“It’s all about the coffee” or so Jill Bolton told me twelve months ago when I was doing some work for the tourist office. Twelve months on and I had the pleasure of photographing the coffee plantation and the various stages of production that turns a red berry into one of the most expensive and exclusive coffee’s in the World. The Rosemary Gate estate is one of two plantations on St Helena, the other, ran by Solomon’s produces larger quantities for export, Rosemary gate however produced hand crafted coffee for the local market and exports only to Harrods, London where it sells for around £60 for 100g. Thankfully it’s much cheaper on island and I have become quite a fan of a coffee and cake at the St Helena Coffee shop.
The coffee is highly prized because of its purity, a Green Tipped Bourbon Arabica bean introduced to St Helena in 1732 and completely pure and unchanged since. Unlike most coffee growing regions of the World, St Helena’s isolation ensures the coffee plant does not cross or fertilise with any other varieties maintaining its original gene line.
I was asked to produce some photos of the process by Jill for some point of sale marketing in Harrods, London, the thought that my work may be on display in this prestigious London store is very exciting.
I met with Jill and photographed the pickers, the first stage in the annual crop and coffee production. Although it might be the first stage this year, the process of picking these plants started 20 years ago when Jill and husband Bill started the Rosemary Gate Planation. Coffee was produced on St Helena hundreds of years ago, indeed Napoleon himself is once said to exclaim that “The only good things about St Helena is the coffee”. Such high praise brought a surge in demand and in 1839 it was described as being of very superior quality and flavour and sold my merchants Wm Burnie and Co for 1d per lb making it the most expensive coffee in the World at the time. In high demand in 1851 at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, coffee grown at the Bamboo Hedge estate in Sandy Bay (still an active coffee plantation) won a Premier Award but despite this in later years production slowed and eventually ceased altogether, plants were neglected and the industry collapsed.
In 1994 however it was revived and Jill and Bill have now been growing coffee for twenty years. It was however, seven years after the first plants were sown on the estate that the first berries were ready for picking and an annual production could be made. The picking itself is done, like every step o0f the process, by hand. Locals, expats and holiday makers enjoy spending time picking the berries under the strict supervision and quality control of Jill. The berries must be exactly right in colour, a stunning crimson red, anything more or less and they won’t be right. The berry has taken eight months to get to this stage and picking takes place between December and February in a frantic race against time to collect the crop before they over ripen.
Once picked, the berries must be pulled, again this is done by hand as the red berries are poured through a beautiful and rather old looking pulping machine. Turned by hand with a constant supply of water the fleshy part of the fruit is removed and the hard seed, or parchment is separated out. Nothing goes to waste, the discarded pulp is composted and used back on the plantation. The parchment is the washed and left in buckets of water to ferment. Natural sugars and yeasts remove the outer sticky layer on the beans and they are then rinsed and left to dry.
Bill takes over from here, he meticulously checks the moisture content of the beans, getting it down from 50% to 11%. It’s not strait forward as Bill is constantly checking humidity in the air. I hear him shout, “is that rain, can you feel rain” as he rushes over to the drying beans ready to pull them inside. “If they get wet it puts us back several hours or days” he tells me. Cheap, mass produced coffees are artificially dried, but the traditional way of drying in St Helena sun ensure a better quality product at the end, and it’s worth the extra time and effort.
One Bill is happy with the moisture content the parchment is hulled, removing the silver skin from the coffee and leaving behind what is known as the green bean. The green bean is size sorted to remove any defective beans and is ready for roasting, and is also the form it is exported in.
Bill has some roasting as we speak, the smell wafting from the small shed is magical, a sweet, almost chocolate smell that as Bill says, drifts down through the plantation and has passers-by stop and sniff the air. Talking to Bill is an education, his enthusiasm for the process and the care and craft is infectious, “I could talk about it all day”, and Im sure he could. This is what makes the product so special, not just the isolation and special beans, but the attention to detail, the love that goes into it, and the steadfast refusal to step away from a traditional process that has been in use for hundreds of years.