Agile and Flexible

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During my time as a stock broker, I watched new startups try to take on their big established competitors. The successful startups had two characteristics that set them apart.  They were agile and flexible.  Agility is an ability to think quickly and to be mentally acute or aware. Flexibility is the susceptibility of modification or adaptation.

The story of David and Goliath is a great example. Goliath was a giant who spent his life in warfare. He had the finest weaponry available and armament to match his extensive combat training. When David made the decision to battle Goliath, established wisdom (in the person of King Saul) told him to take on the same type of armor and weapons.  But David knew he could not win the battle by matching Goliath’s method of battle.  He was an accomplished warrior in his own environment and he understood that he needed to depend on what worked for him (slingshot, stones and trust in God).  We all know how that story ended.

For Tap Dancers Specialty Coffee to become successful, we understand that we have to be agile and flexible. Our agility comes in our unique marketing efforts.  We ask you to try our coffee. We know our coffee is the finest coffee sold in Omaha so the next step is to have you order a bag.  Receiving a bag of our “specialty grade, roast to order, personalized door to door service coffee” for such a great price point is difficult for folks to really comprehend.  We cannot deny that we are trying to court our customers to fall in love with what we do and with our coffee.

The next step progression for a customer is to become a regular subscriber.  Here is where we show off our flexibility. We offer more options to our subscribers than what is available online. Along with weekly or bi-weekly orders, we also are able to accommodate anyone’s preference (once every three weeks, monthly or some other option). We offer the option of a 16 ounce bag exclusively to our subscribers, because for some of them, a 12 ounce bag will not last them long enough between deliveries.

My wife has shown an even deeper level of flexibility because she works with people’s budgets when it comes to gifts.  She has created everything from custom $15.00 gift bags to $200.00 extravagant baskets.

Because we are truly agile and flexible, we are able to adapt to your specific needs and wants, instead of us dictating to you how to buy our coffee.  We love leaving the power of options where it belongs….in the hands of our customers.

The Bag

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Our goal at Tap Dancers Specialty Coffee is to create value by doing everything to the finest levels available. The bags we use to package our coffee are a true testament to our philosophy.

This blog was very difficult for me to write, because the deep temptation to name names and rant about the cheap packaging many other coffee roasters use was difficult to overcome.  I am maturing to the place where I will not go there in formal communications.  I will tell you the “whys” about the bags we have chosen to use for our beans. I am proud of the fact that we chose not to compromise the freshness of our beans by providing simply the best packaging available.

There are a couple of things we have to consider to ensure our coffee retains all of its goodness until you drink it. One is keeping the coffee fresh. Once coffee is roasted, the bean expels carbon dioxide and absorbs oxygen. It is the absorption of oxygen that creates a stale coffee.  This process of expelling and absorbing within the coffee bean cannot be slowed down (no matter what the temperature).  The process speeds up however, with exposure to air so it is important to keep the coffee as air tight as possible after the roast.

The other thing we have to be aware of with coffee is that it is very absorbent. Not only do we have to be concerned about outside moisture, we have to be concerned about what the beans come in contact with. Metallic foils (like aluminum or tin), plastic, cardboard and yes, even kraft paper will ALL taint the taste of coffee.  Is that surprising?

The bags Tap Dancers Specialty Coffee uses to package our coffee address these concerns, while not being too inconvenient to use for the consumer. We use an impulse sealer to completely seal the bag. The side notches enable you to open the bag easily. The bags not only seal airtight, but are easy to reseal to help keep the air exposure to a minimum. The bags have a patented one way degassing valve. This valve insures that air only goes out and no oxygen comes back in.

The two additional special features of these bags are not visible. The bags have a high vapor barrier and a neutral lining. The vapor barrier keeps moisture out of the bag. If you tear open the bag and lick the inside of the bag you will taste nothing.  These features all help to insure your coffee retains its freshness and remains untainted.

Third Wave Coffee

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We are in the Third Wave Coffee era, here’s what that means.

Specialty grade coffee first got its name in 1974 by Ms. Erna Knutsen, now considered “The Grand Old Lady of Specialty Coffee”.

At the turn of the century, I discovered specialty grade coffee after years of searching for that great cup of coffee.   A few years later I became a home roaster, and shortly after that, I dreamt of owning my own specialty coffee roasting business.

