Sunday, January 21, 2018

A truly fresh brew of coffee

IF you can't start your day without first having that cup of coffee, then chances are at some point you've wondered about the process that transforms coffee beans into your favourite cup of liquid energy. If you favour coffee comes from South America, you're enjoying the taste of Arabica beans, which to the coffee connoisseur has a sharp but pleasing taste. If you have a penchant for Italian espresso or your coffee hails from East Africa, you're tasting Robusta beans which have twice the caffeine of Arabica beans, but less flavour.   

To say that Trinidad and Tobago is rich in natural resources is an understatement. The valleys and mountains of the Northern Range and the creatures that inhabit them have for ages lured foreigners from all over the world who spent years studying the varied flora and fauna of Trinidad. But on this occasion when the Express was invited to Spring Valley, Arima and to the Asa Wright Nature Centre (AWNC) in particular, it was to explore something other than the hummingbirds and nature trails that have made the centre so popular over the years.  

Up for discussion on a rainy December morning was the centre's four acres of coffee. As a light mist settles over the forests of the Northern Range, we head off the road that leads in and out of the centre and soon we're surrounded by Robusta trees (coffea canephora) everywhere, its branches bowing to the earth, heavy with red, ripe coffee cherries, ready for picking.

In other parts of the world, coffee farmimg has taken a toll on biodiversity with 2.5 million acres in Central America having been cleared to make way for coffee. The World Wildlife Fund states that 37 of the 50 countries in the world with high deforestation rates are also coffee producers. At AWNC the coffee is cultivated under a shaded canopy of trees to reduce impacts on the forest ecosystems. 

On paper the AWNC may have four acres of coffee but as we unknowingly stomp on young coffee shoots that carpet the ground, it's clear that the centre has four acres of coffee and counting. The sound of an electric saw slicing through the bark of a tree shatters the peace and quiet of the forests and sends startled birds flying in different directions. As we head in the direction of the noise, we spot Carl Fitzjames with a saw in hand. Fitzjames and his assistant were contracted by the AWNC to pick the coffee and prune the trees.

"We're cutting out the old and keeping the young branches, explained Fitzjames. Using the weight of his body, Carl grasps each branch with both hands and gives it a strong tug, bending each branch towards the ground. This, he says, will make it easier for coffee pickers to harvest next season's crop.

While Carl prunes the trees, his assistant makes light work of picking the coffee, although the entire process is labour intensive. He uses his gloved hands to strip each branch of ripe coffee cherries. A pal, or tarpaulin is laid out under him, soon the berries, the colour of red rubies, fall, blanketing the blue tarpaulin. Both men then gather each end of the tarpaulin and empty its contents into large crocus bags which are then placed at the side of the road to be picked up. A word to the wise: it is advisable to pick coffee with gloves on, stinging and biting insects are usually found hidden

within clumps of coffee cherries and can deliver a mean surprise to an unsuspecting person.

To prevent spoilage, coffee is processed in one of two ways: the dry method and the wet method. AWNC uses the dry method. The bags of coffee cherries are taken to the cocoa house at the centre where the coffee is spread out in trays six to eight inches deep, there they will remain for months, occasionally being turned as they dry. Once fully dried, the coffee is bagged again and taken to Sangre Grande to be hulled — this refers to the process by which machines are used to remove the entire dried husk from the dried cherries. Then back again to Spring Valley where the beans are roasted in a large aluminium pot over a low heat. The beans must be turned continuously with a wooden spoon or risk getting burnt.

When they're removed from the fire, some of the beans are left as they are while the rest are grounded into small dark crystals. The staff at the AWNC packages the coffee into nifty bags bearing the brand name 'Mountain Ebony' and the centre's logo. The coffee can be found at the centre's gift shop where it's sold and it's also served at the nature centre where guests can enjoy either a hot cup of 100 per cent robusta coffee after meals or with a light snack on the verandah.   

The bags of coffee cherries Carl hauled out to the roadside after days of coffee picking would ensure that the centre would be serving hot cups of coffee well into this year's coffee-picking season. The next time you brew yourself a hot cup of coffee, take the time to savour its smell and taste and think about the distance it travelled from seed to your cup.

"Asa Wright is in a unique position. Their branding, in this case 'Mountain Ebony' is special, it's like a signature product. This is quality coffee," says Fitzjames.

Project adviser at the AWNC Peter O'Connor hands over a bag of the centre's Mountain Ebony coffee and a cocoa pod, its bright yellow-orange colour reminiscient of a sunset.

I press my nose against the cotton bag and breathe in the smell of 100 per cent robusta coffee.

It's time for a cup of coffee.