AUSSIE COFFEE EXPEDITION: EXPERIENCES OF DAY TWO
Up early, still dark, nervous excitement in the gut. Our first full day on the farm. Grabbing my kit I head over to the other cabin where the guys have already gathered. I look up to a clear dark sky with stars still bright. But now a rim of pale light is appearing along the eastern horizon. Ten meters away from the cabin I can already smell it – the unmistakable aroma of fresh ground coffee permeates the fresh morning air.
The guys are enjoying twirling the hand grinder and brewing some flavoursome filter coffee that just hits the spot!
Now we're ready for the next step of our flavour exploration project that we are undertaking in collaboration with Jack Murat Coffee on the Atherton tablelands in far north Queensland. Today we must not only pick cherries as fast as we can, but we must also set up our processing hub so that we can get our first experimental batches started by the end of the day.
As we head out through the wakening town of Mareeba, the sight of hot air balloons catches our eye. Something a bit magical about hot air balloons, gently and silently drifting across the early morning sky. Effortless yet inspiring. A sudden belch of flame. A sense of adventure.
The road lifts out of Mareeba into the hills. At one point we stop the cars and take a moment to look out across the tablelands to a faraway mountain range. The air is crisp. The sunrise magnificent.
Today we are intent on picking sufficient cherries to start three batches. That’s about three crates which each take four full buckets. And a full bucket takes a guy a full hour to pick. And we must construct the first drying beds, set-up the depulper, wash and float the batches and do the processing required. It’s going to be a busy day.
We all set off into the plantation and resume the now familiar task of selectively plucking the ripe fruit from the trees.
CHECKING THE BRIX
Aryan is our most experienced hand in the bunch. Our resident coffee guru. A perfectionist who makes sure we do thing right. You won’t catch Aryan cutting corners.
Right now he’s got the Brix Photometer out of its case. This handy little instrument can be used out in the field to check the Brix of the cherries – an important factor to know when running fermentation experiments.
What is brix?
Brix is simply a measure of the amount of dissolved solids in a liquid via its specific gravity, and is used especially to measure dissolved sugar. One degree brix is 1 gram of sucrose in 100 grams of solution.
The brix measurement is probably better known for its use in the process of wine-making. Even out in the vineyards the handheld brix photometer is used to gauge when to harvest grapes by providing an estimation of the sugar content. This is because the sugar content in the grapes will affect the fermentation process and in turn the flavour of the wine. Farmers will have a target brix that they are looking for that best suits their process and desired outcome.
In our case, we’re applying the same principles. We’re using the refractometer to measure the estimated sugar level in the coffee cherries to ensure there is sufficient sugars to feed the fermentation and provide the opportunity for flavour creation in these lots. We say an estimation because that’s what it is. We are not measuring pure sucrose in water so the reading simply gives us an indication of sweetness and a measurement for comparison.
HOW TO USE A HAND-HELD BRIX PHOTOMETER?
Aryan is selecting cherries off the trees. Then he gently squeezes the cherry and the skin bursts open. The sticky coffee seeds land in his hand. Flipping back the cover at the front of the photometer, he then smears the cherry juice evenly all over the glass (the ‘glass’ is actually the one side of a special crystal that forms a lens). He then pushes the cover down again and raises the sight glass side of the instrument to his eye like a telescope and points it at the sun.
Light travels through the cherry juice and the crystal. The light refracts at different angles depending on the dissolved solid content and provides a reading on the scale which we can see as we look through the sight glass. A blue shading indicates the brix level of the sample.
We’re getting between 22 and 25 brix content as we test a variety of cherries. This is good! Just what we wanted. It’s important to get a fair indication of the average brix by choosing cherries from different heights and depths in the trees and from different rows and areas of the plantation.
This little scientific break from picking also shows us the difference in brix between cherries of different ripeness and confirms our target colour of blood-red cherries as the best for purpose!
Just when we thought that red was the only colour to pick...
Roy has discovered that sprinkled somewhat randomly among the rest of the red-cherried shrubs, are some eye-catching trees sporting bright yellow berries. These are not just under-ripe cherries. These trees are a varietal of their own, Yellow Catuai. (As apart from the more common Red Catuai varietal).
Like a gold hunter, Roy sets himself to fill a couple of buckets with only Yellow Catuai which will give us the opportunity to process them separately and make observations about any differences in flavour between the yellow and the red (which would normally be all mixed in together).
Besides anything else, the beautiful contrast between the bright red and yellow colours brings a smile of admiration as we discover these natural nuances of coffee firsthand. It reminds us of our company mantra – the perfect balance.
I have found a particular ‘lucky’ tree. This is what we have come to call a tree with heaps of nice ripe cherries in clumps on the stalks. Nice and easy to harvest quickly and win the race to fill the next bucket.
Interestingly we note that many of these lucky trees are actually ones where the tree next to them has died long ago and left a gap in the row. We figure it must be the fact that these neighbourless trees are getting a slightly higher dose of irrigation and nutrients compared to the others and thus bearing more fruit.
Anyway, I am busily picking, half submerged in the depths of this tree, when suddenly my eye picks up a movement on the ground just a couple of meters away. A large sandy coloured snake suddenly takes off into the trees - quick as a lightning bolt. It was at least an inch thick and a meter long, (fisherman dimensions perhaps?).
