I recently had the privilege of visiting the Acacia Hills farm situated in the Ngorongoro region of Tanzania. Five Senses have a relationship with them that goes back over 7 years, and boy it’s one worth getting excited about.
I can’t speak highly enough of the people behind Acacia Hills without whom the whole coffee farming region of Ngorongoro would not be what it is today. Owners Leon and Aideen Christianakis and Mark Stell are not only likeable, hard-working people, but they offer a level of honesty and care which filters through to everything they do and everyone they work with – staff, business relationships, neighbouring farmers and local people alike. It is also seen in the way they continue to improve their product year on year. It’s impressive stuff!
September marks the beginning of the harvest in Tanzania and everyone was excited about tasting this year’s first fruits. For the farmers, it’s always a nerve-wracking time. This year, harvesting was combined with hope and a quiet optimism about the impact the changes that were made over the past year would have on the crop e.g. new infrastructure, newly refined processing methods, more controlled drying procedures, new plots, new varietals, cooler parchment storage etc…
The good news for Acacia Hills (and also for us) is that 2019 has produced a fantastic harvest! The coffee is simply the best it has ever been. It’s incredible to realise what has been achieved on this farm over the past seven years. It’s even more encouraging that Leon, Aideen and Mark all assured me that our shared relationship has been an integral part of their success.
While I have always understood the ethical and practical benefits of trading directly with coffee farmers, it wasn’t until I actually sat under the stars at night around a fire listening to the worries and fears which occupy a coffee farmer’s mind that I truly comprehended the benefits that a long term relationship with a buyer can bring. Simply put, a steady income from a guaranteed buyer allows the farmers to plan future improvements, whilst simultaneously alleviating the ever-increasing worry of finding a buyer prepared to pay a fair price for the newly harvested crop.
Only with a steady stream of guaranteed income are farmers able to make significant changes. This has been a huge year for planned improvements at Acacia Hills, so we can’t wait for the coffee to land in Australia at the end of the month to taste the end result in the cup. We’re expecting to see some major benefits from slower drying times and rigorous moisture control, plus we’re looking forward to tasting the end result of some interesting experiments with delayed pulping which promise to add extra depth in the cup.
They recently built a gigantic sunshade which covers all the raised drying beds with the aim of slowing down the drying process. It’s hot during harvest time and the shade now buffers the precious coffee from the high temperature spikes of the hot afternoon sun. If the coffee dries too quickly, the parchment (the outer skin of the bean) can crack. This can be devastating for the coffee because the parchment provides natural protection for the bean and acts as an insulator while it’s in storage or transit. The parchment seals its precious cargo from the surrounding environment e.g. unwanted moisture gains or loss, provides protection from insects and generally locks in freshness. Under the new shade cover temperatures are now monitored in order to slow drying times from 9-10 days to 13-14 days. It’s much gentler on the coffee and it should provide a more even moisture level for the beans.
These slower drying times are monitored closely until the desired moisture level is reached, at which point the coffee is bagged and stored in parchment to rest. With slower and more consistent drying times, it should be easier to pinpoint the perfect time to pull the dried coffee off the tables for resting.
Newly acquired temperature and humidity loggers are now scattered throughout the drying beds to monitor and transmit live data during the whole process. Regular moisture tests are taken until the desired moisture level is reached. It’s time-consuming and a little tricky, but it improves the quality, consistency and life of the coffee so it’s well worth the investment.
Delayed pulping has also delivered some very interesting results this year. Normally, the cherries are taken to the washing station for pulping straight after they’ve been picked. Allowing them to sit for 12-24hrs before pulping has made a surprisingly significant change to the final result. It’s this continual extra care and drive for improvement that is making a difference to the quality of the crop year after year.
Some of the more practical changes which are showing signs of delivering some healthy long-term results include the introduction of new electric fences and well-placed wind breaks. Electric fences have recently been erected around the whole plantation of coffee trees. This has been a huge expense but will hopefully yield some wins in long-term benefits.
The fact that Acacia Hills backs on to the Ngorongoro Crater and National park comes with its benefits. The majestic beauty of this mountainous, hardly touched landscape is filled with wildlife. But all this raw beauty comes at a cost. Buffalo and elephant often frequent the farm, sometimes leaving entire rows of coffee trees destroyed. Not to mention the danger they represent for the workers. The fulltime employees and seasonal pickers working on the farm often feared for their lives, occasionally even being chased up trees for hours at a time. These new electric fences were specifically introduced to keep the buffalo and elephants out. This huge undertaking has proven to be much safer for the animals, the people and the coffee trees – so it’s a win all round – and will hopefully provide adequate protection for the thousands of young trees that have been planted for the future.
Acacia Hills is one of five farms in the Ngorongoro region and sits at the highest point of the mountain range at roughly 1800msl. These are absolutely perfect conditions for growing coffee, but unfortunately at the top of a mountain range there is nowhere to hide from the prevailing winds. That is why 2019 has been the ‘year of the wind break.’ Twenty-three acres of young coffee trees have now been planted using Kow Kandy as a wind break. This poetically named plant is a sorghum Sudan grass hybrid which seems to be doing the job nicely. It is fast growing, so as well as shielding these young coffee trees from the wind, it provides great organic matter and acts as a weed suppressant around the coffee trees when it’s cut. The young coffee trees are looking good (even though it’s now the end of the dry season), so the Kow Kandy appears to have been the perfect solution for wind protection as well as offering organic side benefits too.
Acacia Hills and Five Senses Coffee have shared a special relationship for many years now and we’re proud to bring Acacia Hills coffee to Australia and showcase this amazing farm and the small coffee growing region of Ngorongoro, Tanzania. Neighbouring countries such as Rwanda and Burundi have basked in the coffee limelight over the past decade, but with farms like Acacia Hills producing such unique high-grade specialty coffee in Tanzania, it’s great to see this country now competing with some of the world’s best producers. The benefits of a stable two-way coffee relationship don’t just extend to the farm, but across the whole region and beyond.
Agriculture in Tanzania accounts for roughly 85% of exports and half of the employed workforce, with coffee being the crop with the second highest value. Successful farming changes not only communities but whole regions. Success brings jobs and infrastructure which can change the lives of thousands of local people.
So, I hope you are as excited as we are for this coffee to land here in Australia. It’s going to taste great, but it’s also fantastic to know that every cup you drink helps develop some worthwhile communities. With well-organized people on the ground, who not only love their country but the people too, change for the better benefits everyone. Give it a shot and let us know what you think.