Knowledge, as they saying goes, is power. True. It also leads people to become annoying know-it-alls, Nobel Prize winners, dictators and/or plumbers. For me, though, it just made me a coffee snob.
Let me explain. I’ve always appreciated good coffee but I didn’t really know what made coffee good and not good. But in December 2011, a magazine sent me to Ethiopia to discover why the coffee of this East African nation was so great. I traveled there with Intelligentsia Coffee’s Geoff Watts. Mr. Watts, introduced to me by the owner of a coffee house in my neighborhood, is possibly the most important coffee buyer on the planet. Geoff was on a mission too: to buy superlative coffee for the hip coffee roasting company (which just opened its first outlet in New York City, by the way).
A while later, I was in Uganda, an East African country not particularly known for its java. I was staying at Kyambura Lodge near Queen Elizabeth National Park. When I commented on the coffee, one of the employees said they grow and roast the coffee themselves. A few hours later, I was standing in front of Nicole Simmons, the director of the program. Simmons originally came to Uganda to study the troop of 20 chimps that live down in the gorge near the resort. She liked it here and when the opportunity came to run the program, she jumped at it.The rub, though, was that she didn’t know much about making coffee. So she went to work, reading as much as she could about it. She recruited 11 women and one man, all residents of nearby villages, to bring in their plucked coffee cherry (which is always written about in the singular), where they would de-pulp it, shade dry it and then roast it.
“The problem with Uganda,” Simmons said, “is that there’s no quality control here. Even when a coffee maker or roaster stays there, you taste the coffee and it’s not good.” Simmons shrugs, adding. “This is Uganda.”
Another thing about Uganda, or at least this part, is that it’s below 1,300 meters sea level. That means it’s technically not highlands and it means quality Arabica beans can’t grow. It also means she’s stuck with robusta beans, which are far inferior. “It’s perfectly okay,” says Simmons. “Robusta is indigenous to this area. We do a lot of quality control and so this means we can either do a very good robusta or a mediocre Arabica.”
She walked me over to a bucket of water and a bag of cherry. “The kind of quality control we practice is this: we only put cherry in a bucket of water. Whatever floats, is probably a bad one. And then we only put fully ripe cherry through the machine – if it’s too green it makes the coffee taste bitter.” It’s a temptation among coffee farmers to turn in all the cherry they’ve plucked, even the green ones, since they’ll get paid based on the amount they turn in. The rub, though, as Simmons pointed out, it leads to poor quality coffee.
The only way to get Omwani Coffee (as they’ve named it) has been through Tank Coffee in the UK – though it doesn’t seem to be available on their site at the moment.
About a third of the women in the collective are HIV positive, and earning the extra money from this side business means they can now afford medicine when they couldn’t previously.
So, it turns out, a little knowledge of coffee saves lives too – and that’s a good thing.