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St. Helena:
The Forgotten Coffee

BY NEIL RUSCH


The most exclusive coffee in the world comes from the South Atlantic Ocean island of St. Helena situated just above the Tropic of Capricorn, midway between Africa and America. Production is low (only about 12 tons a year), demand is high and the quality exceptional.

If Napoleon Bonaparte had not been exiled to the island in 1816, St. Helena’s existence and the island coffee would probably have remained almost unknown. Because of the Emperor, St. Helena coffee gained attention in Paris where it enjoyed a brief vogue due to Napoleon’s praise during his incarceration. Four days before his death, Napoleon’s loyal aid, Marshal Bertrand, reported, “Tears came to my eyes at the sight of this man, who had inspired such awe...pleading now for a little spoonful of coffee.”

The English East India Company’s records indicate that coffee was introduced to the island in 1732 from Yemen. The first seed came from the Red Sea port of Mocha, aboard the fully-laden East India Company’s ship Houghton, which was returning under sail along the South Easterly trade wind route to Europe after taking on cargo in the East Indies.

Other than Napoleon’s endorsement, St. Helena coffee did receive intermittent recognition. In 1839, the London coffee merchants Wm Burnie & Co. stated, “We have submitted the sample of coffee received from St. Helena to the trade, who have tested it and pronounced it to be of very superior quality and flavor.”

St. Helena coffee then proceeded to top the London market, and in 1845 was securing prices above any other coffee, thus making it the most expensive and exclusive in the world. All of this did little to prevent the island coffee from fading from view, and, for many years, it appears to have grown wild on the tiny volcanic island.

Only within the last 15 years has St. Helena coffee re-emerged on the world market - except for once. Coffee from the island estates, then known as Coffee Ground Estate and the GW Alexander Estate, was sent to the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, and received an honorable mention. Thereafter, the records grow vague and the coffee seems to have been forgotten to the world. Inaccessibility, caused by the demise of the sailing ship era, had a lot to do with it. Even today the only way to reach the island is by ship.

David Henry, chief executive of The Island of St. Helena Coffee Company says, “When we began working on what was the Alexander Estate, it was almost a jungle.” Today some of the original trees stand 30 to 40 feet tall! Much of the older coffee grows in an area of the island known as Sandy Bay, which is surrounded by the remaining one third of a spectacular volcanic crater rising 2,000 feet above sea level.

Henry spent several years delving into the East India records and researching the archive accounts. “I came across records stating where coffee had been planted here 250 years ago. So we went off into the valleys. We discovered patches of wild coffee. It took us ages to secure the land and rejuvenate the wild trees.”

At a singular coffee tasting, Henry prepared what he calls his breakfast and evening roast. These he cupped for me as both espresso and filter. The coffee has a full and complex aroma with a balance of ripe fruit including blueberries and dark chocolate. Its acidity is medium to high, with a full body. I would say St. Helena cups exactly where it is situated geographically, in between Africa and the New World. There are definite hints of its Yemeni origins, but with a new world brightness and cleanliness. Overall it is a full and complex coffee with amazing blends of fruit chocolate and spices.

To discover and enjoy St. Helena coffee, as I did that memorable evening sitting on the verandah overlooking the vast Atlantic Ocean, was really to have stumbled on an anachronism, given the extraordinary background of the island coffee. It was only as recently as 1994 that any new trees were planted, mainly self-same seedlings, or small soldiers taken off the wild trees.

The discovery, resurrection and intrinsic quality of this coffee owes almost everything to the fact that the trees all descend from a single source - the old cultivar of Green Tipped Bourbon Arabica imported to the island 269 years ago. Isolated on this island stronghold, from which not even Napoleon could escape, has kept the heritage pure. Generally today, world coffee production would typically consist of several Arabica types, many of which are new cultivars developed for greater wind and pest resistance and larger yields.

An unexpected surprise has been just how well St. Helena coffee performs as an espresso. Most gourmet coffees do not lend themselves well to espresso and, as a consequence, most espresso coffee is a blend. St. Helena coffee, to the contrary, has received positive feedback from Italian roasters and cuppers extolling its performance as an espresso. No one seems to be 100% certain why this is so. However, the supposition is that, because the coffee derives from a single strain, the bean cell structure is extremely even - so it reacts well under pressure (in the espresso process).

