After tasting coffees (at the source) in over two dozen nations around the world, I think I've finally discovered the secret to growing "The World's Best Coffee."
It's not that I'm obsessed with coffee -- I'm obsessed with experiences! Each time I've traveled through a coffee exporting country (there are 51 of them at my last count), I've made it a point to experience the coffee grown there. I've been drinking the world's most popular beverage direct from the source.
Upon completion of my Mt. Kilimanjaro climb in 2008, we celebrated our safe descent (which is in many ways is more painful than the ascent), with a cup of fresh Kilimanjaro coffee, grown and brewed on the slopes of Africa's tallest dormant volcanic cones.
It was the most incredibly smooth cup of black coffee I'd ever drank in my life from a styrofoam cup. I had to have more!
After being whisked off to the Kilimanjaro Airport my only hope of exporting some of this incredible coffee to my home in New York was to scour the shelves at JRO's tiny duty-free corner. The only selection not appearing as if it were packaged in a dissolvable bag was a short tin can of "TanCafe," Pure Coffee from Tanzania: The Land of Kilimanjaro (the faded side photos of an arrogant giraffe and a bemused leopard didn't instill confidence in the tin's contents).
Don't judge a tin of coffee by its poorly photographed wildlife! That tin contained the most amazing coffee of my life.
I began to hoard the contents, doling them out on a case-by-case basis, terrified of reaching the bottom of the tin. Who knew when I'd return to the Kilimanjaro Airport? In the meantime, I re-doubled my efforts to taste every nation's coffee at each opportunity.
Strong, intense, raw -- loved it's intensity, but missed sublime notes.
Pale, lacked body, but I appreciated that it was unobtrusive.
3. El Salvador
A seriously great coffee, grown on the sides of active volcanoes and seemed to extract their power.
High doses of caffeine -- stayed awake all day.
You know that coffee you've heard about that is made from beans collected out of cat droppings (Kopi Luawak)... It's actually the droppings of an Asian palm civet (a tiny omnivorous adorable animal), which eat only the ripest of cherries and partially digest the outer coating of the bean. It's the world's most expensive coffee and it's worth every rupiah (when you acquire it from the source -- import taxes are a bitch). But I still missed my "TanCafe."
I returned to East Africa a few months ago...
As soon as I made my way back to Tanzania, I rushed to the Arusha Coffee Lodge. The following day on a tour of the Burka Estate, in the shadow of Mt. Meru (Tanzania's tallest active volcano) it came to me: It's the Volcano!
As my work progressed through East Africa, I felt as though I continued to make startling coffee discoveries: Organic home-grown coffees from the foot of Mt. Elgon in Uganda, coffees growing within sight of the Virunga volcanoes in Rwanda, and more deliciously smooth delights from duty-free at the Dar es Salaam Airport in Tanzania (move over "TanCafe," this wasn't just about Kilimanjaro anymore).
I felt like Angela Lansbury solving the 100th murder in Cabot Cove, putting all my bits of information together to discover the common denominator behind growing all my favorite coffees: Volcanoes and the Equator.
It wasn't just the volcanoes (they are a dime a dozen in the coffee producing world). Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Indonesia, Southern Colombia -- they're all within spitting distance of the Equator and contain volcanic cones.
The volcanic soil makes perfect sense: Just as in the growing of wine grapes, the soil nurturing the coffee shrubs has great influence over the final product. The Equator feels less intuitive, but still makes some sense. The Equator is the only place on Earth that receives exactly the same amount of daylight, each and every day of the year. It's also meteorologically unique in that annual rainfall is very high and temperatures hardly vary.
So that's it, my coffee quest had answers, and dozens of delicious brews to enjoy (with more to discover).
If you love coffee, world travel is an exceptional way to explore that passion. Get out there and go on your own coffee quest!
No drink is more connected to the modern human experience than a cup of coffee! A powerful statement for the world's second largest traded commodity (second only to oil) -- 2.25 billion cups of coffee being consumed each and every day! One plant's beans literally fuel the human experience. Coffee: "a drink made from the roasted and ground bean like seeds of a tropical shrub, served hot or iced." -- 25 beans make a cup!
Coffee cultivation for export takes place in 51 nations in tropical and subtropical regions worldwide; ranging from The United States (Hawaiian and Puerto Rican Coffees) to Brazil (the world's largest producer of coffee: over 2.5 million tons annually) to Uganda (coffee is Uganda's number one cash crop). Coffee is overwhelmingly grown, processed, and exported from developing nations. According to the International Monetary Fund the only "developed" country producing coffee is the United States (only Hawaii and Puerto Rico fall within latitudes which allow the coffee plant to survive). IMAGE: Coffee processing in Juayua, El Salvador at Larin E Hijos Y Cia
Growing Coffee is nothing like growing other major cash crops (rice, corn, wheat, sugar, or cotton). Coffee's environmental requirements (water, climate, shade, soil, and pest control) mean you can find coffee plantations in some pretty interesting places. In this image you see a volcanic hillside in El Salvador covered in coffee plots (each polygon of larger trees is a bounding box containing coffee trees/bushes). I personally feel that the best coffees I've sampled around the world have all been grown clinging to volcanic hillsides or directly at the base of volcanoes (active or dormant).