And I don’t know where it’s gone – that’s the worst part.
I’m a little bit shaky now. Spiders and spider webs I could cope with but the thought that there may be a large snake (or snakes) in these trees has knocked my confidence a tad.
We head off to have a conference with Plum Murat – the friendly farm owner who knows everything there is to know about this patch after living on it for more than 30 years.
Plum must be slightly amused by our anxious faces. After listening to my description, he smiles, “Oh that’s just a tree snake. Totally harmless. There’s heaps of them. I see them all the time in the trees as I’m harvesting.”
I feel better… until he continues… “unless it’s an Inland Taipan but they are very rare and you wouldn’t be around to tell the story…”
Google tells me… Inland Taipan: Estimated to have enough venom in each bite to kill more than 100 men, the Inland Taipan isconsidered the most venomous snake in the world. However, this serpent is characteristically reclusive, placid and unlikely to attack. It inhabits remote, semi-arid regions in Queensland and South Australia.
Hmmm… I think I might go and check on how the drying bed construction is going for a while.
BUILDING RAISED DRYING BEDS FOR DRYING THE COFFEE
Raised drying beds provide a clean surface with good air circulation to dry coffee. This is compared with the traditional patio drying where cherries are spread directly on large concrete patios. Sometimes referred to as African raised beds, we have seen this method widely used in Ethiopia, Costa Rica and in Peru. Air flow is the key ingredient.
We need to create drying beds as quickly and cheaply as possible to provide drying space for the ten or more nano-lots we were planning to produce over the coming days.
Before we arrived at the farm we had arranged for timber, wire and netting to be delivered for the project.
The timber we are using is ideal; wet sawn pine fence rail, 100 x 38mm, delivered free by Bunnings for just $3.27 a meter. This will form the frame for the beds as well as the legs.
Other material we have at hand: chicken wire mesh, shade cloth and plenty of screws.
Laurie is our warehouse manager back home. But he’s got some wonderful nous and skill when it comes building or making anything. And he is with is on this trip to take charge of whipping up these drying beds (and later, a shade cover over them).
First the frames are formed on the ground and screwed together. Then the shade cloth is rolled out over the frame, stretched firmly and then fixed in place. Next is the wire mesh which will give the shade cloth support to carry the weight of the cherries. This mesh is laid over the shade cloth, stretched and fixed. The legs are then screwed into place and the whole edifice flipped over and, hey presto, we have a drying bed. This is quickly joined by another and another and pretty soon we are ready for our first load of cherries.
OUR FIRST LOTS – STANDARD NATURAL PROCESS – YELLOW & RED
With the drying beds ready and some crates of cherries picked and waiting, we can start our first two lots. Aryan reminds us that all cherries harvested on a day should be processed on the same day. These first lots will be processed according to the standard natural drying process.
WHAT IS THE NATURAL (OR DRY) PROCESS?
This is when the freshly harvested cherries are placed straight onto drying beds or patios (without any fermentation step) and are dried whole and allowed to shrivel and shrink under the sun until they reach about 11% moisture content. They are then hulled to remove the dry skin and parchment layers.
The natural process is one of the oldest methods originating in Ethiopia way back in history. It has also been used extensively in Brazil where you will see the vast concrete patios spread with cherries with labourers racking them in back and forth to facilitate even drying.
Personally, I love good quality natural coffees. The beans, having dried in the cherry, seem to soak up the fruitiness and sweet flavour of the fruit and may be described sometimes as a fruit bomb or tropical fruit salad. Common flavour notes of natural coffees (especially my favourite Ethiopians) are blueberry or strawberry. It is also true that overdone naturals can taste quite boozy and over-fermented so we’re on our metal here doing our own batches.
I can’t wait to be the taster when the time comes!
FIRST THE CHERRIES MUST BE WASHED AND FLOATED
We are using large green fruit bins as our washing vessels. We fill one with fresh water. Then the buckets of ripe cherries are poured into the water. There is much swishing with a paddle to give the outside of the cherries a good wash.
Some cherries float. These are cherries that may be over-ripe, insect damaged or defective in some way and they must be scooped off the surface and discarded.
Only the best will do.
The good cherries are then scooped into clean buckets and taken to the drying beds where they are spread out evenly. We’re going just one cherry thick.
Soon we’ve got a bed of red and a bed of yellow gleaming in the sun. Aryan carefully marks the lot details on each bed. Fantastic. This is real. Things are happening.
Having the camper van on the farm is really great. This is where we congregate for brew. There is something about being away from all the modern luxuries of EK grinders, auto tampers and fancy espresso machines. Here we are down to the most basic of basics.
A manual hand grinder.
A Clever Dripper.
A rustic kettle that comes with the van.
And a thirst for good coffee.
Oh, and Zest filter roasted coffee beans.
Coffee never tasted so good!
As the afternoon slips into evening and we look at the progress; drying beds in place, first batches laid out to dry, hands sore from picking, and we're just thinking about how much we have accomplished...
...a chorus of mocking laughter rings through the evening air.
An amazing reminder that, here we are, experiencing origin. But this time, not in PNG, Peru or Ethiopia…
This is Australian grown coffee!