Up until now, small roasters like me had a bit of an identity crisis and did not know what to call ourselves.  Several names were tried i.e. craft roasting, old world roasting, artisanal roasting, micro-roasting. But none of them seem to fit.

Led by the big three (Intelligentsia Coffee and Tea of Chicago Il, Stumptown Coffee Roasters of Portland Or, and Counter Culture Coffee of Durham NC) “third wave coffee roasters” became the term that is widely accepted for what we are doing.

Third Wave Coffee

The excepted definition of third wave coffee is accredited to Pulitzer Prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold who in 2008 wrote, “The first wave of American coffee culture was probably the 19th-century surge that put Folgers on every table, and the second was the proliferation, starting in the 1960s at Peet’s and moving smartly through the Starbucks grande decaf latte, of espresso drinks and regionally labeled coffee. We are now in the third wave of coffee connoisseurship, where beans are sourced from farms instead of countries, roasting is about bringing out rather than incinerating the unique characteristics of each bean, and the flavor is clean and hard and pure.”

The major knock on this wonderful high-end coffee is the elitism and snobbery that is quite often associated with the coffee.

Our goal from the beginning has always been to introduce specialty grade coffee to Omaha and let it be available to anyone and everyone who enjoys a great cup of coffee.

Our business model of having a warehouse instead of a retail location, relying on word of mouth versus expensive advertising, roasting to order and free delivery in the metro area, means we are able to offer a superior product at an affordable price.  Mostly, this enables folks from all walks of life to enjoy and experience this “third wave”.

To make it even more accessable, we have even created a Mobile Coffee Shop!

Tap Dancers Specialty Coffee, roasted fresh for you is simply the finest specialty grade coffee you can buy…….minus the snobbery. We are hoping you will jump on this third wave coffee ride, you won’t be disappointed.

Best Coffee Roaster: Best of Omaha Winners Circle 2015

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Our marketing team, Basik Studios, asked me to write a blog on Tap Dancers Specialty Coffee being voted Best of Omaha 2015 second place in the category of Best Coffee Roaster. Before I go any further I want acknowledge that they have done a tremendous job helping us build our brand and market share.

This has been one of the more difficult blogs to write. Do I give the first place people props for winning? Do I say “Thank you for your vote”, even if I’m not sure the blog readers have voted? Do I try and sound humble?… “Ah shucks, it is just an honor to be nominated let alone win something.”

After giving much thought to these and other questions the answer is NO! Maxine and I are absolutely bursting with pride. To us it is the equivalent of parents watching their teenager win a silver medal at the Olympics. We were the 60-1 horse placing in one of the Triple Crown races. When voting got started this past July we were just over two years old and competing with several other coffee roasters who have been in business for decades. Just like the lyrics in the song “High Hopes”:


Just what makes that little old ant

Think he’ll move that rubber tree plant
Anyone knows an ant, can’t
Move a rubber tree plant

But he’s got high hopes, he’s got high hopes
But he’s got high hopes, he’s got high hopes
He’s got high apple pie, in the sky hopes


We knew our business model of importing the world’s finest coffee, roasting to order each week and then delivering this fresh roasted coffee to your front door at no extra charge, would take time to catch on in Omaha.  Being in the winner’s circle of Best of Omaha so early in our business life is a true confirmation that we are going in the right direction. We are so happy to share this recognition with each of you and look forward to becoming better and better at what we do each year. Thank you for allowing us to serve you.

Winter Coffee Line Up

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As I have said in the past, the only constant is change.  But in our case, we embrace the changes because although it may mean saying good-bye to a coffee we have loved, we get to introduce new coffees that we love.

All of the coffees I import are from small farms and co-ops that are committed to growing specialty grade coffees.  In the coffee industry, the coffee produced from these small farms and co-ops are call micro-lots.  Last spring, we bought all of Kenya Gathinja’s coffee crop, which was our largest single purchase.  At the time, we projected it would last us until next spring but our sales exceeded our expectations and we sold out of the coffee 2 weeks ago.  Although we will miss Kenya Gathinja, we have found a new Kenyan coffee that we are excited about….Kenya Kiambara. The new Kenyan, while slightly different, has the same flavor profile as the Gathinja so there will not be too much of an adjustment for our Kenyan Gathinja lovers.

