Editor’s Note: This week, we interrupt our usual roundup series with a special guest post from our great friend Jono Moehlig. Jono has worked at Land of a Thousand Hills for almost 3 years in which he has grown an intense love for the coffee chain and the wonderful people of Rwanda. He has taken the coffee processed at the Ruli Mountain washing station in Rwanda and earned top ten honors in the 2014 and 2015 South East Regional Barista Championship. Coffee for him is a passion that extends beyond the growing fields or espresso bars and enters into a way of life, serving and loving people. From the farmer to the consumer each person plays a delicate and essential role. In this new article, Jono talks about his experience of going to the company’s coffee plantation and seeing what the production process and people’s lives there actually look and feel like. If you love coffee and traveling, you’ll definitely want to hear his story!
What is coffee to you? Is it something that magically appears in the morning because you hit a button on a coffee pot? Is it a means to an end while you try and wake up or get through the drudge of 2 o’clock in the afternoon? Or maybe it’s a product that goes beyond an enjoyable beverage and you can see the hours of labor that went into a simple cup of coffee? One of the things that first attracted me to coffee was the idea of loving coffee. I wanted to be the cool one in high school, walking around with a gas station cappuccino and feeling like I was special. The journey I have taken since my first smell and sip of what I then believed to be absolutely awful has allowed me to appreciate even more what a lot of people consider an overpriced cup of coffee.
Coffee is and will always be about community, even if you don’t realize it. History tells us that people have always gathered around coffee. The London Stock Exchange started in a coffee shop. Pope Clement IIX is said to have baptized coffee in order to trick the devil and make it a drink suitable for Christians. And Bach wrote a coffee cantata in which a character describes coffee as being “lovelier than ten thousand kisses.” It is through this history that I have been immersed in the coffee world. It’s from this history that I’ve began to look for what makes this liquid so special.
For the last two and a half years, I’ve been managing the Roswell, Georgia location of Land of a Thousand Hills, a coffee shop dedicated to the Rwandan people and the craft of amazing coffee. I’ve learned about TDS, pour rates, espresso excellence, the finesse of latte art, and overall how to take a product others have worked so hard on, and create a beverage that many can enjoy. While I had heard stories and been told of the intricacies of everything that happens before it reaches the US — the mysteries of processing the coffee, harvesting at precisely the right instant, sorting for just the perfect product — it was when I visited Rwanda that I began to understand that coffee can do more than change the mood of a tired customer; it changes lives all over the world.
I woke up in Kigali, capital city of Rwanda, with an anticipation to see the coffee trees and the washed process from a first person perspective for the first time. We began our two hour drive on clean, paved streets, making our way to the mountainous dirt road to our Ruli Mountain washing station, and my legs couldn’t keep still with excitement. As we drove by, people began to wave, smile, even scream in our direction, “MUZUNGU!” which basically means white person. They don’t see too many Americans around here and when they do they’re excited. We saw the source of the Nile river flowing up and down terrain I had never been a part of before, and people were being taxied on one gear bikes up the hills, something I could never imagine being strong enough to do. We soon pulled up to the washing station and, like most things in Rwanda, it was on a steep hill next to our 5000 tree coffee plantation.
On the road…
The first thing we did was climb on top of their water reservoir, to see the washing station from a higher perspective. When processed, the coffee is in contact with water for a very long time and will absorb some of its properties. With this in mind, they take great care in getting some of the best water from natural sources high in the mountains, in order to keep the coffee from contaminants. As I stood on this massive water tower, I imagined it to be harvesting season at peak production, with farmers and buyers hurriedly riding in with their coffee, ready to begin the sorting process — a bustle of activity and conversation, and joyous songs being sung as they work. Once the coffee arrives at the station, they begin to sort out the cherries that aren’t good enough to be processed with the rest of the coffee. Each one is inspected and moved by hand into piles of unripe or overripe and perfect cherries. Once the coffee passes the first inspection, it still has many more quality checks to pass through in order to make it into your cup.
Checking out the washing station
Next up are the floatation tanks. This separates the coffee by density of sorts. When the coffee is roasted, it needs to be dense enough to stand up to the heat and this helps to determine which coffee seeds inside the cherries have developed enough. The coffee that can be further processed sinks to the bottom while the floaters are scraped away and processed separately so as to not contaminate the good ones. Once it’s determined that the coffee can begin to be processed into what most people consider to be coffee (a brown bean that needs to be ground in order to wake you up), the pulp or skin is taken off by large metal spinning disks that you definitely want to keep your fingers away from. This machine starts to sort the coffee by size again, as different sized holes push the coffee into separate lanes to be led to fermentation tanks.
