A Bloke & His Shed

I want to introduce you to my friend, Sam.

If you identify as an admirer of great coffee — professionally, or otherwise — there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve encountered either Sam or the coffee that he produces somewhere along your journey. Since 2003 his family company, Buf Cafe, has been exporting some of the best coffee to come out of Rwanda. Grown in the Nyamagabe region, and processed at their two washing stations, Remera and Nyarusiza, Buf Cafe is represented by great roasters all over the world for good reason.

I was first introduced to Sam’s coffee many years ago and started buying from him myself in 2011 through a London-based importer. I had my first opportunity to meet Sam when he came to the UK in 2012, and I was fortunate enough to repay the visit the following year, where Sam welcomed me warmly to Rwanda. I’ve gone back every season since.

The purpose of writing here is not to give you the history of Buf Cafe, though it’s an inspiring one, to say the least. It’s a story of genocide tragedy, but it’s also one of survival, and of building a thriving, quality-driven business. But many others have already told it, and I’d only be rehashing their words. (See Fleur Studd’s write up here for that story.)

Instead, I want to tell you about Sam’s shed.

As a coffee buyer it’s fairly common to visit the same washing stations year-on-year, and find that little has changed. Perhaps a new power line will have been brought in, a better method for pumping water introduced or a new roof added to small building, but usually I find that works undertaken are basically maintenance, and the station will be operated in the same manner from one year to the next. If the results are decent, why change anything?

In a business where margins are thin, markets are fickle and yields unpredictable, it’s a good question.

When I arrived in Rwanda to visit Sam last year, it was pretty clear he was excited to show me something. We crested the ridge that drops away to reveal the Remera washing station below, nestled towards the cul-de-sac end of a small valley, and parked up next to the cherry receiving point everything looked the more-or-less the same as it had on my visit the previous year.

Young men hauled bulging white bags of coffee cherries from the back of a small truck onto a platform scale where a team of women diligently recorded the delivered volumes, and the collection site from which they’d arrived. The white bags, once dragged to the edge of the scale, were opened and tipped and cherries spilled out into a flotation tank to undergo the first of the many on-site quality separations that ensures great quality coffee. It was production as normal.

We moved from the top of the station, past the machine house and skin drying tables, and from this vantage point I could make out what Sam had wanted to show me. To the left of the washing station itself, between it and the parchment storage building was a wide expanse of freshly laid concrete some fifteen metres square. Not content with coffee quality that was ‘good enough’, Sam had an ambitious experiment underway; a whole new way of drying coffee, the first of its kind in Rwanda. The foundations laid, the first stage was complete.

But there was a lot more work to do.

In May this year I was back in Rwanda.

I arrived into Kigali long after midnight and caught a few hours sleep before Sam arrived early to collect me from the hotel and we took to the road with Roger at the wheel. I only had a few days in the country, and a lot to get done, so we were headed directly to Nyamagabe to see the developments at the Remera washing station.

Despite the workload of what had turned out to be a very large season in terms of coffee cherry volumes being delivered to the washing station, work had progressed substantially on Sam’s project. Hundreds and hundreds of red painted steel beams projected skyward from the concrete foundation, criss-crossing and interlocking into a three dimensional mesh rising six metres high, and contrasting starkly with the azure sky above, behind and around.

Standing beneath this lattice of metalwork as men worked in teams to weld even more pieces into place, I started to grasp more fully the scope of Sam’s experiment. And as he too stood back with his hands on his hips, in that universal pose adopted by men when admiring their sheds, I was reminded of why Sam is precisely the kind of coffee producer I love to work with.

I should probably explain the shed.

After it’s been processed, coffee needs to be dried. In most of Africa the coffee is dried on raised beds, which allow good airflow and encourage the coffee to dry relatively slowly and evenly. It’s my preferred drying method, usually helping to preserve good sweetness, clarity and brightness in the coffee, but there are drawbacks to this method. If it starts to rain, the coffee needs to be covered — wrapped in heavy black tarpaulins, until the showers pass. This can dramatically increase the amount of time it takes to dry a day’s coffee production, from 10 days anywhere up to 45 days, and can greatly increase the risk of secondary fermentation ruining the coffee. And in bumper volume years (like this one) that are also high in rainfall (also like this one), space becomes an issue. The same rolling hills that make the landscape of Rwanda so breathtaking also make it a challenge to install a sufficient number of drying tables to handle the capacity of cherries coming in.

But perhaps there’s a better way.

Sam’s structure is a drying shed. More specifically, it’s a shade drying shed. A semi-opaque mesh netting will line a corrugated plastic roof, as six metre tall, retractable heavy plastic curtains will hang along each wall, enclosing the space entirely. Ten layers of drying tables constructed like gigantic shelving units will stack in a series of rows, increasing the drying space to footprint ratio dramatically, while also providing control over the exposure to both sun and rain. It’s hoped that, with this structure, Sam will be able to dry more coffee, more carefully, more consistently. Which is great news for someone like me.

Is it going to work? That’s really hard to say. While I’ve certainly seen similar systems utilised in parts of Colombia and Costa Rica, and some of the results of these drying sheds have been varied, some have been excellent. Sam’s shed is, by far, the largest of its type that I’ve seen, and it almost certainly going to face the challenge of a concentration of condensation at times, as well as the logistical challenge of effectively rotating coffees through the hotter, cooler, wetter and drier parts of the structure. That said, we generally believe that the way a coffee is dried has a huge impact on the length of time it tastes fresh once arrived with a roaster, so any experimentation on that front is, without doubt, very welcome.

As I headed to Kigali airport on my way to Nairobi, the very first batches of wet parchment coffee were being hauled from the washing station and into the newly finished shed. The results of those experiment batches are still a few weeks away, and whether good or bad are certainly not going to be conclusive. There’s a lot of variables that will come into play on a project like this, and the testing period is going to be a long one, so I have to keep my confidence of this experiment panning out as a success in check.

What I did leave Rwanda confident of, however, was that the while I remain fortunate enough to work with coffee producers like Sam — and there are a good many around the globe, genuinely and sincerely committed to pushing quality coffee forward — my job continues to be exciting, inspiring and fun.

There’s a lot to be said for a bloke and his shed.

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