Sabie Valley Coffee – Spilling the Beans
Let me start by dispelling a few coffee myths: you shouldn’t store ground coffee in the fridge but in an airtight container, decaf coffee is punted by the industry because it retails at a higher price not because it’s healthier for you, instant coffee is usually chicory and Robusta coffee (cheaper to produce, inferior taste, higher in caffeine) not Arabica, and there is no money to be made in growing coffee crops in South Africa.
Today coffee crops cost more than any other agricultural crop in the country. South Africa used to grow lots of coffee during the ’70s and ’80s, but today, remarkably, the Sabie farm runs at a loss, something Tim freely admits. It is the roastery, the retail and distribution of coffee around the country to enthusiastic local coffee supporters that keep Sabie afloat.
All this, and more, I learn in a relatively short space of time from a remarkably personable Tim Buckland (no relation to famous mime artist, Andrew, I checked), the owner of Sabie Valley Coffee who does weekly coffee tours of his roastery in the Lowveld.
Sabie Valley Coffee roastery and coffee shop lie in a rather obscure looking building that doesn’t exactly invite ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’, particularly on an uncharacteristically misty day, the rain coming down enough to attract vast quantities of mud and drenched umbrellas to the front seat of the car, which my five-year old insists on using as his springboard to the back seat.
I’m a little disappointed by the façade of the building (spoilt by all those Cape Dutch wine farms back home), but decide this is definitely not enough to deter me from a dry interior and the chance to learn more about how coffee is roasted locally. Besides, there’s that old adage – don’t judge a book…
The coffee shop and roastery lie on the R536 between Hazyview and Sabie, but closer to the Hazyview side, just a little further, in fact, than the Windmill Wine Shop (if you’re coming from Sabie and want to do wine and coffee together).
Sabie Valley is not the only coffee farm in South Africa. There are a few in KZN, but generally the industry in South Africa has all but gone under for various reasons – it’s labour intensive, it’s cheaper to import coffee, the coffee roasting industry is full of, to quote Time, scullduggery, and solely growing green coffee (the beans) that is then supplied to local merchants is not lucrative.
Sabie Valley is still flourishing because Tim and his wife Kim thought outside the box and decided to develop their own unique roasting technique (they had to as no-one in the roasting industry exactly invited them to come and learn how to do it), began to sell their own coffee brand, and opened a coffee shop that gives coffee tours on average once a week.
Despite not growing for anyone other than their own roastery, the Bucklands still produce a whopping 50 tons a year. The eight hectares of Sabie coffee plant only Arabica coffee beans, which they harvest between March and May, using only women to handpick the seeds.
As we move outside, the rain had abated enough to take in the beautiful veranda, tree-filled garden on the banks of the Sabie River, and the baby coffee bushes growing infront of us. We study the young Arabica bushes that take about two years to bear fruit, the seeds of which take roughly six to seven months to develop and once mature, are a healthy red and ready for harvest.
It takes 400-500 cherries to make a 250g bag of coffee. I swallow hard. No wonder we’re importing coffee from South America and North Africa, even if some of it is organic and Fairtrade. I make a mental note to support local coffee instead.
By now the smell of coffee roasting is threatening to do me in if I can’t either get closer to it, or drink it. Tim invites us all (the group is fairly big, about 20 of us) into his roastery. It’s off to the side of the coffee shop, behind a glass door so that you can hear the sound of his roaster and smell the effects of roasting coffee beans. If you haven’t already ordered a cuppa, you will after being exposed to the aroma.
Tim waxes lyrical. There is no doubt that he loves doing this. He speaks about the chemical reaction that occurs at 240 degrees where heat converts proteins contained in the coffee beans into aromatic oils. He talks about the different colours of the coffee that equates with different strengths of the drink, and he mentions how important it is to cool the beans quickly so that they retain their flavour.
He also forbids any of us, quite firmly, to stick how hands into the now warm beans as the beans in this form are unstable, and it is a processed food that can become contaminated. He uses a giant wooden paddle to cool the beans by shifting them gently around.
The roastery is not large. There is one operating roaster, the table onto which the beans are then placed, and then bags and bags of beans around us. The bags of raw beans last up to two years as the caffeine in them is not yet active, provided they aren’t wet. The minute they are roasted they become perishable.
Tim spends quite some time on 100% Arabica coffee. He ventures that many supermarket chains do not sell Arabica, opting instead for cheaper, faster moving equivalents that are a blend of coffees, including Robusta.
I check my coffee on coming home and find that it is definitely 100% Arabica. Most of the coffees in my local are too. Perhaps this was something of the past and consumers have become more demanding?
Things get really interesting when he begins to talk about the different roasts and the fact that if you are sensitive to caffeine, as I am, you should buy an espresso roast and put it in your cafetiere, and that one should grind for one’s method of making coffee. So if using an espresso machine, your beans will be ground until very fine.
He also advocates grinding your own beans as then you can drink coffee not only at its freshest, but nothing else has gone into the grind, like fillers. But I’m not sure that the Woolworths’ of this world would get away with bulking up the coffees they sell as 100% Arabica.
The really interesting coffee tour now at an end, all questions asked, and much smelling of coffee beans later, we file through to find coffee and the most delicious chocolate cake known to man at our table places in the coffee shop.
How to Order:
Sabie coffee only roasts to order. Their medium roast, bushveld roast, dark roast and espresso are available at Lowveld Spars, private game lodges, restaurants, guest houses and coffee shops. But they also post to individuals nationally at competitive prices.
Where to Find Them:
You will find Sabie Coffee roughly 10 kilometres from Hazyview on the R536.
Telephone Sabie Valley Coffee on +27 (0)13 737-8169 for further details