Once in a while a coffee will come along that I really enjoy, and which brings me in contact with persons who are involved in projects that are exciting and rewarding. The relationship that we have with a small group of coffee producers has brought some of my finest beans and has been a source of great personal satisfaction.
Almost four years ago I was approached by Paul Smith of Florenceville, NB . He said that he had just returned from Haiti with some green beans and he wanted my to know if I would roast them and give him my opinion on the coffee. There were four brown paper bags with about 5 pounds of coffee in each. Three of the bags were a mix of stones, twigs, black and broken bean with a liberal sprinkling of squashed whites, and yes interspersed in this were pale tan coloured coffee beans. This was forest coffee, uncleaned and not sorted, rough and ugly. Things did not look promising, there was no use in roasting this as it was triage, too full of defects to be drinkable and with enough stones to wreck havoc on my grinder. Surprisingly the fourth bag contained large uniform beans with that pale colour associated with aged natural coffees. This sample was very clean, large in size and ready to roast. A short time later, after the just roasted beans were ground, the sweet fragrance indicated that this could be an unusual coffee and hinted of exotic tastes. Minutes later we were pouring cups of strong black from a press. The first taste of a great coffee is a ‘perfect moment’ for a coffee drinker, it might happen a few times a year or much less frequently than that. To those whose vocation includes regular and mandatory cupping of numerous coffee samples the exercise can become a chore and it is easy to become jaded with so many very good coffees to choose from. The first sip of the Haiti coffee that day was enough to shake the cobwebs out of the palate and prompt an exclamation of surprise.
It turned out that Paul is a pastor at a church in a small town in rural New Brunswick. His ministry sponsored an orphanage in Haiti and he traveled there regularly often taking medical volunteers and holding clinics in the village of Jacmel. He had just returned from a visit where he had found that an increasing number of sick and hungry children were arriving at the orphanage from the mountains above the village. Paul had walked up the mountain with one of the men from the village and found that the people there were in an even worse situation than those in the village. They had traditionally harvested small amounts of coffee which was brought down from the mountain to sell, uncleaned, for a few cents a pound enabling them to purchase food to supplement their crops. With the economic and social chaos that had devastated Haiti over a long period of time, the infrastructure of the local coffee industry was in dis-array, leaving little demand for the rough uncleaned coffee from the mountain. These people had bags of dried coffee cherries on hand that there was not much of a market for. Paul thought that if he brought coffee to Canada he could sell the beans to support a few families who produce coffee and help fund the orphanage. I agreed that the one sample of coffee was excellent and that we would use their coffee if it was of the same quality as that one clean sample.
New projects often take very a long time to come about. I had expected someone to come and learn about grading and cupping coffee, then a period of bringing samples to test and arranging purchasing and shipping. To my surprise Paul called a few months later saying he had coffee landing in New Brunswick. During that time he had formed a business, ‘New Millenium Coffee’, gone back to Haiti, bought coffee (not knowing about cupping, cleaning or grading), and arranged for shipping . His first concern had been to get some help to the coffee producers by buying their beans. What arrived in Canada was many bags of uncleaned coffee, just as it had come down from the mountain, which in that form could not be used. We quickly sorted out a few pounds for a trial roast. After the numerous defects were removed there was a fine coffee there, comparable to a good Sumatran, but not that ‘excellent’ coffee we had tried the first day. Over the next few weeks I cleaned two bags of beans with the help of my son. He had to sort coffee if he wanted to watch television. The others bags of beans were run through a pea cleaning machine that a local farmer had and after that was the task of sorting of the beans by volunteers. This gave a better ‘hands on’ appreciation of what was needed to done to bring these coffees to their full potential and value.
Madame Alix (left) and Marlene
So we had received some nice coffee at that time but my first reaction was to want the great beans that I knew were there in Haiti. It turned out that Madame Alix had sent that first excellent sample. She has lived her life on the mountain and cleaned some of her own beans. Most small producers only sold rough beans, with the coffee passing through many hands before sorting, and bagging were accomplished . Paul arranged for Madame Alix to come here to New Brunswick and find out to what standards we needed the coffee prepared. Upon her return to Haiti, Madame Alix showed her neighbours how to clean coffee and arranged to have them bring the beans to the orphanage where it would be paid for. That year she brought 7 bags of cleaned green beans down to the village, all of it as good as the first sample from months before. Most of the others producers bring 3 or 4 bags of very good coffee each year. As these people live on the mountain, they have no machinery, coffee is strictly shovel and hoe work. The cherries are picked by hand, dried in the sun, pounded in a hollow log with a stick, sorted carefully, and brought on donkey back down to the orphanage. It is not at all like a modern washed plantation coffee but similar to what coffee was long ago when ‘natural’ coffees were more common. These producers have been working together in a group that involves about a dozen families. Madame Alix will probably soon move down from the mountain to the town to live.
The coffee we now get as 'Jacmel' is brought to Canada by missionaries and health care workers when they return from Haiti. New Millennium Coffee uses the green bean sales to support the orphanage and the producers. This is not some international megaproject, there are no stickers or certifications, only ourselves, the missionaries (New Millennium Coffee), and Madame Alix with her neighbours.We cannot change the economics that affect their country or predict how the current social unrest will affect these few families. They now have the skills to produce a product that can be used directly by any small coffee roaster and with the excellent quality of the local coffees it is our hope that in the long term they will be able to work in cooperation with other local producers and establish a reputation that will enable them to live comfortably by marketing their own coffee. There are other worthy projects that emphasize social responsibility happening in Haiti, one being the revival of the ‘Haitian Bleu’ by a coffee growers group. They have set up wet mills that are producing washed coffees of excellent quality.
It is my opinion that the coffees of Haiti are truly some of the finest in the world. The local coffee industry there has been in a mess. If the Haitian growers can overcome the problems imposed on them, their coffee can again become renowned. If there is ever economic and political stability in Haiti, it has the capability to produce some of the finest coffees that exist. I hope that someday this country may regain their former reputation for great coffee.