The hidden coffee part of the world. São Tomé and Príncipe.

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Have you ever heard about the island, country and nation called São Tomé and Príncipe? Most people have no clue where it is or even if it exists. That’s what exactly happened to me when I was planning my trip to African continent to learn more about specialty coffee scene and their rise to the market of specialty. I’ve learned about this small nation only when I tried to find any country in Africa where I could obtain visa electronically rather then going through Embassies. And São Tomé pumped out in the middle of nowhere. I started my research about this country before embarking into my next coffee adventure after Kenya. And this how I ended up in São Tomé to discover the unique environment and what this country stored for those who never heard about it. To get there I booked TAP Air Portugal from Accra, Ghana with one and half hour flight. Air Portugal provides service to the island from Lisbon with stop in Accra.

Democratic Republic of São Tomé and Príncipe, is a Portuguese-speaking island nation in the Gulf of Guinea, off the western equatorial coast of Central Africa.

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The islands were uninhabited until their discovery by Portuguese explorers in the 15th century. Colonized and settled gradually by the Portuguese throughout the 16th century, this island served as a vital commercial and trade center for the Atlantic slave trade. The rich volcanic soil and close proximity to the Equator made São Tomé and Príncipe ideal for sugar cultivation, followed later by cash crops such as coffee and cocoa.

Sao Tome is very expensive place to be, it is not a budget friendly destination. The most visitors are Portuguese or French. But the island has also some Cuban doctors engaged in the healthcare industry or some visitors from Angola who come for short holiday. Locals price everything according to EUR. There is no ATM machines for international credit card use, you need to bring cash. But it is very safe country to walk around and discover by foot.

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São Tomé and Príncipe, as African island nation close to the equator, is part of a volcano chain featuring striking rock and coral formations, rainforests and beaches. São Tomé is the larger island and undesirable beauty encompasses the Blue Lagoon. Ôbo Natural Park, a biodiverse jungle preserve, covers much of São Tomé and is distinguished by Pico Cão Grande, a magnificent volcanic rock that stands as rocket ready to be launched to the space.

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So, let’s find out more about coffee of the island. Volcanic soil, tropical forest and equatorial climate of São Tomé and Principe gathers the three ideal factors for the cultivation of coffee. The coffee plant arrived here by the Portuguese settlers after their arrival here in 1470. There was no any single living human soul on the island once they arrived, and to make use of the agriculture sector here, slaves from Angola and Cape Verde were sent to the island to work on the plantation. Originally, Portuguese brought Arabica coffee seedlings to the island from Brazil but according to my research, Arabica was not successful on the island due to lower elevation. As we know, to strive better and provide highest yield, Arabica species requires higher altitude in comparison to Robusta. But the island also produces Robusta species, and how Robusta ended up here is hardly known, but perhaps, it  was brought to the island by slaves from Angola and Uganda.  After Robusta was planted on the island, it became more adaptable to the local topography and the climate.

I decided to get into coffee plantation of São Tomé. I booked a nice lodge settled in Monte Cafe area, about 20 minutes taxi ride from the capital, where coffee production is. My lodge was about 1,000 meters away from the actual coffee cultivation area. The region also features coffee museum that was build with the support of UNDP in 2008. While in São Tomé, I’ve learned about a man by the name of Claudio Corallo, an Italian immigrant who studied tropical agriculture at the University in Florence, Italy. He moved to Africa, Zaire (now Congo) first at the age of 23 in 1974 to devote himself to coffee and cacao production. He owned 1,250 hectares of coffee planation in Zaire and assisted local government in technicality issues with small rural producers. After political turmoil in Zaire, Claudio was forced to leave the country leaving behind him his land and move to Bolivia first, and then to São Tomé.

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I decided to get in touch with Claudio, have some conversation over the cup of island’s coffee and talk more about specialty coffee scene of the island. First by email, I was scheduled to visit Claudio’s coffee farm “Nova Moca” situated southwest of Monte Cafe, about 5,000 feet above sea level in a coffee producing region of São Tomé with size of about 12 hectares. Nova Moca is absolutely gorgeous and beautiful coffee farm that Claudio owns, with incredible landscape, perfectly cultivated organic soil, mild climate, and fresh breeze from Gulf of Guinea makes the area absolutely perfect for producing coffee. Claudio and his team that works on the plantation cultivate different varieties of Arabica species including Robusta as well. He also has the land of Liberica species which mostly grows on the island of Principe and used solely with cacao production. Claudio produces the most exquisite cacao on the island. He has his own chocolate factory lab built next to his house, and uses Liberica coffee solely with combination of cacao in pure chocolate form. I tried one of those chocolates produced by Claudio, chocolate with Liberica coffee, and it blown me away. The best chocolate in its pure form I have ever tasted. Liberica is not used here much for coffee consumption or export,  because it is less productive compare to other species, very tall with most cherries concentrated on the top of the tip of the tree and makes it hard to pick. Besides that, Liberica has larger size beans, and they have to be peeled by hand, one by one which is more labor intensive then Arabica or Robusta, and taste wise is not very appealing to specialty coffee market due to bitterness and less flavors found in it.

