You may be an avid lover of coffee, but have you ever considered going on a coffee tour to find out more about how it ends up in your cup at a cafe, or how farmers are learning to sustain their business through coffee tourism?
Text: Erika Koss
In 1994, during my first summer long visit to Kenya, I cannot recall visiting a coffee shop in Nairobi. Twenty-five years later, it isn’t hard to find such cafes to conduct business interviews or meet with friends, complete with a knowledgeable barista showcasing the special quality of Kenyan coffee.
Among these coffee drinkers, however, how many know that it takes more than three dozen pairs of hands for a tiny coffee seed to transform into a liquid beverage? Sometimes even those who drink the most coffee in the world – per capita consumption is highest in Scandinavia and the United States – may not know that coffee is a tree and a cherry. And who can explain the labour-intensive process that coffee takes from farm to cup?
To help bridge this gap, some farms have launched coffee tours to teach visitors about the lengthy coffee chain, where it first begins as a seed and grows into a tall tree that produces flowers, green unripe cherries and finally red cherries. Only when these cherries are bright red are they ready to be picked and sorted, a time-consuming job often accomplished by women. These cherries can be processed in different ways depending on the machines or technical capacity at various farms. After processing, the “parchment” coffee is ready to be dried in the sun, then taken to the mill where it transforms again to “green coffee”—usually the form in which it is then exported to North America or Europe. Only after all these steps will green coffee be roasted into a dark-brown hue, then be ground, brewed and prized as a beverage.
Coffee tours can offer a way for farmers to diversify their income. From climate change to coffee-berry diseases, many challenges lead young people to migrate to cities and older farmers to uproot their coffee trees to plant other crops. For many coffee farmers in the more than 70 coffee producing countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia, coffee has been an unprofitable business for decades.
I always learn something new every time I visit a new coffee plantation, estate or farm. I’ve joined coffee tours on farms from Nicaragua to Rwanda. Some family estates, such as Greenwell Farms on Kona island, Hawaii or Hacienda San Pedro in Puerto Rico, have been giving public coffee tours for many years, allowing survival despite market fluctuations and climate disasters, such as hurricanes.
Yet in East Africa as a whole, it is still relatively harder to find a coffee estate, plantation or cooperative that publicly welcomes guests to learn about the whole process of coffee from seed to cup. In Kenya, however, there are several opportunities to learn about coffee production. For those near Nairobi, one of the best options is the educational experience offered at Fairview Estate in Kiambu, where day-time coffee tours are possible most days except Sundays, which is the weekly agricultural holiday.
When I visited in June, I was given an enriching tour by Mary, an experienced barista, coffee taster and tour guide. As we walked through part of the estate’s 150 acres of land, she talked about the importance of coffee varietals, such as those now popular in Kenya (Batian, Ruiru 11, SL28), and she shared that in addition to several families who live and work year-round on the estate, during the harvest, more than 400 people are given work picking, sorting and processing coffee. The tour ended with a tasting of three different roasts of the same coffee—emphasizing that coffee’s unique flavour has as much to do with its production on the farm, as it does when it is roasted and brewed.
Last month, I flew from Nairobi to Kitale to visit Sakami Coffee in Trans Nzoia county on the slopes of Mt. Elgon. With 70 acres in production—50,000 coffee trees—Sakami’s husband/wife co-owners, Gloria and Jarmo Gummerus, are focused on sustainability and transparency at every step of their coffee’s production. And while they are not yet ready to host coffee tourists, it is part of their overall vision for the future after they complete their next phase of planting 30 more acres of coffee trees from the seedlings growing in their coffee nursery.
From California to Cape Town, owners of vineyards have offered wine tours and wine tastings for decades. In the twenty-first century, coffee may be the one of the world’s most desired beverages, but its consumption will only be possible if coffee farmers and producers find it financially profitable. For those who can, Coffee Tourism may be one strategy to sustain a future with coffee for us all.
Erika is a writer, teacher and researcher living in Nairobi, Kenya. She is a Research Associate at the University of Nairobi; a PhD candidate in International Development Studies at Saint Mary’s University in Canada, and an Authorized Trainer of the Specialty Coffee Association. Instagram: @AWorldinYourCup.