Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Coffee on the Mountain

Coffee beans

Monsieur Kodzo grows coffee on the side of a mountain 20k northwest of Kpalime in Togo. Up where the air is cool, the landscape rolls into the distance, and the views make you want to hike in every direction. The place is beautiful, and so is the coffee. His business is called Café Kuma.

Last weekend I took a moto up to Kodzo's village Kuma-Dunyo. The paved road leading onto the plateau is bordered by enormous trees. After gliding through this tunnel of shade, the moto took a right up a steep dirt road and after heading dans la ferme for 20 minutes we were there.

Kodzo's kids, embarrassed to take a picture

I spent 3 days with Kodzo and his family learning how they grow and process coffee. In the States I spend a lot of time in coffee shops drinking organic, shade grown, locally processed coffee and feeling like I'm saving the planet one cup at a time. But my time with Kodzo put all of these adjectives in perspective. He does everything the hard way so that in the end the coffee is the best you'll ever have.

Coffee chez Kodzo

Step 1: Grow the coffee

Kodzo does not own a coffee farm - he has a coffee forest. Arabusta and robusta coffee trees grow on a hillside next to bananas and mangoes and nitrogen-fixing trees. In the middle of the forest he raises bees in boxes. They pollinate the trees and make honey that tastes like the nectar of coffee and banana and mango tree flowers.

A stream runs through the valley on the downhill border of the forest. In the mornings women come down from the hilltop to fill up basins of water and walk home up the slick path in flip flops balancing the weight on their heads. Several Peace Corps volunteers have worked with Kodzo and lived in a house that overlooks his coffee forest. This is where I stayed for my 2 nights in Kuma-Dunyo, sleeping on a stiff bed beside the empty binders and yellowing photos of old volunteers.

Kodzo at the stream

2: Harvest the coffee

Coffee is harvested at the end of the year following the rainy season. The cherries are picked when they begin turning red, and the ripest ones are a deep red.

Before picking the cherries, Kodzo first checks the tree for green mambas. Then he pulls one branch to the ground and holds it in place over a basket. While he picks the cherries and they fall easily into the basket, ants crawl out of the cherry clumps and bite his hands. This is the price paid for not using any chemical pesticides. The biting ants aren't mentioned on the Café Kuma website or in the brochures, but they are one of the toughest parts of making good coffee. They prevent Kodzo from harvesting cherries with half-baskets strapped around the neck like is done on coffee farms elsewhere. While the ants help to keep other insects and diseases away, Kodzo is looking for a way not to get bit by them. His plan at the moment is to try using oil made from leaves of the neem tree as a natural insecticide and to plant neem trees in his coffee forest. I had the thought that he might wash his hands with water mixed with ground up neem leaves before he harvests to deter the ants.

When he finishes harvesting the ripe cherries off of one tree, he moves to another part of the grove to harvest and leaves the rest of the trees in the area be.

3. Soak and dry the cherries

Kodzo recently learned from some Germans that if he soaks the cherries for 1-2 days after picking and then leaves them in a sack for 1-2 days before drying it improves the flavor. He was just testing this out when I came to work with him.

Dried coffee cherries

Cherries are dried in the sun on plastic sheets weighted on the edges with pieces of wood or on raised platforms made from palm branches. To see if the cherries are dry enough for shelling, you shake them. If the beans rattle around inside, it is time to shell.  Drying is easiest at the beginning of the dry season, right around harvest time.

4. Shell beans

Dried cherries are shelled using a fancy type of moulin, a machine used to grind corn, manioc, and dried vegetables. Cherries are poured in the top and beans come out of the bottom. The dried cherry skins are blown outside through a pipe and are collected after as natural fertilizer.

Aubertine putting dried cherries in the top of the moulin

Beans falling out the bottom of the moulin

Cherry shells blown outside

When I helped Kodzo to grind the coffee, his 'best friend' also came by to shell some of his beans. This friend lives in a different part of the canton of Kuma and grows coffee at a different altitude. Many climate and location factors affect the taste of coffee: rain, temperature, seasons, altitude, slope of the land and angle to the sun. Even the coffee at the top and bottom of Kodzo's forest or the trees closer to or further from the bee boxes would taste different.

