I knew I had to do it, I popped it in my mouth and enjoyed the sweet pulp and mucilage. It wasn’t like pure cane sugar or the more commonly known cherry. It was more like a sweet green pepper with green coffee beans (seeds) on the inside that were hard as stones. The density is a good sign. The more dense a coffee bean the more developed the flavors and the more potential roasting can bring out those flavors. Manu, Mike and I walked around talking coffee science and farming techniques. I soaked up all the info I could.
As we moved back down the hill we got into the complicated yet ultra important step of the fully washed processing method of coffee. Manu walked us through each step and how the coffee is sorted. First in the cherry to make sure no foreign objects are found along with defected cherries. Next the cherries are put in a floating tank and the floating ones are skimmed off the top to make sure they are not processed together. After it goes through the de-pulper it is separated by size into A1, A2, A3, and A4. A4 is not processed with the rest and the always are separate. As the cherries move down the station the next step is fermentation. In Rwanda They practice dry fermentation to make sure that water does not wash out the good flavors or pass along possible defects that were missed. After 10-12 hours the cherries are ready to be rinsed of their sweet mucilage and held in the dump tank. Once the coffee is ready it goes to a shaded area for further sorting. They sort them to make sure everything is the way it should be. For 3 days the coffee is dried in a shaded area to make sure the sun does not suck out all of the good flavors of the coffee by drying it too quickly.
After those three days they are dried on raised beds for about 3 weeks until they measure 12% moisture levels. Early in the morning they are uncovered and allowed to dry in direct sunlight before being covered again during the hottest part of the day and then uncovered again for a few more hours before being covered for the night. At least once an hour these drying beans are raked back and forth by hand to ensure even drying. The last layer before reaching the green coffee bean in known as parchment. This is a very thin light layer of the coffee that when dried is incredibly delicate. Once the bean is in it’s parchment the coffee is then taken to Kigali to be milled before being packed and shipped to the US to be roasted. The water used throughout the process is always from a clean source to make sure unpleasant flavors and aroma’s won’t be passed on to the coffee. The coffee nerd in me rejoiced with every conversation. I got to listen to Mike and Manu discuss how defects are formed and other forms of coffee excellence. I saw first hand how coffee is made extraordinary and how sacred it is to produce.
During the busy season they have over 100 employees working almost 24/7 to ensure the coffee is perfect. Soon after receiving my school lesson at the washing station the education and elation of my spirit continued as we drove to Mbilima, a region we buy a lot of our coffee. This is where we met Chuma. He has been farming for over 20 years since he was 12. He has over 1500 trees and has a beautiful plantation. We walked through his forest of coffee trees and enjoyed tasting more coffee cherries. It’s kind of slimy and a bit of a crunch on the skin but it was definitely a dream come true. Chuma followed us to Laurent’s plantation of over 6000 trees most of them being very old.
I was amazed at the simplicity of the tree. I wasn’t expecting something mind blowing but it seemed so uncomplicated. A few leaves and each branch carrying plenty of coffee to go around. Sitting in the middle of Laurent’s plantation we talked with Manu and Chuma discussing farming. The view couldn’t have been more beautiful as I continued to admire the coffee cherries.
Before leaving back for Kigali and a relaxing rest of the day I stopped and prayed. Holding the branches of the coffee praying for the farmers and their families. Thanking God for their sacred work that brings excitement and joy to my taste buds. Before leaving I had to give Chuma a hug and tell him thanks. Part of my purpose of being here is to thank these amazing people. Hopefully I am able to communicate that.
Today I was able to see and feel the hard work of these people to bring quality coffee to the world. There are no short cuts there can be no relaxation in concentration. Their life is dedicated to sending me coffee to brew and most of the time I’m not thinking of them when I make a pour over or a latte for a customer. I’m thinking of the long line of customers and the long to do list at my cafe. I hope I never forget them again. These people in an indescribable way love all of us coffee drinkers without ever knowing our name. They meticulously grow, process, ship, and in Mike’s case, roast coffee in order for a barista or a home brewer to make that coffee taste as good as it possibly can. Their desire to take care of their children knowing they have responsibility to their community like the community work day this morning, all of these reasons and more have me in awe tonight with not many words of poetry to recite. They simply are amazing.
Tomorrow I get the chance to worship with a local parish and enjoy the wonderful sights of Lake Kivu before putting final preparations for the group to com in on Tuesday evening. I will be here around 13 more days so if you have any questions you’ve ever wanted to ask a coffee farmer or processor let me know and I shall ask!