Cultivating A Centuries Old Original | Sharon Henry
St Helena coffee begins life a world away from the coffee houses of Starbucks and trendy speciality outlets where it is sold.
“The only thing I don’t like about coffee is drinking it!” laughs a chief picker at the Bamboo Hedge coffee plantation on St Helena – which just so happens to supply of one of the world’s most prized and expensive coffee beans. “I’m a tea drinker myself,” she shrugs. This declaration might cause some coffee aficionados to choke on their morning brew.
Tracey Duncan plucks ruby red ‘cherries’ (ripe fruit) and drops them into a hessian bag. “I like everything else about it,” she adds, “the whole process of picking, pulping, drying, hulling, sorting…everything.
“It’s the principle of it as well; this is one thing the island exports, that makes its own money for the island,” she explains.
Napoleon’s Nod Of Approval to St Helena Coffee
We’re stood on the slopes of Sandy Bay which is part of an extinct volcano, surrounded by coffee trees dripping with cherries of varying ripeness, ready for hand picking. It’s intense work especially in the mid-morning sun and Tracey picks an average of 10 kilos a day.
St Helena coffee was made fashionable in the 1800s by Napoleon who supposedly uttered, “The only good thing to come of St Helena is the coffee.” Of course that was just the opinion of a captive person, but after a revival in the last seven years, coffee is once again a good thing ‘coming of’ St Helena.
Spilling The Beans
Solomon & Company took over the Bamboo Hedge plantation in 2010 and have put St Helena coffee back on the world market, albeit in small quantities.
Of the five tonne (on average) that Tracey and her work mates pick in a season, approximately one will end up being exported as the original picked weight is hugely reduced through processing.
Last year coffee chain, Starbucks hit the news cycle for selling St Helena coffee, their most expensive to date, and it was a hit.
What makes St Helena coffee so special, besides Napoleon and its ‘delectable’ taste, is the Green Tipped Bourbon Arabica seed imported in 1733 from Mocha, Yemen, which is still being cultivated today, 284 years on, unspoilt.
The Girl Who Don’t Drink Coffee
“We have little competitions, who can pick the most, for fun,” smiles Tracey. “I’m very competitive so I’m always the one,” even though she doesn’t drink the stuff!
However, that doesn’t affect the meticulous care put into processing St Helena coffee by the small team who take pride in turning those red cherries into green (unroasted) coffee beans, and sending them out into the ‘outside world.’
To achieve optimum quality the beans go through a very specific process. These are the nine stages of producing green coffee beans here on St Helena.
It takes nine months for the coffee bean to grow which is handpicked at the peak of ripening when the cherries are ruby red. There is a short window of a week before the fruit over ripens and deteriorates. If picked green or too early it will affect the taste. Extra hands are hired during the harvesting period between November and January and each picker collects between 5-10 kilos a day. An average of five tonne is picked in a season.
Immediately after picking, the cherries are put through the pulping machine. Like a magic act they go in red and come out white. The pulper removes the red skins and underlying fleshy fruit to reveal the white parchment of the bean inside. The discarded red skins are used for composting. Much of the crop’s weight is lost during this process.
A row of domestic baths are lined along a terrace where the pulped beans are placed to soak and wash for five days, continually changing the water each day. This wet processing dissolves the slimy fruit coating called mucilage. Mucilage is natural sugars and alcohols that help to develop the sweetness, acidity and flavour in the coffee beans.
Washed beans are thinly layered in gauze trays and sun dried in a drying shed until they reach a specific moisture content of 11%. When dry the white parchment skin covering the beans becomes crumbly and easy to rub off.
5. Resting Period
The beans are then moved off site and placed in storage at Half Tree Hollow for 6-8 weeks, kept at a temperature of around 20C with 50% humidity. Resting allows the flavour of the beans to mature and develop.
Hulling is done at ANRD, Scotland, where an old hulling machine removes the dry white parchment from the beans. An electric fan blows the discarded, confetti-like parchment into a corner. This will be used for composting. To ensure the moisture content is retained, the beans are put through the machine no more than three times. It takes about two weeks to process a tonne.
Hulled beans are immediately processed through a Smout polishing machine which removes the silver skin and gives a special polish to the final green bean. The clean, polished beans are then kept in storage at a temperature of around 20C with a humidity of 50% ready for sorting.
Sorting is done at Half Tree Hollow and is the most tedious stage of the process. The beans are graded in sizes and pea beans are separated from half beans. Damaged ones are kept aside. The first round of sorting is done by a large machine with a multi-holed cylinder. Human hands and eyes do the other rounds. Before the machine was purchased, 20 people manually carried out this sorting stage; the number is now reduced to four. Around four 20kg bags are completed in a day.
The beans are bagged in 20kg hessian sacks (gunny bags as we call them) ready for export. On average up to one tonne is exported with 1.6 tonne being the largest output so far. A vast reduction to the five tonne (average) of original picked weight. The difference is lost through the process of producing green coffee beans.
Quick Coffee Shots
Solomon & Company grow the island’s largest coffee crop from the Bamboo Hedge and Wrangham’s plantations which total over 9 acres containing 6,000 trees.
Solomon’s green (unroasted) coffee is exported wholesale to a UK partner. Sea Island Coffee is one of the wholesale customers.
The Green Tipped Bourbon Arabica coffee grown on St Helena is the only one of its kind commercially farmed today.
The 2015 St Helena coffee crop was distributed wholesale to UK, Belgium, Romania, USA, Japan and Germany through the UK distributor.
St Helena coffee is locally available on the island, grown and roasted on a small scale by other companies.
Coffee is typically grown within 1,000 miles of the equator between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, also known as the ‘coffee belt.’
There are two main commercial types of coffee bean – Robusta and Arabica. Robusta coffee grows best at lower altitudes whereas Arabica is better suited to higher altitudes.
Coffee is the world’s most popular drink with around two billion cups being consumed every day.
Coffee is the second largest export in the world after oil (in dollar value).
Coffee has one of the most recognisable smells in the world.
Coffee from the Yemen was originally called ‘kahwe.’