5. Dry and roast beans

After shelling, beans are dried further until they turn light brown. Kodzo and his family then sort through the beans and pick out the bad ones. It is best to let the sun do as much of the drying work as possible.

Beans ready to roast

Next, the beans are roasted in a rounded metal pot with a rebar stirrer installed in the lid. Wood is used to make a fire in a 3 rock stove under the pot and the roaster must sit by the fire and stir constantly for at least half an hour before the beans are done. I roasted a couple batches. The smell of wood smoke is gradually replaced by the stronger and irresistible smell of roasted coffee. To have a darker roast, you leave the beans over the fire longer. Kodzo can tell when to stop the beans by the color and smell of the smoke coming off. And by the sound of the beans moving inside the pot.

Coffee stirrer for the lid of the pot

Me roasting some coffee beans

The finished product

6. Package

Coffee can be prepared in several different ways before packaging. Beans are the best for conservation and can be eaten directly. They can be ground roughly and packaged, which is good for preparing with a French press. They can also be finely ground, which is best for drip coffee or a percolator.

Kodzo puts the ground coffee in a space-age container that seems incredibly out of place with where the coffee comes from. It has this little nozzle that does something with the air exchange and helps to keep the coffee fresh. If unopened while in this modern marvel, the coffee keeps for 2 years. The coffee I helped him to package will be good until December 2015.

Another, more villageois way to package the coffee is done using small clear plastic bags. I helped Kodzo to fit one bag inside another and then to slide informational labels facing out on the front and back sides between the plastic bags. Coffee is then put inside.

Sell the coffee

In Kuma, they pronounce the word coffee as a combination of different languages. The first syllable is said like 'ca' in the French word 'café.' The next syllable is pronounced like the 'ee' at the end of the English 'coffee.' This pronunciation symbolizes how coffee is grown high on these cool, gorgeous mountains but is best suited for another place.

No one in Kuma drinks coffee. If they do, they drink instant NesCafé packaged in tiny foiled packets which Kodzo will not touch. Even nationally there are not many Togolese who will buy Café Kuma. It is not sold in supermarkets in Kpalime or Lome. The market is international, so Kodzo has trouble finding clients. From a business perspective, this way of generating income is not very sustainable. Agoutis are the opposite. There is a local and national market for selling agoutis for raising or for meat, but I could never imagine Americans or Europeans eating bush rat like I could seeing them drink Kuma coffee. It seems like it would be easier to make a product that you could start out selling locally locally and build up until capturing both national and international markets.

Kodzo is well off by village standards. He owns a moulin, his wife sells goods from a boutique, and their house is made of cement. This means either he has found enough means to enable him to expand and improve his coffee production. Next thing on the list is an electric roaster, which should be interesting because the village does not yet have electricity. I can understand not wanting to sit over a hot fire with smoke in your face stirring a pot for half an hour, and my impression is that he has the means and resources to take this step on his own. After he approached the subject with me I suggested looking into getting a loan from a microfinance, microcredit, or village savings and loan group. We'll see where he takes it, and when Kodzo can pay expenses and expand on his own we can add 'sustainable' to the list of coffee-describing adjectives.

Scattered around the old volunteer's house are cement bricks which Kodzo plans to use to make an eco-auberge. He is interested in getting into eco-tourism, so our last day together I travelled to Kpalime and arranged for a group of 7 NYU students on vacation to check out Café Kuma. We went up the mountain, ate beans and rice, took a tour of Kuma and the coffee forest, and they bought a mountain of coffee.

I am hoping to own a coffee shop in the future and would like to serve coffee as awesome as what I tasted last weekend. It tastes like all of the work and quality control put into the beans, from agroforestry to selecting the best beans to packaging. Every morning now I pick up my percolator which I hadn't touched in ages and make myself coffee just like I did in Italy. In January I am flying to Hawaii where I hope to learn more about how to grow organic, shade grown, locally processed, sustainable coffee.

Sign for Café Kuma

Café Kuma website: http://cafekuma.com/english/index.htm

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