The uninitiated should know, too, that St. Helena coffee has another quirk. It is an extremely subtle bean, which makes it susceptible to damage. For instance, it is an awkward bean to roast, developing late in the roast and then very, very quickly.

Just how good is St. Helena coffee? In terms of cash paid for the St. Helena bean, there is nothing to surpass it - even Jamaica Blue Mountain, which for 70-odd years has dominated the gourmet coffee scene. A 17 gram-shot of St. Helena Green Tipped Bourbon Arabica at Harrods last year would have set you back £4.74. St. Helena coffee retails at $22 per half pound, shipping included. Kenyan, Hawaiian, Jamaican - and more recently - Galapagos-grown coffee all occupy the rarefied landscape of true gourmet coffee, and now St. Helena coffee is standing there amongst the best of them.

“You could ask 1,000 people if they had heard of St. Helena coffee and they would say no. If you ask 10,000 you might find one who says yes,” Henry says.

The overall scale of coffee production that is produced by the St. Helena Coffee Company, which is 98% of the island output, is minuscule. The company now has six estates. Henry said that when he started in 1994, the annual production was 1.5 tons. “It’s four times that now. I’m looking to increase production by about 20% each year for the next six to seven years, eventually hoping to produce around 25 to 30 tons. My nearest competitor, Jamaica Blue Mountain, is producing close to 1,000 tons!”

The gross domestic product of countries like Brazil and Columbia rest heavily on coffee. Relatively speaking, St. Helena coffee has a not dissimilar export potential. In the long term, the aim is 75 tons, which would require additional capital investment. “The key is always quality. Coffee is a long term thing, the break comes only after seven to eight years,” Henry says.

When the St. Helena coffee revival began, the island’s prospects as a coffee exporter were nil. St. Helena, being a British Overseas Territory, found itself on the wrong side of the International Coffee Agreement. Blissfully unaware of the complexity, Henry embarked on a crusade to have the rule changed to recognize St. Helena as a coffee exporter.

“I ran into a wall of bureaucracy,” Henry recalls. “World trade in coffee is controlled in a way similar to oil. Most people don’t realize that coffee is second only to oil as the world’s largest commodity.” Only with the backing of the U.K. Division of Tropical Foods, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food, the International Coffee Organization and the U.N. was the island status changed. “Confirmation came through fairly quickly,” Henry remembers, “within about two years!”

This is when, in 1994, the Coffee Company set about rejuvenating existing plantations. “At that stage there was about five to six acres of coffee at Stagg’s Head coffee ground. The trees were about 40 years old and amid a lot of jungle. We did some secondary pruning but could not prune heavily because it was the only source of coffee that I had at the time.”

Since then, three new coffee areas have been developed - Napoleon’s Valley Estate and Bluemans Estate. Mount Aecton Estate, positioned just below the central ridge of the island at 2,700 feet above sea level, produced its first crop of coffee last year.

The estates are situated at different locations and altitudes around the island, each with its own microclimate. This has created a total harvest period spanning almost eight months. Only optimum red cherry is harvested on a weekly basis - and sometimes twice a week. All coffees are pulped, after first being sorted by hand, and then wet processed separately using spring water from the island peaks, with a two-stage fermentation, followed by a temperature-controlled underwater soak. All the coffee is stage-dried in suspended trays under a naturally ventilated roof covering. Coffee from each of the estates is bagged individually.

“Once the coffee is stage dried,” Henry says “I then rest it for a while, so it is stabilized. The death of any coffee is if it absorbs moisture after it has been dried. Great care is taken with that. I keep my coffee in parchment form before we hand sort it and size-grade it.”

Coffee sounds romantic, Henry admits, but working coffee is hard, physical labor. Being passionate about the product is what counts in the end.

The Island of St. Helena Coffee Company is accessible at www.st-helena-coffee.sh. Direct ordering as well as green bean sales can be done on-line. Delivery is dependent on the shipping schedule to and from the island.

Neil Rusch, a freelance writer and publisher, first traveled to St Helena as the editor of SA Yachting magazine in 1998 and has since visited the island on four occasions, the most recent was in his capacity as the webmaster for www.thegovernorscup.com - the web site promoting the yacht race from Cape Town to St Helena.


Tea & Coffee - April/May 2001
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