If you like coffee, you should try to spend a few days on a coffee farm. You’ll love coffee even more. And if you stay at the coffee farm I stayed at, you’ll be next door to the world’s best wildlife reserve–the Ngorongoro Crater. You’ll even see the lip of the crater from most anywhere on the farm. You might even see some of the elephants who wander onto the coffee farm at night.
Coffee farms can be idyllic settings because coffee requires what most of us call an ideal climate. If you’re on a coffee farm, it will never get too cold or too hot. It will be between 60 and 75 degrees year- round. You’ll have plenty of sun and plenty of rain, but not too much. You’ll be up in the mountains—at least 5000 feet above sea level. And you won’t have a lot of insect pests. You’ll also have deep rich soil.
If you’re on the best coffee farms, it will be cool even when the sun is out because the best coffee grows in the shade. You’ll have towering native trees throughout the farm.
If you are a sun lover, you’ll love living on the best coffee farms even more. The best coffee is sun dried to about 10% moisture content. That means coffee requires a pretty long dry season so the beans can be left on screens out in the sun.
A lot happens to the beans before they are dried. First, the beans aren’t beans when they are picked. They’re called cherries. From a distance they look a lot like cherries—bright red and round. Each cherry contains two beans surrounded by lots of pulp which has to be removed.
Most coffee is picked by hand. A good picker averages about 100 to 200 pounds of coffee cherries a day, which will produce 20 to 40 pounds of coffee beans. Each worker’s daily haul is carefully weighed, and each picker is paid on the merit of his or her work. The day’s harvest is then transported to the processing plant.
Within 24 hours, the cherries must begin processing which consists of pulping, washing and drying. The first step is removing the pulp from the coffee cherry. The freshly harvested cherries are passed through a pulping machine which pushes the wet beans through screens to help pull off the pulp.
Then the beans are separated by weight as they pass through water channels. The lighter beans float to the top, while the heavier ripe beans sink to the bottom. After separation, the beans are transported to water-filled fermentation tanks. Depending on a combination of factors — such as the condition of the beans, the climate and the altitude — they will remain in these tanks for anywhere from 12 to 48 hours to remove the slick layer of mush (called mucilage or parenchyma) that is still attached to the inner bean. While resting in the tanks, naturally occurring enzymes will cause this layer to dissolve.
When fermentation is complete, the beans feel rough to the touch. The beans are rinsed again. At this point the cherry has been reduced to just the hull surrounding the bean. Now it’s ready for drying.
The wet beans are spread out on vast fields of elevated screens. Workers rake the beans now and then to get even drying. When the cherries are down to 10%. All that’s left is the bean covered by the parchment or silver layer.
Once the beans are dried, the parchment layer is removed from the beans. Occasionally, beans may be polished in a machine designed to remove that last little bit of silver skin. Beans are then graded and sorted, usually by hand. Then they are bagged, in 60 kg bags in Tanzania, and they are ready to be shipped.
At some point, the beans go through the final stage of processing: roasting. But that’s not often done on the farm. Roasting coffee beans is fun and you can do it at home.
Roasting is where coffee’s flavor is fulfilled. The best roasting heats the beans in rotating drums. Tumbling in the drums keeps the beans from burning.
The beans first turn a yellowish color and smell a little like popcorn. After about 8 minutes, the beans “pop” and double in size. The beans have then reached about 400 F (204 C) and begin to brown as the oils within them start to emerge. This oil is called coffee essence or caffeol. The chemical reaction of the heat and coffee essence is called pyrolysis, and is what produces the flavor and aroma of coffee. A second “pop” occurs about three to five minutes later and signals that the bean is fully roasted.
Roasted coffee beans don’t keep very well. When stored in air, their flavor starts to deteriorate immediately.
At the farm I stayed at, the whole process is done on the farm. I got to enjoy the farm’s great coffee every morning including a thermos full when I went down the road to see the elephants, lions and rhinos.
Tanzanian coffee and Tanzanian wildlife—can’t get much better than that.