We are also introducing our new Honduras Raos Royal Decaf.  The mountain water decaffeination process is the best process to decaffeinate a coffee and to make sure the flavor is retained.

Lastly, we also have our new Guatemala blend readily available. We have taken our new Guatemala Blend out to test market at the pass few events and it has been very well received.

Here is our new and familiar coffee line-up that we will have available throughout this winter:


Kenya Kiambara medium roast: Bright and tangy, sparkling citric grapefruit acidity, with a pronounced herbal character in a stout and vibrant cup, without a bitter aftertaste. This is our strongest coffee.


Kenya Kiambara dark roast: Earthy, smoky flavor that hits the sides of your tongue with hints of mocha. A very creamy, smooth and balanced coffee with a warm aftertaste. A true dessert coffee when milk and sugar are added and is perfect for making iced coffee.


Honduras Raos Royal Decaf: This is a medium body coffee with lovely sweet cocoa notes finishes with a pleasant clean aftertaste. Certified fair trade and organic. Decaffeination done by Royal Select Water process, which is recognized as the finest process available.


Guatemala Blend: By using three special roast profiles we have created this delightfully yummy blend. Carmelly sweet chocolate with notes of crisp citrus and a hint of nuttiness.


Guatemala Andrina: Medium body coffee with notes of milk chocolate. This delightful coffee has a touch of sweetness and finishes with a pleasant lingering after taste.


Guatemala Beatriz: Medium body coffee starts with a crisp lemony tartness and is followed by a mellow peach undernotes. Finishes very refreshing.


Ethiopia Queen City: A very complex sun dried medium body coffee with notes of apricots and mangoes and exotic spices of cloves and cinnamon.


Espresso Blend:  We found the right combination that blends the boldness of our Kenya Gathinja Medium with the sweetness of the Guatemala Beatriz and combined them with our rich chocolate Guatemala Adrina for complexity.

Oh Wata Dara, say it ain’t so!

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In the previous 2 seasons (2012 and 2013) we had a coffee that was good enough to repeat. In fact it was such a good selling coffee, I was looking forward to adding it to our offerings again this year. For those of you who could not guess, I am talking about no other than the Ethiopian Wata Dara.  This amazing coffee really helped us launch and establish Tap Dancers Specialty Coffee as a purveyor of fine fresh roasted coffee and had a signature chocolaty finish that people came to love.

Two weeks ago I finally got the email from my coffee broker that the coffee had arrived in port and cleared customs.   He quickly sent me a sample of this season’s crop. Once the sample came in I eagerly got ready to go through our process of cupping coffee. The first step is to visually inspect the beans and give them a quality score.  I noticed the big variances in the size of the beans which was not the case in previous years. A roaster wants the beans to be the same size, otherwise, the smaller beans will be over roasted and the bigger beans will end up under roasted.

Upon further inspection, I started to notice more bug bites than usual. I justified this to myself because this coffee is grown organically but again, this was not the case in previous years. Then more issues arose with a lot of broken beans appearing. It got to the point to where normally, I would have already failed the bean on the inspection alone and not bothered to even roast them. But this was Wata Dara! Surely I can make an exception for this great coffee so I went ahead a did a sample roast.

Continue reading Oh Wata Dara, say it ain’t so!

A Roast is NOT Just a Roast!

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What does it mean when people ask for a certain type of roast?  Do they even know what it means or are they looking for a certain flavor?  Being a specialty grade coffee roaster, we do not often refer to roast types alone since our goal is to bring out all the natural and wonderful flavors of the bean itself.  Specialty grade beans are grown on purpose and are organic, fair-trade, low in acidity and not inherently bitter so it is easy to concentrate and talk solely about flavor.

For most other grades of beans (commercial, premium, gourmet), talking about the roast is way more important since there is high acidity and inherent bitterness to deal with.

Let’s start with how the bean looks BEFORE the roast.  Pictured below is the “green bean” which is how the bean looks when we receive it at our dock.

1 green-beans

22 °C (72 °F) Green Beans

Can be stored for one to two years.


