Specialty Coffee Farm Transformation

The Helena project began in November 2012, with the aim of transforming a commodity coffee farm into a super specialty haven with rare and heirloom varieties under a native forest canopy, rich biodiversity, the most amazing flavours straight to our customers in NZ, and hopefully earning some particular awards we'd like along the way.

  • Currently most trees on the farm are Caturra, majority red, with a few of the yellow varietal infiltrating the ranks. In my hand is one of each cherry with the skin peeled back to reveal the two coffee beans inside, covered by their parchment and a juicy layer of sweet mucilage.

  • Caturra is a naturally occurring mutation of Bourbon that grows well in diverse environments, and produces a higher yield than that of its great grandparents. The flavour is crisp and fruity. This coffee cups well and is a solid crop to already have production, however we are replacing half the lots across time with ancient varieties carrying the highest potential for quality flavour

  • Here are our Bourbon seedlings, of which we have about 2000 almost ready for planting. Bourbon is named after an island that was once known as Bourbon - that's right you history/geography buffs, the modern day Réunion island to the east of Madagascar.

    This is one of the two oldest varieties that many others have evolved from, and as such hasn't undergone selective breeding to be hardy or high yielding. Instead this coffee will be difficult to grow well and require much more attention than the more common Colombian varieties, with the pay-off being sweeter flavours, fantastic balance, more complex acidity, and an overall higher quality cup.

  • This is Alejandro, collecting the few cherries that are ripe on some very young trees on the highest lot in Helena. For now we use the coffee from up here to run experiments in fermentation times and other processing variables. Soon however we'll have the rare Gesha occupying this area.

    If you were lucky enough to try the limited supply of Gesha at the Flight Coffee Hangar that ran out last week, then you'll know the mind-blowing intensity of flavour and aroma. Notes of berries, peach, and sweet citrus are common, while the fragrance is powerful florals and baking spice. Gesha is regarded by many the ultimate coffee variety. 

    Though some spell it Geisha, it has nothing to do with the Japanese entertainment. Gesha was discovered in Gesha, also spelt Geiscia, Geisha, Gesha, Gheccia, Gheiscia, Ghescia, Ghiscia, or Gēsha in Ethiopia.

  • Here is J.P. and Jade with around 4000 Typica seedlings ready to be planted. Typica coffee has a very low production, 20 - 30% less than it's partner at the top of the family tree, Bourbon, but has an excellent cup quality that always performs well in Cup of Excellence competitions.

  • Miguel has sourced and propagated some of the trees that will be providing shade and protection to our new delicate varieties of coffee. We've got some natives that are great for creating a natural nutrient-rich soil, Pisamo, Chacha Fruto (fruiting), Saman, Mata Raton, and Guamo (fruiting). Acacia and Guayacan produce flowers, nitrogen rich mulch, and attract wildlife. Finally we have some wood trees, Cedro and Nogal Cafetero, as much wood will be required for building various structures on the farm throughout the years - from drying platforms to cupping tables.

    Check out the interesting transition from a broad leaf to many tiny leaves that occurs in the Guayacan as it leaves infancy. From here on up it will only produce the tiny leaves and brightly coloured flowers. Helena in 10 years will be a lush colourful forest.

  • Before implementing any changes in picking or processing, we gathered as much information as possible about how Helena was performing. Of the coffee coming in each day, we found that on average only 60% were ripe, 30% under, and 10% over. Plenty of room for improvement. We would need to give training to the pickers, get them on board with the project, and provide financial incentive to get that ripe rate as high as possible.

  • We sorted a few normal day's harvests, separating the various defects from the perfect cherries and each other. After removing the skin and mucilage from the defects, we popped them out on our new raised beds to dry. These will eventually be roasted and used for cupping training here and back in NZ, to improve skills in identifying different taints in coffee and tracing them back to their origin. Steve "doe-eyes" Hall will be very pleased to hear this I imagine.

  • When we had the data we needed it was straight to the trees bright and early - a new pay structure in place, trainings in the field, and an explanation of how this whole farm transformation will affect those pickers who want to get involved. At the end of the first day the proportion of ripe cherries had improved dramatically, up from 60% to become 80% of that picked. We sorted samples of everybody's work with them and gave feedback, everyone leaving extremely chuffed with the improvement, and all agreeing that a greater than 90% perfect pick rate was possible and the aim for the next day.

