In East Africa, I headed south to Madagascar through Ethiopia, Kenya (Nairobi), and Tanzania (Kilimanjaro, Dar Es Salaam, Zanzibar) before heading north to Morocco for a 13-city tour.
I was on a quest for the elusive un-roasted coffee bean from small-production farms with a limited annual production of 500 to 1000 pounds max. I was determined to find a particular scarce bean that, when roasted to the first crack, yields an aroma of dark chocolate with a hint of peanut butter. Its color, once ground, is said to resemble the sands of the Sahara Desert at sunset: a nutty caramel color with a hint of orange. My goal? To return home with the most delectable coffee beans I can find.
I had the good fortune to meet a barista who mentioned a small private tour of a local plantation known for fine coffee and rare spices. The next thing I know, I’m headed north in a silver van, en route to said spice plantation, at the cost of around $30 USD, transportation and guided tour included. People here are efficient, friendly, and eager to be of help.
The guided tour? It consisted of the effusive attentions one guide and five young African farm laborers who gathered around me and presented me with samples of their products. The kiwi was sweet, the mango was tangy, and the coffee? Green on the vine.
“How much?” I asked, pointing to the green beens ripening on the vine and looking around for the money man. “You want?” one guy asked in return.
“How much?” I repeated.
“OK, come come,” he said, gesturing with a slow movement of his hand. I broke away from the spice tour, promising to meet up with the tour guide for lunch around noon.
Departing the cool shade of the canopy, we crossed a field and navigated over few irrigation trenches, arriving at what appeared to be a shanty: a bean-drying facility and operations warehouse full of 50-kilo burlap sacks of coffee. I was presented with two types of raw coffee beans to choose from. Option A was the pure green bean, nothing but the bean. Option B was a mix of raw bean mixed with unsorted rough. To be on the safe side, I chose option A.
Then the money man asked, “How many kilos?”
To which I responded: “Ah…..one!” That’s 2.2 pounds of raw beans and I planned on scoring 10 to 11 times that many as I moved south before heading up to Morocco in the north.
Suddenly, it occurred to me that I need to quickly reassess my strategy, because my plan was to get samples from 10 or 11 plantations to roast when I return. So much for strategy…I returned with 10 kilos of beans from the African continent–more than enough to master the art of roasting and still have enough to host “cuppings” (tastings) for a year or more.
The money man started the price at 1,654 schillings per kilo, about $16. USD, which was two or three times the going price. After more bartering, we settled on a price and I walked with my score in hand. Only nine or ten more deals to go!
In the end, I returned from Africa with ten kilos of coffee beans from eleven different harvests spanning eight countries. Some were roasted, producing aromas of chocolate, nut, peanut butter, orange, mint, various fruits, and more. Some were raw green, waiting to be roasted to dark, glossy perfection in my kitchen. After roasting the raw beans, I have a total of 14 different flavors to sample and share with friends. I take the beans to the sweet, sugar-brewing phase of the roast and stop at the first crack, producing a flavorful, authentic coffee flavor, much purer in taste than any store-bought French roast will ever produce.