Producer To Plate: Bean to Cup

written by Samuel Gebre 1st August 2016

Stephen Vick has over 15 years of coffee experience and is putting his knowledge and expertise towards African Coffee Roasters, a company that exports shelf-ready coffee from Eastern Africa to Denmark.

“Would you like some coffee?” Stephen Vick asks. My colleague and I look at each other and smile as we say “Yes!” in unison. We have just arrived to Athi River, an hour outside of Nairobi, to talk to the Danish-owned African Coffee Roasters (ACR) that export shelf-ready coffee from Eastern Africa for the sophisticated Danish market.

“This coffee was roasted four days ago in Copenhagen,” Stephen, the Procurement and Quality Manager says, as he feeds beans into a manual coffee grinder. “Not all of our equipment has arrived yet, although we should be fully operational from mid-August. It will be top-quality roaster, as good as any of the ones back in Europe”.

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As Joan, the first Kenyan employee, sets up a presentation to give us the details of the process, Stephen pours coffee from a French press. For a moment, the aroma takes me back to the image of my mother’s kitchen, watching her pour strong brews from the Ethiopian djebena pot.

Coop the largest consumer retail outlet in Denmark, has an annual revenue of $7.4 billion and 36,000 employees, is celebrating 100 years in existence with a major rebranding campaign that starts this October. This revitalisation will put Kenyan coffee in the spotlight. Currently made up of 1.6 million members, Coop stocks their own private labels of products from bread to furniture. Kenyan coffee in Coop outlets account for 14 of the 22 brands the outlet carries, all supplied through ACR.

Denmark, with an annual coffee consumption per capita of 8.7 Kg (Kenya stands at 0.1 Kg per person), presents African farmers a great opportunity. In 2015, Kenya produced about 40,000 tons of coffee. This accounts for less than half its output compared to a decade ago, as small scale farmers have uprooted their coffee bushes for better returns from real estate.

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At ACR, small scale farmers and their end consumers are prioritized by the cooperative through a system which successfully eliminates the middleman. “In five years, we want ACR to be owned by the farmers,” Stephen says. “In those five years, we also want to produce at a capacity of 2000 metric tons annually, exporting $10m worth of roasted coffee and adding $1m of value to the coffee chain of East Africa”.

“We pay the farmers 10% higher than the auction’s average price for that specific grade,” Stephen says. 90% of Kenyan coffee is sold at the Nairobi Coffee Exchange, an auction house. The ownership of coffee is handed over to the coffee millers and marketers early on in the value chain and the farmer has little say in how much they get paid.

As we sip our coffee, the heavily bearded, fashionable Stephen tells us how working once a week in the first Zoka Café in Seattle, while in school studying engineering, changed his career path. He ended up becoming an international judge after he came in third at the US Barista Championship in 2003.

In less interesting times, he worked at the Microsoft Help Department, but when the 2008 financial crisis hit, he moved to East Africa and ended up working on coffee-related projects and met his other love, his Kenyan partner.  The ‘master of coffee,’ as his peers call him, has now been working in coffee for the past 16 years.

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“We will plant over 600 coffee bushes behind here and put a café outside for visitors,” Stephen proudly tells us as he walks us to the factory where the majority of installations are underway. He points out the Loring and informs us that it is “the ‘Ferrari’ of coffee roasting machines”.

The Loring heats the coffee by convection, unlike older roasters that use conduction of the roasting drum. Roasting is ideally done around 250 degrees Centigrade, with air heating, which gives the roaster better control.

“The quality of coffee depends on the freshness of the beans, the size of the beans and the appearance of the beans,” Stephen says as we watch Malcolm Quareleri, the installation engineer, give the new installation a run. “The European market is very sophisticated and particular. They will tell you exactly what they want,” Stephen says.

“You can make good grade coffee taste bad with bad roasting and you can make bad grade coffee taste better by good roasting,” Malcolm explains. “You can adjust the sweetness, acidity, sourness and all the flavours while roasting.” According to World Coffee Research, there are 110 coffee flavour, aroma and texture attributes present in coffee ranging from fruity, nutty to leathery.

Stephen’s ambitions to have Africans preparing the best coffees for shelves in cafés and homes across the world, with tales of their origins, will be the new wave of the growing coffee culture. The American champion barista with his hipster looks would make Kaldi, the Ethiopian goat herder who discovered coffee in 850 AD, proud.

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