My first coffee crop – a diary

The maiden crop from my backyard coffee tree provided as many challenges as it did joys – yet I suppose I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Our most satisfying accomplishments generally make us work a little harder for them. The rewards? Well, just that little bit sweeter.

In toying with prospective titles for this post, one which immediately came to mind contained the words ”a producers diary”. Although (perhaps) technically correct, what is involved at scale in producing coffee, and the nature in which it supports growers, their families, and even entire communities, is a far cry from my little hobby. Such a title, even though tongue in cheek, would be a little disrespectful to those who derive their livelihood from such an endeavour.

Documented in a previous post was a chronicle of my initial foray into the art of coffee processing. On that occasion, it was a small lot picked from some of my parent’s trees which I processed, roasted, brewed, and thoroughly enjoyed. Never having processed coffee straight from a tree prior to that, it was certainly an experience which involved considerable learning by doing, albeit after a fair bit of prior reading. Of course, the most productive and effective means of knowledge acquisition was listening to my mother (something I’m sure she would confirm I was always very, very good at) – who has been processing her own coffee for many years now.

Apart from ending up with some pretty decent coffee to drink, one of the main reasons for such an undertaking back then was the coffee tree slowly growing in my own backyard. Eventually, it would also bear fruit, and with it the requirement to process the resulting crop, in the hope of ending up with something much the same in my own cup.

The Long Haul

True to the theory books – and my mother’s expectations – three years into its life the little-tree-that-could flowered and subsequently bore fruit. The next phase had finally begun, and with it, my own little vertical monopoly through the supply chain from seed to cup. Maybe not enough to retire on, but enough to at least retire to the lounge on, with a satisfying home-grown filter brew in my hand.

Growing – for the longest time

Year 1

While not a photo-a-day type record, I have intermittently documented in Day One the tree’s progression from that initial planting in March 2014, and looking back it has indeed been a journey. After one year the tree was a little over 40cm tall; two years along it was 95cm; three years after planting it measured about 140cm.     

Now approaching its fourth anniversary, the tree is heaving with a second crop, and is healthy and robust, standing just over two metres tall. This season’s micro-lot will be a little less micro, though I doubt I’ll need a team of pickers.

Year 2

Although unable to pinpoint the exact varietal of the tree itself, it can be traced back to a small coffee farm in northern New South Wales, with a plantation of Arabica trees largely comprising the SL 34 designation. While this information no longer seems available online, we’ll proceed on that assumption, though of course it is not critical to the outcome of what follows below.

Back to the initial crop, and although I didn’t expect much, could not have been happier once the tree flowered in November of 2016. Sure enough, after a brief period sporting beautiful white flowers, in the subsequent months the buds turned into green fruit, followed by further development and ripening. “They’ll be ready in about eight months,” said my mother. In the middle of 2017 (precisely eight months later), many of the cherries had turned a beautiful deep red, and in July picking began in earnest.

With the cherries reaching peak ripeness at slightly different rates, picking occurred over four successive weekends into the beginning of August, and processing followed in a similar way. The entire useable crop in whole cherry form weighed in at approximately 700g. Interestingly, this provided just under 100g of green beans (or 14% of the cherry weight) once processing and drying had been completed.

Although expected, this dramatic reduction certainly gave me pause. Thinking about the sheer volume of coffee consumed around the globe and the amount which must be grown to service this demand boggles the mind a little.

At this juncture, I must admit to never having been the most attentive gardener, and the timely watering, fertilising and general care was more regularly applied by my understanding wife than by yours truly. As I find with most things, to say I could not have done it without her is as much an expression of gratitude as a statement of fact.

Credit where credit is due

Success! That little tree grew, flowered and produced a decent crop of fruit.

Processing

Given the small (tiny!) yield I would be working with, the decision was made early on in the piece to process the crop using the washed method. Having successfully utilised this method in the past, I was fairly confident of doing so again. Washed processing also leaves less to chance (at least to this amateur) with variables such as optimal drying time and weather conditions compared to dry processing techniques.