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Claudio employs people all year around, not only during the harvest season but due to the fact that he produces cacao that requires additional help in processing and manual separation of cacao beans. Minimum wage on the island is roughly equal to $100 per month, pickers get paid about $2 a day during the harvest season. The main processing at Nova Moca is washed and natural process. In washed process, coffee get de-pulped with mucilage intact. Beans would be placed into water tank for a day or two where fermentation starts, and after that beans are rubbed by hand in running water to remove the rest of the mucilage. When this process is done, coffee beans are placed on  African bed for drying. Drying could take two weeks or 30 days depends on the weather condition. We have to mention the fact that Monte Cafe area sees rain almost every day, some times four showers a day, where coffee beans need to be carefully monitored and covered. After beans reach the moisture level of 10-11% they are removed from the drying beds and placed into grain pro bags for storage. Even in São Tomé the vegetation is lush and green due to the high humidity and the constant presence of clouds, about 900mm of rain fall per year. São Tomé has hot, tropical and humid climate throughout the year with average temperature of 30C from January to April, and slightly cooler temperature from June to August.

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The next process Nova Moca uses is dry or natural. After ripe cherries selected to preserve the quality, they placed on African drying bed where they moved constantly to preserve uniformity of drying process to make sure all cherries dried equally, sometimes 4 times a day with rotation phase. During the rain beans are covered to avoid water contact, and in some cases after three days of drying on African bed they are moved to mechanical dryer to finish the process with moisture level of 10-11%. In order to avoid over-fermentation or under-fermentation, natural process at Nova Moca goes though an intensive monitoring to preserve the natural flavors of coffee without any scent of defects.

Claudio believes that in order to make a great product, either its coffee or cacao, you have to work closely in harmony with the environment, nature and people living there. The quality of Claudio’s coffee and cacao starts with the work at the farm, from seed to cup to sustain perfection. It is always essential to understand how the handling and processing took place before uncovering the quality of coffee potentials. The roasting is the last stage that gives you a unique understanding of what happened to coffee from the time it was picked to the time it was fermented, dried and placed into storage facility for stabilization before we, consumers, could understand the terroir of given product. Nova Moca planted with mostly caturra, red bourbon varieties of Arabica and Robusta as well.

After walking around the farm and trying to grasp as much of information I could, I was scheduled to meet with Claudio, the next day to have further discussion. He welcomed me at this home in São Tomé where his chocolate factory and lab is located, across from the ocean in the center of the capital. He prepared coffee in old Italian fashion using moka pot. Claudio is very extraordinary person with great vision as what he wants to achieve with his products, even though our views on specialty coffee were not on the same level, Claudio with old school vision, and myself with new way of understanding specialty coffee, especially in not so known region as São Tomé.  For over 40 years Claudio was on the line of making some history in changing the understanding of agriculture products, how quality change the perception of final product. He pursued his passion and made some great changes in coffee and cacao production on the island of São Tomé. Not to mention the fact that local people in São Tomé do not drink coffee at all.  But coffee considered as a touristic product for foreigners to enjoy. Coffee on the island is not perfect, with bad quality, bitter, less pleasant to drink where proper preparation of coffee is hardly known for locals.

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Claudio believes that even robusta that most of us try to avoid in specialty coffee market can taste pleasant with great aroma if carefully produced and processed. I was able to taste his own blend that consists Arabica (caturra, bourbon washed) and Robusta natural process. Coffee was already grounded when I got there and it roasted a month ago but the elegant acidity and smooth body with evaporated dried fruit flavors was something unique with clear patterns of possibilities the coffee of São Tomé could have. He did not have any single origins of Arabica varietals I could taste but blends only, but the dry fruit notes of his blend as Claudio described, comes from the natural Robusta process rather then Arabica.

São Tomé does not produce coffee on much higher scale like any other big producing coffee nations, and for this reason the price of coffee is much higher. Coffee from this region characterized as exotic and unique rather then highly praised coffee from Kenya or Ethiopia. Since São Tomé is very expensive region the price for green coffee could go up to EUR16 per kg for export, and that makes is less favorable for any specialty coffee roasters to be attracted in getting coffee from here. But without any doubt, the quality of Claudio’s coffee and cacao starts with the work at the plantation,  “just like the quality of the wine begins in the vineyard” as Claudio says. Each step has to be done with passion and love and at the end you will be rewarded for your labor and quality of the product.

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The magic of true flavor of the coffee from Sao Tome yet to be discovered.

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