Sitting in Thula Durlung village, nestled into hillside in a remote area of the Himalayas, some 6 hour drive from Kathmandu over roads that challenged our 4WD drive at several times, crossing creeks on a rock ridden road perched on a thin ribbon of flat terrain barely wide enough for our 4WD carved between the mountainside that shot up 1000ft on one side and then crashed down 1000ft on the other side, I feel at home.
I’m in Coffee country.
I’m here at the request of Parshu Dahal, of the Arun Valley Coffee Company, a local firm committed to the advancement of farmers in both the East and the Western regions of Nepal. Parshu had spent a month with me at our roastery in Dallas in 2015 training on Cupping, Roasting and Brewing techniques, learning skills and acquiring knowledge he could take back from Dallas to his farmer groups. During that time, I cupped some green samples Parshu had brought with him, and they showed a typical profile for a young coffee region, mainly flashes of greatness obscured by poor picking, processing and storage techniques tainting the cup. However, it was the fragrance of the Pacamara beans that emerged during roasting that caught my eye.. well my olfactories to be more accurate – the fragrance held a promise of an elegant fruity, almost peachy coffee – something that is impossible for me to resist. That flavor was in the cup during tasting at times, but so were the flavor of immature beans, ferment, sour beans and a plethora of other taints and defects – all of which are manageable through good processing techniques, something that this Co-operative was obviously not skilled in.
As its part of Ascension’s mission to support and train coffee farmer communities around the world, before I knew it I had pledged our support to fly out and evaluate the farms and processing techniques to see if we could help improve their coffee quality.
Fast forward to January 2017, and I’m here in what is a cold climate for a coffee growing region with temps ranging from 40F-70F in the dry season, some 20F at night below what would be acceptable as ideal for coffee conditions. As a point of comparison, I normally live in shirtsleeves and light jeans in coffee regions, here I have sweaters, a Moncler down jacket and thick trekking socks – if it’s this cold for me, how do the coffee trees survive?
The farms here are all subsistence farms, with no access or need for much except rice and salt (I wondered if they used that pink Himalayas salt you buy at gourmet supermarkets around the world – but no, regular white salt from somewhere else abounds). Buffaloes supply the milk, chickens the protein, and fruit and vegetables are provided from the ground – by the way, GREAT tasting vegetables and fruit!
Coffee, is one of their only cash crops, and, similar to some African nations, coffee trees fill the spare areas next to fruit and vegetable crops. The three Cooperatives in the area, Lekali Coffee Cooperative, and the two Durlung Jaibik Coffee Cooperatives consists of 350 farmers with 135,000 trees, producing around 85 tons of coffee a year – not huge, but it does bring around US$850k annual income into the region year (based on farmer’s reports). That sort of revenue makes a difference and farmers here are committed to coffee as a cash crop – problem is, there is little support in the way of training from the Nepalese Government, and not a lot of interest from outsiders in traveling to and training this remote community.
Generally when there is a lack of training, there will be a lack of skills, and problems will abound, and there was no difference in these Cooperatives – from the selected tree genotypes right through picking to processing. Their leaders, Hari Dahal and Mitharam Dulal, both intelligent and detailed oriented farmers were eager to advance the quality and efficiency of their cooperatives, they just lacked the information on how to do so.
The three varieties of tree I saw were Typica, Bourbon and Pacamara (my fruity delight!), and most farms had trees suffering from leaf rust, from minor damage to total tree loss– a problem that would be expected with these genotypes growing at only 1050masl (should be 1200m minimum). Fruiting was good, and some of the Pacamara cherries were unbelievably sweet, courtesy of the heavier shaded farms; some cherries, however, especially the bourbon, were flat tasting, a lack of sweetness that will convert to an average cup of joe.
To solve their rust problem, the community will have to transition to trees that are more suitable to lower altitudes and are resistant to leaf rust, like Caturra and Catuai, these trees should prosper in the soil and climate of the Himalayas.
Most people may not know that converting a coffee cherry to a green coffee bean is a highly skilled process, with a plethora of traps to fall into for the untrained or inexperienced. In my limited knowledge, I don’t know of any other crop that requires so much accuracy and attention to detail from picking right through roasting to brewing to enable delivery of all the promise that is presented in the coffee cherry. In these Co-ops, as hard as they were working, their limited knowledge was holding them back from producing some of the highest quality coffee in the world.
The processing setup in Durlung Jaibik Coffee Co op reminded me of the coffee processing method evident in Rwanda before the war. Single small farmers with manual or small motor coffee pulpers, picking, pulping, washing and drying their own beans, mixing underipe, overripe and ripe cherries together while using methods that virtually guaranteed a less than great result. No real skill set, and all their knowledge based on some training offered by the government some years before that had morphed into a less than desirable method, similar to how the ‘telephone game’ changes the initial message whispered in an ear into some other completely different message some 10 people later. Not a path that will achieve quality success for the farmers.
Our solution as a group was to pursue, even though the terrain from farm to farm in these rock strewn goat tracks of roads is difficult, a more Centralized model – changing processing from the poorly executed individual farmer fully washed technique, to the easier semi dry method using a Penagos pulper in the Co-op center, and then train a team to properly pre-sort, pulp, grade and post sort parchment to create a true Grade 1 coffee.
Ascension committed to design a new pulping station and compile an equipment list for the Co-op to purchase, then return later this year to direct installation of the new station and training for the pulping station team. Ascension will also source seeds for new tree types that will perform better at this altitude.
If we can achieve this all in the next 10 months, then maybe next year I get to enjoy that Nepalese Pacamara at its very best.