The art of grow­ing good beans

NZ Lifestyle Block - - Feature -

There’s a lot of tech­ni­cal de­tail in grow­ing a good cof­fee plant. Get the tem­per­a­ture, hu­mid­ity, soil and wa­ter right and the plant will grow and pro­duce cher­ries with a plump bean in­side.

As with wine, there’s ter­roir which has a sig­nif­i­cant im­pact on the flavour of the fi­nal brew. Ter­roir (pro­nounced tear­wah) is a mix of all the en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors that af­fect the fi­nal crop’s taste pro­file in­clud­ing soil, sun­light lev­els and cli­mate. Dif­fer­ences in ter­roir ac­count for how you get the same va­ri­ety of grape pro­duc­ing a dif­fer­ent-tast­ing wine de­pend­ing on whether it is grown in France or NZ. It’s the same for cof­fee.

“Our soil, Tau­mata clay loam, does not need ir­ri­ga­tion as it nat­u­rally re­tains mois­ture,” says Rob. “The qual­ity of clay as a grow­ing medium en­hances sweet­ness and gives a full-bod­ied char­ac­ter. If we were on a sandy, peaty soil we’d have to pump up wa­ter and you’d have a dif­fer­ent flavour pro­file.

“It’s a huge amount of vari­ables which makes grow­ing so in­ter­est­ing.”

Be­ing the only com­mer­cial cof­fee plan­ta­tion in NZ has some ben­e­fits. The plants seem to be re­sis­tant to viruses as­so­ci­ated with hu­mid­ity and there are no known dis­eases.

World­wide, there are around 900-plus pests – mostly bee­tles, moths and in­sects – that like to maim or kill off cof­fee plants but it would seem none are in Pek­erau. About the only prob­lem so far is rab­bits get­ting their daily caf­feine fix by ring-bark­ing plants. How­ever, the cou­ple are vig­i­lant. “There are lots of po­ten­tial pests, pos­sums, pea­cocks, tur­keys – ba­si­cally they dev­as­tated our olive crop,” says Rob. “We had enough for our­selves but the birds got most of it. Just be­hind us there’s a huge for­est which is great for wildlife but not us.

“But we’ve only got five acres so it’s easy to pa­trol and man­age as a small grower.”

The cou­ple’s 700-odd trees are mostly three to five years old, not quite at ma­tu­rity ( years 7-8). This year’s har­vest was the big­gest so far, with pick­ing of the ripe cher­ries start­ing in early De­cem­ber and con­tin­u­ing through un­til late Jan­uary. Rob and Carol picked daily to get the cher­ries at the point of ripeness. This was done by hand, as quickly as pos­si­ble at a rate of 7-10kg per hour be­tween them.

A few of their plants reached 4-5m high on their banked prop­erty, im­prac­ti­cal for hand pick­ing. Part of their learn­ing has been the art of prun­ing to keep the plants at a use­ful height, around 1.7-1.8m high. Prun­ing is ex­per­i­men­tal, and Rob de­cided to get a bit bru­tal with one over­lyen­thu­si­as­tic spec­i­men.

“I stumped it, took it down to knee height – that’s what they do over­seas be­cause there’s a lot of root in the ground. You’re do­ing a lot of se­lec­tive prun­ing and it’s quite in­volved. That’s

Prun­ing is ex­per­i­men­tal, and Rob got a bit bru­tal with one overly-en­thu­si­as­tic spec­i­men, stump­ing it to knee height.

why I’m look­ing for va­ri­etals that are low main­te­nance, nat­u­rally well-formed and we’ve got a few types that seem to be more com­pact.

“We’re not go­ing to be quick about say­ing ‘OK, you lot are com­ing out’. We’re go­ing to give it more time and an­a­lyse it, and se­lec­tively re­plant and de­velop from the best plants, the best per­form­ers.”

Once pick­ing is over, the cher­ries are put through a pulp­ing ma­chine to re­move the skin and most of the sticky flesh around the bean. The skins are dried (see page 21 for more) and the beans are fer­mented in wa­ter for 24 hours to re­move any re­main­ing mu­cilage which could cause mould growth and ruin the crop. Beans are suc­cess­fully ‘washed’ when they stop feel­ing slimy and start to feel rough, like a peb­ble.

The washed beans are then placed on large dry­ing racks for a cou­ple of weeks. Rob uses a mois­ture me­ter to get the dry­ing time right, wait­ing un­til it's around 10 per cent. Beans are ready for the next stage when the out­side be­gins to look and feel like parch­ment pa­per.

“It's called parch­ment cof­fee for that pe­riod of time and it ac­tu­ally im­proves the flavour by con­di­tion­ing the cof­fee (bean),” says Rob. “Then we hull it us­ing another piece of equip­ment that we brought in from China. It's a 400kg piece of ma­chin­ery and we're just fig­ur­ing out how to work that thing. It nearly reaches my el­bows and you've got to crank it to start it. We've had to do a few ad­just­ments be­cause it was for rice crops. The parch­ment dis­si­pates and that leaves just the beans.”

Rob says he does won­der if his life could be eas­ier.

“There are phases when I think ' what the heck is go­ing on here, this is crazy, def­i­nitely this is not go­ing to work. Why didn't I grow cit­rus like ev­ery­one else?' It would have been a more sen­si­ble op­tion.

“But I just don't have an in­ter­est in grow­ing any­thing else. When you're in­volved with cof­fee you just want to grow cof­fee.”

Get­ting the roast right

Rob and Carol have learned from the ex­perts, trav­el­ling to the US to learn the art of roast­ing, the fi­nal cru­cial step. But since it's their main busi­ness to roast and sell im­ported cof­fee beans to cafes in the Far North and at farm­ers' mar­kets, this is the easy part.

“We roast it when there is de­mand, so we roast a small batch with a cof­fee roaster and we try and keep it as fresh as pos­si­ble for sale, within a few weeks.”

Roast­ing de­pends on the sweet­ness and the size of the bean says Rob.

“Like when you're mak­ing a cake; if it's a sweet cake it will burn quicker than a savoury cake so it de­pends on the sugar con­tent as to how we roast it.”

The flavour of this year's har­vest is still un­known. Rob says there will be more ex­per­i­ment­ing to see what they get and how to get the best out of it.

“It's all about flavour and tast­ing it as well, once it's roasted. So def­i­nitely we'll be mak­ing de­ci­sions on how it pro­files af­ter the first batch. There's a lot of vari­ables,

whether we put it through an espresso ma­chine, or peo­ple put it through their own sys­tem at home.”

Cus­tomers are cu­ri­ous. They've al­ready had in­ter­est from peo­ple vis­it­ing their web­site and farm, from over­seas, and by word of mouth. Rob can't wait to hand over that first cup.

“I love mak­ing cof­fee, still. Af­ter 14 years, I'm still very pas­sion­ate about ev­ery cup that I put out to my cus­tomers. There's some­thing about tak­ing it from a seed right through to the cup and hand­ing it to a cus­tomer that is very spe­cial.”

Freshly-picked cher­ries first go through a ma­chine that re­moves the skin and most of the flesh around them. Af­ter fer­ment­ing in wa­ter for 24 hours, the beans are dried on racks.

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