While it is tempting to use other methods or even compare a washed process sample with a naturally processed one, perhaps that is for another year when the yield is much higher. Having detailed the washed processing method more extensively in a previous post, I will not restate things in detail, however should this be of interest – that link again:

Crop to Cup: the complete series

Further, having also mentioned natural processing, the first in a series of three posts detailing my initial experience using such a method can be found here:

Coffee: A Natural Processing Experiment Part 1 – Processing methods

Soon to be roasted

Over a number of weeks, I fastidiously worked my way through pulp removal, rinsing, and soaking/fermenting the beans in water to remove the sticky exterior mucilage before laying them out to dry. Once dry, the remaining husk or parchment was removed, followed by a couple of weeks additional drying time to reduce the moisture content, and we were then ready to roast.

Roasting

With each processing step resulting in ever diminishing returns as far as the overall crop weight was concerned, a further 10–15% was about to vanish into thin air with the usual moisture loss of roasting.

Now roasting a batch of green stock weighing a drum-busting 98 grams was always going to be a delicate proposition, and to be honest I’m equal parts pleased and relieved with how things turned out.

A little forward thinking about how I would be brewing, dictated the planned level of roast. If we think about it, 98 grams of green equals 80-something roasted. A grinder purge, then dialling in an espresso say, at 20g – even nailing it on the second round – and I’m through roughly 50 grams already. Once more and I’m pretty much done. Filter brewing with a V60 at my usual 16 or 22 gram dose, I am looking at four or five brews with minimal loss at the front end dialling in.

So with a filter roast profile in mind, a bright spring day saw the Behmor 1600 Plus set up, warmed up, and loaded with green coffee, not five metres from where it was grown. Very satisfying to think about as I sit here and write these words.

As I alluded to above, things went pretty well with the roast, yet as I come to the point of describing it for you in a little more detail, now realise I’ve thrown out my notes. Correct. For all the nerdy note taking and piles of notebooks and paper around here, I’ve called my own organisational bluff and thrown them out when tidying things up, inadvertently not scanning them first as I usually do.

I do recall the roast was quite short (as you’d expect with such a starting weight), somewhere in the order of about seven and a half minutes, or maybe 7:45, with first crack at about 6:30. The overall development time ratio would be around 16% or so. I do remember thinking at the time I’d have preferred a slightly longer overall roast time and additional development subsequent to first crack, however as you can imagine, was a little paranoid about taking them too far and losing the lot.

A delicate balance between enough for adequate development, without scorching the exterior of those oh-so-valuable green beans. The final yield? A no-bag-too-small 88 grams of freshly roasted goodness, ready to rest for a week or so before brewing.

Finally done – the image suggests the roast was a little darker than it actually was.

With a sigh of relief at having navigated perhaps one of the shortest, yet most stressful part of the journey, I was safe in the knowledge brewing would be a somewhat more relaxing process.

Brewing

They say the proof is in the cup, and I must admit to receiving a pleasant surprise here. Sure, I didn’t set the coffee flavour wheel spinning, however filter brewing with a V60 provided a sweet, delicate cup. Not knowing what to expect, my first sip drew an audible laugh and a wow – that’s actually not too bad.

I can be well satisfied in saying I’ve managed to produce a light to medium bodied coffee, which is quite well-balanced, sweet, and carrying flavours of chocolate, with a hint of spice. For all the effort which came before it – I’d say it was just about perfect.

There are only so many ways to stretch out 88 grams of roasted coffee, however what I did manage to consume over the subsequent fortnight was both enjoyable and highly rewarding nonetheless.

 

 The Finish

Three years ago I planted two small coffee seedlings in our garden near the back fence. Although one didn’t make it, the other flourished.

At the other end of that same garden is a lemon tree, which is also bearing a nice crop of fruit. It is there any similarity ends. The lemons will grow, ripen, and once picked, be ready to use – job done.

The coffee? Once ripe and picked from the tree, things are only just beginning. From that point on, there are all manner of ways to ruin it. Even if we do eventually make it through the processing, drying, roasting, storage, and brewing without robbing it of too much quality at each step – have we presented in the cup the best version of what that coffee is, or what it has the potential to be?

On this occasion, I’m hopeful I did somewhat of a reasonable job, although if the answer was a flat-out yes, then the motivation to improve on the next go around perhaps drops off a little. As I look out the window now and see a thriving tree filled with green fruit, I’m determined this next crop will not only be bigger – it will be a whole lot better as well.

Satisfying? Yes – just a little.

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