WAKING UP TO SMELL THE COFFEE AT MPENJATI
Mpenjati is a relatively new kid on South Africa’s very small coffee block. We visited this beautiful South Coast coffee haven to find out more …
WORDS AND IMAGES: SHIRLEY LE GUERN
As the saying goes – with enough coffee, anything is possible. That’s why, when you gaze over the lush green hills of the KZN lower South Coast to the horizon where you can just make out the waves breaking onto the region’s golden beaches, it is not hard to understand just why coffee farmer, Des Wichmann, is as passionate about the coffee trees that wind down the slopes as he is about the region in which he grew up.
Bumping along the tracks of the 55-hectare farm that is the essence of Mpenjati Coffee, he regularly hails locals who know him as “Magwava” in memory of a boyhood spent eating guavas on the family farm.
Many are likely to turn their hands to picking the bright red cherries that are clustering along the stems of Mpenjati’s coffee trees. Coffee is highly labour intensive. The cherries must be handpicked at exactly the right time. As all do not ripen simultaneously and have to be carefully selected, the greener ones must be left for another day.
From a permanent staff of 13 and 10 casuals that picked coffee last year, Des expects to add at least 20 to 30 casuals to his permanent staff of 13 to collect around four tons of coffee this year.
BEAN THERE, DONE THAT
Coffee was first harvested at Mpenjati in 2019.
The beauty of coffee, says Des, is that the results come fairly quickly. “Within 12 months, we had flowering trees. 18 months later, we were picking and, by year two, the trees had doubled in size and were flowering nicely.”
But it hasn’t been easy. Mpenjati grew from an initial harvest of 300kg of green beans in year one to 1.7 tons in 2020. But, in 2021, a leaf miner attack led to the loss of many trees and the harvest shrunk to just 500 kg.
At the moment, he says he is “hoping to turn the scale the other way” which reflects that, unlike the many farmers who have exited coffee over the years, Des meets his challenges head on.
What has become a family business with his wife Leigh managing the coffee shop and even his youngsters selling coffee beside local beaches during busy holiday times could set an important precedent for the revival of coffee growing in the region.
The branding and signage pointing to the farm and coffee shop, positioned just after you cross the Mpenjati River, is proudly African.
Nestled at the top of a hill, the destination is a cluster of traditional farm buildings that are home to the hulling, sorting and roasting rooms as well as the newly outfitted coffee shop.
Sitting on the veranda over a cappuccino, Des explains that Mpenjati Coffee started with a dream. He’d farmed everything from livestock to sugar and bananas before travelling overseas. On his return, he wanted to do something different.
“I diversified into vegetables and mushrooms and even peppadews, trying to find a niche market. Eventually I settled on coffee which you can sell and market on your own. I was too late to get into macadamia (nuts). I’d rather be bigger and better now and, when everyone tries to jump into coffee, I will be established,” he explains.
After selling the farm on which he planted his first coffee trees, he moved closer to the coast, buying a family home in Munster and leasing his current farm. Over the past four and a half years, he has planted up 55 hectares with a range of different coffee varietals from as far afield as Colombia, Costa Rica and Kenya.
“At Mpenjati Coffee, we value the simple things that make a great product… (we) know and understand the terroir in order to produce outstanding premium single origin coffee. For generations, we’ve been farming the fruitful soil of Kwa-Zulu Natal but I’ve still had to do things the hard way. So, I’m looking and learning all the time – that’s school fees, I guess,” he shrugs.
The KZN South Coast is ideally suited to growing coffee. Although it does not have the high altitudes enjoyed by other African coffee growers such as Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia, it does have the rich, slightly acidic soil, the high humidity, good drainage and ideal coastal winds.
“I’m quite low altitude and, in my opinion, if we can farm well, there shouldn’t be a reason not to be able to score good coffee. We’ve proved that already. I have sent coffee to some companies who have who have cupped it and scored it and we immediately went into the specialty coffee category. I recently sent our coffee to a Cape Town company Quaffee, who cupped it and said that whatever we were doing, we were doing it right.”
STIRRING UP COFFEE HISTORY
Des’s short history is part of the bigger picture of coffee in South Africa. Introduced to what was Natal in the 1800s and grown at a mission station, this new crop soon died out due to diseases and pests. It returned about 100 years later to be experimentally grown in Rustenberg in the 1930s and commercially in Tzaneen during the sixties.
The high price of coffee made this a good prospect in the seventies and eighties with many farmers planting trees, but a drop in the price of coffee combined with an invasion of pests and diseases saw many exiting the industry. Estates closed
one by one until just the die-hards such as the neighbouring Beaver Creek Coffee Farm, the Assagay Coffee Farm near Pietermaritzburg and Sabi Valley Coffee in Mpumalanga remained.
