Coffee isn’t just the beverage that helps us start our work day. As a food technologist and the resident Research and Development expert at Seven Miles, I understand that coffee is an intricate balance of aroma and taste, that I personally love to savour and continue to learn about. In fact, coffee is the most complex of all foods I have worked with in over 25 years experience in the food industry. Each step, from the coffee variety and growing conditions, through to processing, roasting, blending and brewing affects the quality of the coffee and, ultimately, its flavour.
Being responsible for quality assurance and research & development at Seven Miles, I visit coffee farms and facilities from around the world to carefully select and buy the finest green beans. Travelling to coffee producing countries has given me a broader perspective on the whole coffee growing process. Understanding that every country is unique has led me to a better appreciation of soil and climatic differences, and how they affect coffee growing.
Different regions producing unique coffees
Each coffee region has its own green bean specifications, quality grading, processing, and even measurements of coffee. In Costa Rica, for instance, farmers are protected by a Coffee Board, which consists of eight members, five of which represent the farmers. There are minimum prices in place and the farmers are paid on the spot. In cases where a farmer’s coffee fetches a higher price, the farmer is given the difference. Otherwise, the farmer has already been paid, so the exporter has to absorb the cost.
In Papua New Guinea, farmers and their families have their own gardens where they grow crops to either eat or sell. This means that if the conditions are not right for them (if prices are too low or they don’t need the money), farmers will not bother to harvest the coffee, as they can rely on other resources from their garden. It is common for kids to go to their parents’ garden, dig up something to eat, make a little fire, and cook their goodies if they get hungry during the day.
In Tanzania, I had the chance to visit Blackburn Estate, which is located right next to a conservation area. Although there are measures in place, such as wildlife corridors to divert animals from the coffee crops, they are free to wander through the farm. If you look at the shade trees amongst the coffee plantation, they all have marks from elephants rubbing themselves against them. We were told to be careful when moving around the estate, as buffalos are not uncommon and can be very dangerous.
Usually coffee pickers are paid by volume. However, at Blackburn Estate, pickers are paid a fair fixed fee per day and are not allowed to pick more than three buckets of 20 litres per day. This ensures that only the perfectly ripe cherries are picked, rather than pickers stripping all they can, and that the people are not overworked.
Blackburn Estate’s owner Michael Gehrken is very analytical and uses loggers to collect data from all areas of his farm such as temperature, humidity and rainfall, and to determine their effect on the coffee. He knows every bird and beetle that exists on his farm and how they benefit his technically ‘organic’ estate.
Relationships within the coffee industry
In any industry, personal relationships are vital. I’ve had the privilege to meet face-to-face with many local authorities, professionals, distributors and agencies during my travels. Seven Miles is also increasingly buying directly from farmers, thus assisting them to develop their coffee by paying premiums over the market price for them to invest and make further improvements to their farming process.
We have seen our relationship with many farmers improve their business greatly, such as Dionicio Aguilar, from the Rioja region in Peru. He is strongly committed to making improvements to his farm and coffee growing practices, and we are proud to work in partnership with him in this process. We also continue to work closely with reputable brokers who have a good understanding of quality, and have developed ethical practices in dealing with local producers.
By travelling to origin, Seven Miles has been able to assist many local farmers, such as Dionicio, to further develop their coffee. We had previously been unaware of the existence of many of these programs carried out by our reputable brokers, which without a doubt provide substantial benefits to local farmers, and most likely are not advertised or appreciated by consumers.
More than just business dealing, every trip is an opportunity to connect on a personal level with people, their lives and their culture. All around the world I have been able to experience the fascinating influence that coffee can have on a community, which makes my role even more exciting and meaningful.