Durban - Rick James darts about his coffee farm, beaming at the bright red yield. Some trees were bearing coffee berries for the first time, four years after they had been planted.
He is clearly chuffed, pointing out all the red berries weighing down the branches of the little trees, and making mental notes to call in more workers to help with the harvesting.
“It’s the busy time of year for us, from May to about November, we are picking beans like crazy,” said James.
At the Assagay Coffee Farm, the smell of coffee being brewed reaches you before you come off the gravel road to the James’ driveway in Inchanga.
Sitting on a hill, far off the N3 freeway, the farm is ensconced in rows of coffee trees covering 15 hectares.
While such plantations are common in eastern Africa, Assagay Coffee Farm is one of three coffee farms in KwaZulu-Natal, the others being the Echo Valley Coffee Farm on the South Coast and Beaver Creek Coffee Farm at Port Edward. We were there not only to taste the coffee, but to learn how it is made as well.
Although almost every coffee berry looks the same to us, James animatedly points out the ripe red ones as ready for picking, the orange ones that will need to wait a week longer, and the green ones he says should be ready soon.
He chats to his employees and they all agree it’s been a good harvest this year. He is happy, as many of the trees are producing beans after four years, which is how long you have to wait from the time a seed is planted until it grows into a flowering tree.
“It has taken us years to learn what works and what doesn’t. We were very hands on in the farming, but I’m happy to say we make good coffee and are proud of it,” said James.
James initially started out at a farm in Assagay in 1992, hence the name, but 11 years ago moved to his Inchanga farm as it was larger.
He was in sales and marketing for years, but had a burning desire to become a farmer, and when he bought the property in Assagay it already had coffee trees, which is how he got into coffee farming.
He said coffee farming has huge potential in KZN due to its good soil and climate.
“And coffee is sought after. People love coffee and the idea of making a freshly brewed cup of coffee in the morning,” said James. “I walk into the plantation and it’s like you are reading a book. You can see the change in the seasons, see the insects, hear the birds, watch the trees bloom, it’s beautiful.”
The trees start flowering from October onwards, when little white flowers grow on the branches.
“Soon after we see the little green buds developing, which are the little berries,” he said.
These grow slowly and ripen, and come May, are ready for picking. “That’s when it’s all systems go and we start picking the beans like crazy, we can’t afford for them to get overripe and get wasted,” said James.
Once picked off the trees, the next step in the production process is pulping.
“The berries are put through a machine that basically removes the bright red skin off the bean,” he said.
Once the skin comes off, you can see the green coffee bean, although it’s not yet ready to become morning coffee.
While the skin may be removed, a slimy casing still coats the bean, so James and his team place the beans in cold water for about two days to ferment.
The beans are then taken out of the water, washed and placed on a mesh wire table, which ensures that the beans are thoroughly dried.
“We leave them to dry in the open sun so that the outer parchment layer is easy to come off, and this process can take up to three weeks,” he said.
The beans are then put through a hulling machine which removes the parchment layer and sorts the beans according size.
“After this is done, all we are left with is the actual bean and we are now ready to roast it, which is then ready to be made into a lovely cup of coffee.”
The roasting of the bean, according to time and heat, is the secret to getting the right flavour. The heat releases oils in the bean, and the bean gets darker. The oils give flavour to the bean.
“We can set the roasting machine to roast the beans to either medium roast or dark roast and we can then mix the two sorts to get a different blend,” said James.
The coffee beans that come off a tree is between 1kg and 2kg, and that is the weight without the skin.
“While this is our crazy season, we are busy all year round with the planting, weeding, sorting, packing and checking on the berries.”
* Rick James has tours on the farm where visitors can view the plantations and the mill where the seeds are dried and roasted.
For more information call 031 782 1268.
Independent on Saturday