A few more have popped up recently but South Africa is not yet officially a coffee producing country.
According to the Department of Agriculture, whereas a total of 700 hectares was planted to coffee in the nineties, by 2012 just 200 hectares, mostly in KZN and Mpumalanga, remained. Those are the latest available figures, it seems.
During the dark days of apartheid, sanctions saw the dumping of poor quality coffee in South Africa at ridiculously low prices. We became an instant coffee stronghold, lagging the worldwide move toward what is now recognised as premium quality specialty coffee.
The good news for Des and others in South Africa’s tight knit and passionate coffee community is that the catch up was quick. Today, South Africa’s still small coffee industry is seen as being characterized by high quality, single origin beans stocked by independent local coffee shops and roasteries.
The big name brands on supermarket shelves are mostly imported, however.
“In the seventies, who would have thought you would come to a place like this and have a coffee? You went to a store, bought your coffee and went home. Today, the coffee culture has changed with everything from aero presses to latte art on a cup. There’s so much and it’s so diverse,” he comments.
Almost in tribute to this heritage, Des has planted a tree that was grown in the seventies in Munster on his farm.
He has also sourced 2000 trees from an indigenous nursery. Known as Racemosa, they are regarded by some as “wild” coffee and originate from the Hluhluwe area. This plant has a very small, black bean that is very high in sugars.
The higher the sugar, the better the coffee quality apparently.
“We measure the sugars in our coffee and these outweigh the Arabica coffees that we grow. But, when you look at it you wouldn’t say that it is a coffee tree because it is completely diverse,” he explains.
FROM SEED TO BEAN - TAKING A COFFEE TOUR
Apart from a good cup of coffee in beautiful surrounds, the Mpenjati experience is enriched by a coffee tour with Des. Meandering through the beautiful landscape, he takes you through the coffee process, visiting his nursery where seeds are germinated and nurtured into seedlings and, ultimately, small plants.
You get to pick a bean off the tree and taste the surprisingly sweet raw fruit.
Then you see how, after picking, the fruits are washed, dried and fermented on sun beds for 10 to 12 days before being sorted on a gravitational table and graded before being roasted and packaged.
Although, Mpenjati is one South Africa’s larger coffee farms, there are no commercial aspirations and Des is firmly focused on producing high quality, specialty coffees.
“There’s a bit more effort put into making sure that the pickers pick the right coloured beans and that these are carefully sorted. We bought a gravitational table to eliminate any bad beans getting into the roaster’s cups. Heavier beans gravitate to the one side and the lighter ones move to the other. Coffee is scored on the quality of the cup. If it is eighty points or above, you are producing specialty coffee,” he explains.
That is exactly what Mpenjati is doing and the end result is that the farm has more potential buyers than beans – a situation that Des does not enjoy and one in which very few South African businesses find themselves.
At present, half of Mpenjati’s coffee output goes to its home branded coffees and coffee shop with the remainder sold to independent coffee shops and roasteries.
Initially, Des set out to plant 10 hectares each year and has only a small space to plant now. “I tried to bulk up as much as I could. At the beginning, I asked a café owner how many kilos of coffee they got through in a week. The answer was about 6kg. That came to over 280kg per year. During my first year, I did 300 kg which meant I only had enough for one café. I realised that I had to get out there and plant.”
This year, he will be gapping – replacing plants that have succumbed to fires and the fungus that has resulted from very high rainfall.
He is also refining his processes and products.
That includes developing a cascara – a fruity tea made from the dried red cherry skins that surround the coffee beans.
“We have got yellow and red honey on the beds and we are going to do some naturals when the major crop comes through. The different things we do should help us get as much flavour out of the coffee as we can,” he says.
Success here hinges on the fact that Des has spent his coffee career learning – completing green bean courses, buying his own coffee roaster and learning the subtleties of ratios and cupping (the process of repeatedly tasting and assessing the coffee for quality, aroma and flavour) and more.
He says that the mentorship of coffee guru, Theo le Roux, as well as support from the surrounding coffee community has helped him immensely.
These days, this humble South Coast farmer is confident enough to talk to plant pathologists as far afield as the US and Guatemala to deal with potential problems and improve yields whilst also providing trees for other local farmers who are prepared to venture into coffee along the South Coast.
“But, at the end of the day, I’m just a coffee farmer who loves what he does – although I wish I was two years ahead of where I am right now,” he smiles.