Located just 40 minutes from Blantyre, there is a 200 hectare farm nestled in a patch of wilderness with views of Mulanje and Chiradzulu mountains and Zomba Plateau. The tobacco farm, established in 1915, has 36 hectares are reserved for coffee. Our friend, the farm’s Managing Director (appropriately named Beany), is an officially trained coffee taster and is trying to increase the farm’s coffee exports and develop the domestic market. Desperate to visit and imagine myself as Karen Blixen on her coffee farm in Out of Africa (where is Robert Redford?), I was also interested to see how coffee gets from the plant to my mug.
We had a chance to visit the farm a few weeks ago. It was a beautiful day, warm in the sun but with cool breezes, soft light, and big cream colored clouds. Beany took us through the coffee fields, showing us the berries that are just beginning to turn bright cranberry red. The berries are picked by hand and the reaping season will get into full swing in a few weeks.
The plants were three years old in the first field we visited and five years old in the second. The plants are cut back but grow quickly. The berries weigh down the branches and the weakest plants seem to topple over. The spacing of the plants is very important – they must be far enough apart that the berries can get sunlight and then the rows should be far enough apart for a tractor to come through and spray.
Beany showed us the two white coffee beans inside the berry, covered in a thick coating. The picked berries are taken to a de-skinner (my name for the machine – not sure of the official one) and the de-skinned beans tumble down into large concrete tanks where a naturally occurring bacteria eliminates the mucus coating. From there, the beans are rinsed off and laid on burlap bags (or in concrete channels) to dry. Left for about a week, the beans loose most of their moisture, becoming light and brittle, and turn from white to a richer parchment color.
The beans are then ready for sorting. A coffee business oddity is that beans are sorted, graded and sold based on size. Regardless of the flavor of the bean, the bigger the bean, the more expensive it is. The beans are put into a large machine that has several layers of perforated metal; each layer has different sized holes, allowing the beans to fall into the different grades. From there, people check each beans as they travel by on a conveyer belt.
Most of the coffee is then bagged in 50 kg bags and exported to Europe or Japan. Beany, however, reserves some for the local market and roasts and grinds his own. Beany’s coffee, labeled Makoka Coffee, is widely sought after in Blantyre. Taking advantage of the opportunity to stock up, we had made our coffee order before the tour and it was roasted while we were in the fields.
The roasting machine was fascinating – the roaster is brought up to a high temperature, the beans are dropped in and as the heat increases again, they pop, like popcorn. They expand with the heat and the hope is to cool the beans down again before the second pop. The beans go through a range of smells as they are roasted and you can pick up on the notes of honey and hazelnut. After about 8 minutes, the beans are cooled and ready for grinding. The whole roasting process seems to be a highly technical art form in and of itself.
We enjoyed warm cups of coffee at Beany’s home, high up on a hill, while monkeys jumped around the parked cars. Beany showed us the case of coffee smells – small bottles that encapsulate each of the identifiable tastes and smells in coffee, everything from the predictable hazelnut and honey, to lemon and orange, and even earth and rubber.
We drove back to Blantyre, enjoying the rich smell of freshly roasted coffee and the spectacular sunset.