Next, we will look at the stages and temperatures that the beans go through while in the roaster.  This initial phase is the “drying phase” when they lose water and increase in size:

2 drying-phase

165 °C (329 °F) Drying Phase

As the coffee bean stays in the roaster, the beans will eventually crack from the heat.  Unlike popcorn, it does not change its shape too much but there is an audible sound.  Kept in the heat longer, you will hear it crack again.  These two “cracks” are applicably called “the first crack” and “the second crack”.  Each roast level below is described with basic temperatures and cracks.  What it does not tell you are the amazing artisanship it takes on behalf of the roast master to actually bring it to that temperature, the monitoring of air flow, timing and great instinct needed to produce an outstanding roasted bean.  Dark roasts are not synonymous with strong or bold flavors.  The better the bean, the more you will taste and understand how flavors are brought out by a particular roast.


The Cinnamon Roast is the very lightest roast level and is completed BEFORE the first crack.  It is almost tea-like in its character.  It is light brown in color with toasted grain flavors and sharp acidic tones.

3 cinanmon

196 °C (385 °F) Cinnamon Roast


The New England Roast is preferred by some specialty roasters because it highlights the coffee’s origin characteristics and acidic complexity.  It is moderate light brown but still varicolored in appearance.  At Tap Dancers Specialty Coffee, we occasionally use this roast when we roast some of our more exotic beans.

4 new-england

205 °C (401 °F) New England Roast


The American Roast is completed during the first crack which enables it to preserve the bean’s original character.  It is medium light brown.

5 american

210 °C (410 °F) American Roast


The City Roast is the most common roast for specialty grade coffee roaster.  It is finished after the first crack and is a medium brown color.   The multiple varieties of the character of the bean are very apparent while tasting (cupping).  With this roast, we are able to detect most of the beans flavors and can then decide whether to roast darker or lighter to bring out a distinct flavor.  At Tap Dancers Specialty Coffee, we currently use this roast for our Guatemalan Pena Blanca.

6 city

219 °C (426 °F) City Roast


The Full City Roast is completed at the beginning of the second crack.  It is a medium dark brown and depending on the bean, may have a very light oil sheen.  You will begin to taste more of the lower notes in the coffee.  At Tap Dancers Specialty Coffee, we currently use this roast for our Kenya Kamviu Dark.

7 full-city

225 °C (437 °F) Full City Roast


The Vienna Roast is completed right in the middle of the second crack.  Most of the bean’s original characteristics are overshadowed and a more bitter-sweet, deeper caramel-y flavor will surface.  The color is moderate dark brown which may have a light oil sheen.  At Tap Dancers Specialty Coffee, this is the absolute furthest we will go on the roast. We are currently using this roast for our Ethiopian Wata Dara.

8 vienna

230 °C (446 °F) Vienna Roast


The next 3 roasts are used by many roasters or coffee shops that do not sell specialty grade beans or blends with lower grade beans.  They are roasts that use various stages of burning the bean.  Many lower grades of beans are inherently very acidic and bitter so by roasting them darker, they can sometimes take out the bitterness and most of the acidity.  At Tap Dancers Specialty Coffee our business’ vision is to bring out inherent flavors of the original bean so we have chosen not do the following roast profiles.  We are not snobs however in understanding the fact that there are many people around the world who have acquired a taste for these roasts and when these roast lovers do not find what they are looking for with us, we do not mind letting them know that we respect their taste and even refer them to other roasters that we know can fulfill the taste they are looking for.


The French Roast is completed at the end of the second crack.  Very little of the inherent flavors of the original bean remain and the taste of the bean now has burnt undertones and diminished acidity.  The beans are dark brown and have a shiny oily appearance.


9 french

240 °C (464 °F) French Roast


The Italian Roast which is completed at least 20 seconds after the second crack.  It is very dark brown and very shiny with very distinct burnt tones, a thin body and almost no hints of acidity.

10 itialian

245 °C (473 °F) Italian Roast


The Spanish Roast is completed long after the second crack is finished.  Its color is almost black (extremely dark brown) and the beans are very shiny and oily.  Charcoal and tar tones dominate the taste with a flat, thin body and no hints of acidity.

11 spanish

250 °C (482 °F) Spanish Roast

How to brew it better at home?