Aime, a fermentation specialist, operating a de-pulping machine
These fermentation tanks are incredibly important to the final taste. For 8-12 hours, the beans sit in huge blue tanks, allowing a sweet, sticky substance called mucilage to be removed. Often workers will hop in the tanks and use their feet to work off this layer so that it can be ready to be dried. Aime, the fermentation specialist, tells us how he oversees this part of the process. He keeps an eye on each cherry before it’s allowed in the tanks, to ensure that it won’t contaminate the rest and, after fermentation, to ensure its process has been complete. In many countries, a wet fermentation is practiced where the coffee will sit in water in these tanks; however, in Rwanda, it is a dry fermentation with the hope that if a bad bean does make it into the tank, it won’t affect the others as much as it would with water carrying the defect to other beans.
The process continues when the fermentation is over and they rinse and carry the coffee to holding tanks. Once it is in the holding tanks, it’s all about moisture levels. The last step at a washing station is the drying process. People constantly move the coffee back and forth on drying tables, to ensure that it dries evenly. This coffee is often referred to as parchment, in reference to the last layer of coffee to be removed before being shipped to the US for roasting. The holding tanks are filled with water to make sure that no moisture is lost without it being controlled. Once room is made on the drying tables, the coffee is moved to raised beds for three days, under the shade of a tin roof where workers continue to sort through the defective and good coffee beans. After those three days, it can then be moved to the full sun drying tables. These are monitored at all times during the day, and for several hours the beans are covered in a mesh-like screen so they aren’t scorched by the sun. They can be moved into the storage room and bagged once a hydrometer is used to determine that the coffee is at 12% moisture levels. Then it is ready to be stored, before being moved to Kigali where the parchment will be removed, and the beans will be cupped for quality, bagged, and shipped to America.
Diligent drying and sorting process
Manu, the agronomist for Land of a Thousand Hills, takes us through this process in meticulous detail. He loves his job, and whenever I can I like to send him my customers’ quotes and words of thanks for the coffee. There is a glisten in his eye when he speaks about his work with the farmers. You can tell he gets the most joy not from the sorting or fermenting of coffee, but from the opportunity to ensure a family has food and education for their children. Manu’s joy comes from the people and the farmers he loves. He once told me that he and coffee are like brother and sister.
1st photo: Manu is talking about specialty coffee industry before and after genocide in Rwanda
Walking through the coffee trees, with their branches full of cherries drooping around me, I pluck one and pop it into my mouth. I try and savor the moment of the coffee sweetness in its purest form. There is joy in the world that can only be found in the life of a farmer. Rwanda has a unique story, one that most don’t want to think about. It’s a story of genocide, a dark past that is as horrendous as you can imagine. It is out of these ashes and destruction that a light has been found to break through the sheet of the night, restoring peace. This volatile history has dissolved and given way, to the benefit of specialty coffee drinkers everywhere. A country that once only knew ordinary coffee has started to produce some of the highest graded and sought after coffee in the world. People like Chuma, in Mbilima, Rwanda, have been farming since they were 12 years old and are now getting the recognition and, more importantly, the financial compensation their dedication deserves.
Beauty & peace resonate in-between the coffee plants
Imagine working at a washing station, constantly sorting cherries, pushing the newly harvested coffee through a machine that takes off the pulp, waiting for the fermentation to be perfect before drying it, all in such a meticulous fashion that Americans might consider it OCD. In this culture, the process produces excitement, joy, even songs and dancing as quality control isn’t seen as a job or a procedure. It’s a way of life, with each detail thought about and every movement a stride towards perfection, even if never attained.
When I was there, I had the honor of celebrating the 20th anniversary of Liberation Day. On July 4th, 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Front was able to put an end to the genocides and on July 4th, 2014, I sat in their national stadium and heard President Kagame speak of peace and the hard work they have achieved thus far. The fight is not over; the hope of all human dignity is wrapped up in the hope I see in their eyes. Coffee has become a vehicle to reconcile the perpetrators and the victims as they work out their differences in the garden.
Sixth president of Rwanda Paul Kagame is popular in Rwanda
I’ve gone off the deep end and can never come back. Coffee will never just be a drink I have with breakfast or something so commonplace it’s not thought of as a miracle. I’ve heard it said that a single cup of coffee takes 20 man hours to produce. I get that coffee for about five minutes and try to take those 19 hours and 55 minutes and make them mean something for people that judge the previous hours by how well I perform during my five minutes of production. The truth is, I will never know enough. I will never be good enough and it’s that constant pursuit of perfection that makes coffee so amazing. Seeing joy on the faces of farmers, watching the attention to every detail by the workers at the washing station, seeing the tweaking of our roasting staff — this is what pushes me to be better.
Then there is you, the one who drinks what I produce and someone for whom, I hope, the liquid in your cup means more than just something warm and brown to make you awake. I know not everyone will feel this way; some will always only focus on what they see, what is in front of them. I choose to see beyond that and try to tell the story of a hard working people in the way I conduct myself. All I can ask is that you taste and see, and perhaps you’ll never think of it as simple ever again.
[COFFEESHOPR: Feel Jono’s passion for the industry and its people in this video.]