Coffee plants (Coffea arabic and Coffea canephora) produce their downstream product (coffee) via a multitude of different factors; analogous to how grape vines (Vitis vinifera) with identical DNA can produce vastly different wines when planted in different regions of the world. The quality of the soil; the amount of shade on the plants; the timing of watering; the differing climates of growing locations; all of these factors can influence the taste and structure of the beans which ultimately make your coffee. Coffee plants in Tanzania (pictured here at Burka Coffee Estate) produce different flavors from those on the other side of the world in Panama.
… or is it a tree? The Coffee plant is often referred to as both, and scientific classifications label it a "shrub." It has a central stem (trunk) off which shoots contain the leaves, flowers, and fruit. The "shrub" can be grown to a height of 10-12 feet in cultivation, however in the wild is reported to grow much taller (hence the idea of a "tree").
It takes a newly "cut" (or seedling) juvenile coffee plant between two and four years to begin reproducing; producing the flowers which ultimately produce the coffee cherries. Full scale harvesting can begin at between four and five years of age.
A large coffee plantation in full bloom is an incredible site. Once a year the plants cover themselves with diminutive white flowers; the precursors to coffee beans. The flowers are short lived, fading upon fertilization, being replaced by more flowers over a period of a few days. In a strange twist of Mother Nature the plant can sometimes flower, grow a green berry, and present a ripe cherry all at the exact same time (commercial growers keep this to a minimum for continuity). Running through a flowering plantation, you can be overcome by a smell likened to jasmine.
Ripening of the coffee berry into a cherry (pictured above), takes approximately 8-9 months. A productive plant can literally be covered 'head to toe' with thousands of cherries, turning the plant into an archetypal Christmas colored display. There are unique varieties of Coffea Arabica (Catuai-Amarillo for example) which grow bright yellow cherries instead of the usual deep red color. FUN FACT: Botanists call the cherry a "drupe."
The secret to coffee is contained inside the cherry. After discarding the red pulp (flesh of the cherry) you are left with two coffee beans, from which processing begins… FUN FACT: In 5-10 percent of 'drupes' there is a singular bean which is ovoid instead of flat on one side. These are called "peaberries" and can be separated during processing to create their own Peaberry Coffee.
In a majority of coffee producing countries the coffee cherries are picked by hand. Brazil is the notable exception where a significant amount of coffee is picked by modern machines. The two major reasons the best coffees are picked by hand is the human eye distinguishing between ripe and unripe berries (red vs. green); and the terrain on which many coffee plantations are planted (the side of a volcano for example). Generally, the coffee plant does not mature its fruit all at the same time and often perfectly ripe red cherries can share the same plant with juvenile unripe green berries. Machines cannot yet tell the difference.
A secondary hand sorting can increase the quality of the final product by removing over-ripe or under-ripe cherries. This image was taken during a harvest at Portezuelo Park in El Salvador, where coffee tourism is encouraged, including getting your hands on the cherries.
Processing of the coffee beans must begin immediately upon picking to prevent spoilage, and involves several "drying" steps. The removal of the cherry pulp can be accomplished through various methods (often depending on water resources), but the end result of a drying bean is essentially the same. Sun dried beans are turned multiple times a day (pictured above) to ensure uniform drying. In large industrial operations beans can be dried in large tumblers.
After processing, coffee is sorted for size, weight, and grading. At this stage the beans can be bagged and shipped by suppliers to the "destination" country; however the process of making coffee is not yet complete.
"Green Coffee" is the name given to processed beans which have not yet been roasted. 7million to 8 million tons of green coffee is exported around the world annually. The green coffee is ultimately roasted at internal temperatures of ~400 degrees Fahrenheit to produce the aromatic brown bean ultimately ground into coffee. FUN FACT: The scientific process of expressing oils/aromas/flavors through roasting is knowns as "pyrolysis."
In the "circle of life" that is coffee production, the cherry skins/pulp removed from the beans during processing are often composted to return essential elements/nutrients to the soil from which the coffee is grown.
The lifespan of a wild coffee shrub can exceed 100 years. In plantations the cycle of aging is carefully monitored to produce the best possible harvests. The above sign indicates a field of coffee at Burka Coffee Estate, Tanzania, first planted in 1950. At Burka the plants are allowed to go through 10 growing cycles at seven years per cycle, meaning a coffee shrub planted in 1950 will be retired permanently from service (removed from the ground) in 2020, having lived a life of 70 years.
The base of this coffee shrub represents 63 years of growth and coffee production. Every seven years the plant is cut down to the base, from which a new stem (trunk) is produced on which new growth (and new coffee) grows. This image shows a coffee plant towards the end of its lifetime having grown somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 cups of coffee.
Coffee consumption is mind-boggling. In the United States alone, there are 130 million to 150 million coffee consumers. This truck in El Salvador represents an infinitesimal fraction of the world's coffee; a small yield of one of the most important plants on Earth.
Coffee Tourism is an incredible side effect of coffee production. In almost every country where coffee is grown there is at least one estate which opens its doors to travelers who want to experience first hand the wonders of growing and drinking coffee.
After my tour of Larin E Hijos Y Cia in El Salvador the greatest joy came from the tasting. There is no better coffee in the world, than that which is acquired at the source!
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