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I found this article on New Haven News  written By Tim Carman, The Washington Post

Sometimes obsession sneaks up on you slowly. One day you’re satisfied with 7-Eleven coffee poured into a used Big Gulp cup. A few years later, you refuse to choke down anything not prepared on a pour-over bar at the nearest specialty coffee shop.

Other times, obsession strikes you in a flash.

I can, for example, tell you the exact moment my home-coffee-brewing addiction kicked in: It was 10:58 a.m. on Dec. 12. I was sampling cups prepared by Alex and Chad McCracken, the brothers behind the Wydown, a forthcoming specialty coffee shop here. At their former pop-up in D.C., the siblings had brewed five different preparations of the same Finca Kilimanjaro, a Salvadoran bean roasted by PT’s Coffee Roasting in Topeka, Kan. Among the devices they employed was a siphon, a twin-chambered glass tower powered by a glowing halogen lamp.

The siphon’s charms were immediate: evil-scientist-grade equipment that can make you feel like a 10-year-old with a chemistry set. But that childhood reverie vanished with one sip of coffee. Compared with the other devices (two pour-over cones, an AeroPress and a Clever dripper), the siphon-produced cup was more complex, balancing sweetness and acidity. If the other devices had emphasized the Finca Kilimanjaro’s bracingly sour brightness, the siphon had transformed it into candied lemon. I was hooked.

I was sold on the siphon, sure, but more than that, I was fascinated by the different flavors that each device unlocked in the same coffee. I wanted to experiment more.

Within a month, I had secured not only a Yama three-cup siphon but also other tools for my morning caffeine ritual: a Bee House dripper, an AeroPress coffee and espresso maker and a digital scale to weigh my coffee and water down to the nearest gram. Then came the more expensive stuff: a high-end electric drip maker often touted as the best on the market, and a single-cup device capable of brewing any freshly ground beans. That latter piece of equipment, I thought, would serve as a litmus test to see whether, when it comes to coffee brewing, convenience and quality are mutually exclusive.

But the paradox about trying to improve your home coffee experience is that none of those fancy instruments and machines will guarantee you a perfect cup every time. As any veteran roaster or barista will tell you, coffee is not a fixed commodity, its quality the same day in and day out. It’s an agricultural product that degrades like any other fresh ingredient you buy at the grocery store. Freshness is paramount.

Home brewing is “a moving target, because the coffee itself is a moving target,” says Joel Finkelstein, the owner and roaster behind Qualia Coffee here. He says only one kind of coffee will give you the same cup each time: “If it’s old and stale, you can get total consistency,” Finkelstein cracks.

So a high-quality cup begins with freshly roasted beans, but it doesn’t end there. Home brewing has evolved beyond the one-button convenience of Mr. Coffee and the disposable pods of Nespresso. You need education. For starters, you need to understand the benefits of a burr grinder, which pulverizes those fresh beans more evenly than your typical cheapo blade grinder. A burr grinder also allows you to adjust the grind size of your beans, an important feature when you start using the more labor-intensive tools to brew coffee.

One grind size does not fit all of these contraptions. Immersion brewers — devices such as the siphon and French press, in which the full complement of water remains in contact with the grounds for the entire steeping process — typically require a coarser grind to prevent bitter, over-extracted coffee. Pour-over devices — whether a Hario v60 dripper, a Chemex coffeemaker or some other contraption in which water passes over the grounds more quickly — generally take a medium or fine grind.

“The longer the extraction time, the coarser the grind,” the Wydown’s Chad McCracken notes.

From there, things can get really geeky really fast. Any barista worth her weight in Geisha beans will determine the perfect coffee-to-water ratio for every available bag, looking for a calculation that brings out a bean’s best characteristics. Baristas may start with a general ratio — say, one ounce of coffee to 16 ounces of water — but will quickly adjust the percentages to arrive at the perfect cup. Or at least the perfect cup according to their taste, which is important to remember.

“At the end of the day, it’s good to who’s making it,” says Judith Mandel, a former barista with Peregrine Espresso who finished ninth out of 40-plus competitors in the U.S. Brewers Cup last year in Boston. Mandel now works as a barista for Blue Bottle Coffee in the Bay Area.

