Brew­ing up a rare, ex­pen­sive cup of cof­fee on re­mote Saint He­lena

The China Post - - LIFE - BY JEAN LIOU

Most cof­fee snobs can only dream of sip­ping on a brew made from Saint He­lena beans. Im­ported from Ye­men in the 18th cen­tury, the tiny South At­lantic is­land’s green- tipped Bour­bon Ara­bica cof­fee plant pro­duces some of the world’s most ex­pen­sive — and most de­lec­ta­ble — beans.

St. He­lena cof­fee’s most fa­mous fan was French em­peror Napoleon, who said it was “the only good thing” about living in ex­ile in a rat­in­fested house on the is­land for six years un­til his death in 1821.

The sheer re­mote­ness of the farflung Bri­tish is­land — stranded be­tween South Amer­ica and Africa — has pre­served the ge­netic her­itage of the cof­fee planted by the East In­dia Com­pany, the English trad­ing com­pany, al­most 300 years ago.

But good luck get­ting your hands on the beans, which have be­come scarce af­ter years of ne­glect.

Cof­fee groves on the is­land, which has a var­ied cli­mate de­spite be­ing on the equa­tor, were left de­serted un­til some en­thu­si­asts started cul­ti­vat­ing the crop again in the 1990s.

That re­nais­sance was short­lived. The main pro­ducer went bank­rupt, even af­ter putting the beans on sale in Lon­don’s ex­clu­sive Har­rods store.

Then in 2009, Solomon & Com­pany — a public com­pany known as Solomons on the is­land — took over and breathed new life into the Bamboo Hedge plan­ta­tion.

Cottage In­dus­try

“It had be­come over­grown and there was die-back on many of the trees,” said Mandy Peters, Solomons’ ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor.

“We have been slowly re­build­ing the plan­ta­tion.”

Still, the or­ganic beans are in short sup­ply.

Solomons pro­duces be­tween one and 1.5 tons a year, a tiny amount con­sid­er­ing world cof­fee pro­duc­tion was about 8.5 mil­lion tons in 2014.

“This cof­fee has a su­perb fra­grant bou­quet with no off fla­vors and pleas­ant flo­ral fruity hints of cit­rus and caramel strongly hint­ing of its Ye­meni ori­gins,” gushes a St. He­lena cof­fee im­porter’s web­site.

All of Solomons’ beans are di­rectly ex­ported to Eng­land be­fore roast­ing.

“Our mar­ket is global but the quan­ti­ties are tiny,” said Peter de Bruyne, direc­tor of Bri­tish im­porter St. He­lena Trad­ing.

“For ex­am­ple, the har­vest this year is 200 ki­los (440 pounds), which does not take us very far,” he added.

The rare beans have fans in in­de­pen­dent cof­fee roast­ers and deal­ers in the Euro­pean Union, Rus­sia, Ja­pan, the United States, South Korea and Tai­wan.

On­line re­tail­ers list the cost of 50 grams (al­most two ounces) at 10 pounds (US$15), and 125 grams at 21 pounds, ship­ping not in­cluded.

On the is­land, where shops stock beans made by small-scale pro­duc­ers, 125 grams sell for 6.75 pounds.

Bill Bolton runs a cafe near the port of Jamestown, the cap­i­tal of the is­land, where he sells his own cof­fee.

“It’s a hobby re­ally,” said Bolton, 74, from Bri­tain, vis­it­ing his small plan­ta­tion. He pro­duces less than 400 ki­los of cof­fee a year.

“It’s very slow and la­bo­ri­ous, ev­ery­thing is done by hand,” said Bolton, ex­plain­ing that he trims the trees and har­vests the red berries in the south­ern hemi­sphere sum­mer.

Then, he cleans the beans, dries them in the sun and roasts them in his garage.

His neigh­bor also makes and sells cof­fee to a sou­venir shop in Jamestown, while the fourth pro­ducer on the is­land, a hote­lier, serves the cof­fee ex­clu­sively to his guests.

All the cof­fee on St. He­lena is or­ganic, even though it is not cer­ti­fied as such.

With the in­tro­duc­tion of weekly flights to St. He­lena in Fe­bru­ary 2016 — re­plac­ing an ar­du­ous 10-day re­turn jour­ney by boat — the cof­fee pro­duc­ers hope they can scale up pro­duc­tion, and Solomons is de­vel­op­ing two new crop plan­ta­tions.

“We hope for at least three to five tons per year if all goes well, and we have pos­si­ble ex­pan­sion plans for the fu­ture too,” Peters said.


Bill Bolton, 74, a pen­sioner from Bri­tain who has lived in St. He­lena since 1991, walks in his cof­fee plan­ta­tion in Jamestown on March 14.

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