  • Boom. A 93% perfect pick rate achieved on the second day trying. All concerns about pay were put to rest with everyone taking home more than any previous day, with some even picking at the same speed as usual and earning over 65% more. This is possible only as an interdependent team effort; paying pickers more increases cost of production for Helena dramatically, but that's covered by the higher price we can then buy the coffee for once it's tasting phenomenal, which is defined early on by how well it's picked. Our a-team can return to Helena each season and be met with a predictable and high rate thanks to the farm leaving the commodity coffee market and its fluctuating, ever low prices behind. That's the power of access to information and markets ya'll!

    'Picker of the day' both days was Wilson (above, right), I really don't know how he did it, quantity and quality... ridiculously high. Secret bionic hands? 

  • Here's Herman making our sample board, an efficient way to measure a picker's performance. 10 x 10 cherry sized holes to pour the day's harvest across, leaving 100 random cherries right there on display. A big chur and thank you to our brother Mario Fernandez Alduenda in Otago for this idea. 

  • As part of the upgrades, we're becoming UTZ certified. The UTZ program helps farmers grow better crops, generate more income and create better opportunities while safeguarding the environment and securing the earth’s natural resources. UTZ demands that the rights of all workers are respected, with a Code of Conduct that sets out clear criteria based on International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions. It's a very good certification that includes expert advice, and independent monitors to ensure the criteria are upheld. Naturally, with overlapping goals, this makes sense as Helena's first certification.

  • Planting shade forest and new varieties are for our long game, but in order to improve flavour in the cup of the Caturra already in production we need to be very deliberate with every step of processing. After changing the way coffee is harvested, running washed fermentation experiments are the quickest and most dramatic way to affect the flavour of the final product. 

  • Fermentation brings us some of the greatest things that go in our mouths: cheese, wine, bread (wow, France much?) yoghurt, pickles… so it shouldn’t surprise you to discover that fermentation plays a role in coffee production. Natural fermentation precedes human history… it happens without us getting involved. Humans have however been controlling the fermentation process for our benefit for a very long time. The oldest evidence of deliberate human controlled fermentation is from China dated around 7000 BCE, of an alcoholic beverage made from fruit, rice, and honey. 

    Traditionally fermentation of coffee during the washed process was utilised to break down the sticky mucilage coating the coffee seeds, but technology brought us machinery to do this immediately, so now fermentation for those with access to demucilagers is a choice of flavour.

  • We set out to find which level of fermentation and which kind of fermentation imparts the best characteristics to our coffee: Under water, in air, 12hrs, 13hrs… 24hrs… 48hrs? Even with an idea of good practice from other farms around the world, this farm is an individual, with sugar content, weather, altitude of mill and many other factors playing their part. 

    With near perfect picking now underway, we first selected by cherry size consistency (to remove some defects or under ripe cherries) using this big ol’ sheet of wood with holes drilled in it, a prototype of an idea for later. 

  • We then selected by density by removing any cherries that floated in water. The next step is depulping, which we carried out with the same equipment used on Helena for a couple of generations. We also decided that within the next two years we must upgrade this setup to a smaller waterless version. The water here springs forth from the ground in a few places around the farm… but that doesn’t mean should use it so intensely (for a few reasons which I’ll cover in a later post)

  • We removed the demucilager from the setup so the coffee seeds would pop out from their skin but be left with their sticky fruit (flesh, mucilage) attached. This fruit is where the sugars lay, and where the fermentation will take place. Microorganisms are going to have a carb-o-liscious dinner and on the way impart some new characteristics to the coffee bean. 

  • We fermented all the coffee together using a full day’s harvest rather than small individual experiments, so as to build heat and replicate a true rate of fermentation we could repeat through future harvests, removing a sample from 12hrs onwards every 30mins for the air fermentation, every few hours for the under water fermentation. These samples were immediately washed to remove mucilage and halt the fermentation, and placed out on the patio to dry. The samples were treated as similarly as possible, and the whole experiment repeated with different varieties with Yellow Caturra.

  • Once dry (drying experiments still to come this May) we milled and prepared the coffee, removing the parchment and sorting them to a “European Prep” standard that leaves no primary defects. We weighed them, tagged them, and I was off to New York City with my rucksack. Not even kidding. 

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