Then again, those tattooed coffee-bar baristas probably know a lot more about their drinks than most of us. They know the proper water temperature for extraction (195 to 205 degrees Fahrenheit), the proper technique for pouring water into a dripper cone (concentric circles from the middle, careful not to overfill the device) and the proper amount of time for “blooming” ground beans with hot water (variable, often dependent on how fresh the beans are as the wet grounds release carbon dioxide). They probably even use a timer and digital scale to make sure the weights and brewing times are airtight.

And that’s just for a pour-over device. At shops such as Chinatown Coffee, baristas must also know how to use even more tools, such as the Clever dripper and that high-tech siphon. If you talk to enough baristas, you begin to hear a pattern: They all have their own approaches, their own ratios, their own ideas about brewing the ideal cup. It begins to make you feel like it’s a Wild West out there, with no set standards for baristas and home-brewers to follow.

“There’s a lot of opinionated baristas who don’t have a lot of science behind them,” says Alex McCracken of the Wydown.

Yet there are standards. The Specialty Coffee Association of America has set them down in its “Coffee Brewing Handbook,” which is based on the scientific research conducted by the Coffee Brewing Institute (later the Coffee Brewing Center) in the mid-20th century. Of course, to make sense of the science, a barista has to become familiar with a refractometer and how to measure things such as the “extraction percentage.”

At this point, my own personal obsession stops just short of refractometers. I’m not sure I’ll ever reach the level of Mandel, whose OCD-like labors have led her to employ screens (to sift grounds for precisely uniform particles) and a rubber restrictor in her kettle (to slow the flow of water). But she’s striving for Brewers Cup championships. I’m merely looking for a great cup of home-brewed coffee.

This is where the bad news comes in: There is no ideal brewing system, perfect for every bean and every taste bud. I’ve been absorbing that hard lesson through a lot of trial and error, testing and retesting, and yet some part of me still wants to pronounce that one of these devices outperforms the others. Some days I think it’s the siphon (which generally produces a balanced, full-bodied cup). Other days I think it’s the Bee House dripper (which always seems to extract a bean’s best flavors). But one morning the Clever might surprise me with an exquisite cup, and I want to hold it forever close.

Then the Moccamaster KBG-741 AO arrives via delivery. It’s a handmade automatic drip machine, the top model produced by Technivorm in the Netherlands, engineered to heat water to the proper temperatures and steep grounds the proper length of time. It’s one of only four home brewers certified by the SCAA. I don’t want to believe this contraption can brew something as complex as my (increasingly sophisticated) efforts, but it does. Or it can, I should say.

The Moccamaster’s performance reminds me of something Ryan Jensen, owner of Peregrine Espresso, told me recently: Large-batch brewers may one day reclaim specialty coffee shops. Think of it as the rise of the machines, again.

“The next wave is actually not doing manual brewing,” Jensen says. It’s sort of an admission, he adds, that “machines are better at this than humans.”


It’s not about the caffeine!

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I truly enjoy bringing our coffee out to public venues and sharing it with people. Interacting with folks from all walks of life. It is definitely one of the perks for me. I confess that one thing that irks me are people who only want to drink coffee for the “caffeine kick”. Sometimes I want to shout “It is not about the caffeine. It’s about the taste! If caffeine is all you desire, just pop a pill!”  Alas, my wife holds me back from reacting like that.

There are highly caffeinated coffee beans available on the market that contain up to 50% more caffeine. They are not specialty grade and they honestly taste terrible. In fact, in my original business plan we were going to offer a “geek blend” for programmers and gamers to offer a highly caffeinated coffee. However, when we adopted the tag line “The world’s finest coffee roasted fresh for you” we made the commitment to only buy, roast and sell specialty grade coffee.

What Tap Dancers Specialty Coffee is all about is a lifestyle that appreciates and enjoys life to the fullest. We feel that life is too short to drink bad tasting coffee. While getting up is not always a pleasant experience, drinking that first cup of coffee does bring a simple but wonderful joy into our lives that helps us start our day. When coffee tastes this good, it is also something that can be enjoyed at various times of the day and in great drink and food recipes.

So let’s focus on the taste, not the caffeine.  When you are at an age where you have more years behind you than ahead of you, you will never regret the choices in life when you decided to simply experience the best.


Rwandan Coffee Farmers Turn Premium Beans Into Harvest Gold

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I found this article on and I wanted to share this with MICHAELEEN DOUCLEFF

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Photos: Courtesy of Jonathan Kalan

Yesterday on All Things Considered, Allison Aubrey explained how coffee is the new wine — or, at least, how our morning brew is catching up with the evening Chardonnay in terms of our appreciation for its flavor and textures. And that’s piquing our interest in learning where our coffee comes from.

So, we wondered, how does this new trend impact coffee farmers around the world? On Twitter, we stumbled on Jonathan Kalan, a freelance photographer and journalist in Africa, who just happens to have returned from visiting coffee farms in Rwanda.

Coffee from Rwanda, you say? Believe it. About 10 years ago, Rwandan farmers started selling premium coffee instead of plain-old joe. Now its coffee fetches some of the world’s highest prices and is sought after by coffee giants and gurus around the world, including Starbucks. We caught up with Kalan, and asked him a few questions about his recent work, featured above.

Q: What’s it like on a coffee farm in Rwanda?

A: Aptly named the “Land of a Thousand Hills,” Rwanda has endless rolling, green hills dotted with banana trees, tin-roofed houses and small farms. In Western Rwanda, where it’s ideal for growing coffee, the altitude is around 5,600 feet, and steep hills plunge into the crystal blue banks of Lake Kivu.

There are about 400,000 families who farm coffee in Rwanda, and most of them live in small mud and brick houses, or a concrete house, when they are better off. The average family owns around 450 coffee trees, but they also harvest sorghum, beans, sweet potatoes and vegetables.

Q: Why did Rwandan farmers switch from growing regular coffee to growing premium coffee?

A: Rwandan farmers didn’t switch beans to start producing specialty coffee; they simply switched their methods. Unlike regular coffee, premium beans must be fully washed, and they must score at least 80 points on a quality scale. Many factors influence the score, from climate and soil quality to the time between when the ripe coffee cherries are picked and dropped off for processing.

Coffee has been a major source of revenue for Rwanda since it was introduced by German missionaries a century ago. For most of this time, the state controlled nearly all stages of production. Beans were exported as regular, unwashed coffee, and farmers were given a set price by the government. Farmers clearly had little incentive to produce specialty coffee, or invest in better production, harvesting and washing methods.

But then, after the genocide, the coffee industry was privatized. This opened up new markets and avenues for selling coffee.

Q: How did the farmers learn to grow and produce top-grade coffees?

A: Many people credit a project called PEARL for kickstarting the specialty coffee industry in Rwanda. PEARL is a collaboration among Texas A&M, the U.S. Agency for International Development and Rwanda’s Ministry of Education.

Since 2000, PEARL has trained young Rwandan students in agronomy (because most people with expertise in this field either fled the country or were killed during the 1994 genocide), cupping and quality-control management. They also built new washing stations and formed farmer cooperatives, which was key because cooperatives give farmers more control of their product and a further economic stake in the quality of their coffee.

Q: Premium coffee beans can cost five times more than regular ones. Do the farmers actually reap the benefits of these high prices?

A: Definitely. In 2000, farmers from Rwanda’s first coffee cooperative earned around $0.20 for one kilogram of ordinary coffee. In 2011, these same farmers got roughly $3.50 per kilogram. That’s a pretty monumental difference.

Take the case of Uwimana Immaculee, a farmer in southern Rwanda. For years, she and her family had been struggling to produce beans, sorghum and other small crops, with little financial success. Seeing her neighbors benefit from specialty coffee, she decided to take a risk and invest her family savings in 100 coffee trees.

She has never looked back.

Uwimana’s farm has tripled in size now. This season she sold 700 kilograms of freshly picked coffee cherries to a local specialty coffee washing station, earning over $350, which is no small change in rural Rwanda.

The extra money from coffee has helped her put two children through school, build a new house and even invest in new land to expand her plantation.

Q: What was your favorite memory of visiting a Rwandan coffee farm?

A: When I was touring the coffee washing stations with an eclectic group of international buyers, one of the U.S. buyers had tattoos of coffee cherries up his arm. When one of the local women in a tiny village saw it, the whole village erupted in laughter. Tattoos are quite taboo in Rwanda, but here is some self-proclaimed coffee geek who has cherries — the economic lifeblood of her and her family — inked on his arms.