Beaver Creek, Locally Grown and Brewed
There’s nothing quite as intoxicating as the smell of a cup of expertly brewed coffee, it’s right up there with newborn babies, freshly laundered linen and bread straight out of the oven. Most of us drink it every day, probably a couple of times a day – but do you ever give a thought to where it comes from? If you did, your thoughts would probably jump straight to Kenya or Uganda or the like, but did you know that we’re growing coffee right here in South Africa? In KZN to be exact.
The Cumming family has been in the business of growing coffee since 1984. Beaver Creek Farm, originally a banana farm, was changed over to cultivating coffee around this time and has not looked back since. Together the team does everything from growing and harvesting, to roasting and packaging their coffee, ready for the shelves.
This truly is a local product that has been lovingly cultivated in the rich soils of KZN. It is roasted to perfection and then shipped country-wide (with minimal carbon footprint), to be enjoyed as a perfectly brewed cuppa. To find our more about cultivating coffee in SA, we spoke to Managing Director, Dylan Cumming…
Crush: Can you tell us a bit about the history of coffee cultivation in South Africa?
Dylan: Coffee was first introduced to Natal in 1854. Plants were sent originally from Bourbon (Reunion) and later from Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Plantations were established by 1864, and it was said that there were 4000 acres under cultivation by 1870. This sparked widespread interest in the crop amongst coastal farmers. Unfortunately though, disease, careless cultivation, lack of sufficient labour and the rapid rise of the tea and sugar industries, led to the demise of the coffee industry by the 1880s.
Around the 1960s, cuts in sugar cane quotas in Natal led to the re-introduction of the idea of coffee as a potential crop. Following a favorable report from coffee researches from Tanganyika (Tanzania), the idea gathered momentum and coffee was reintroduced. Production was limited to the KwaZulu Natal coastal strip, at altitudes below 2000 feet (from Empangeni to Port St Johns) and areas to the north, (Limpopo and Mpumulanga) at altitudes above 3500 feet. All these areas were cultivated with coffee up until the early 90s, until the escalating cost of labour and attractive alternate crops, led to its demise once again.
Crush: So it seems then that that coffee has had a bit of a checkered past in SA, how did the Cumming family get into coffee production?
Dylan: My father had an interest in coffee from an early age, having done a school project on coffee farming in Brazil. When one of our banana plantations got diseased, he and my grandfather experimented with coffee. After the first harvest, processed by hand by us children and roasted in our mother’s oven, I think everyone was convinced that coffee was the future.
Crush: Can you tell us what the ideal conditions are for growing coffee?
Dylan: Though a lot of emphasis is placed on altitude as a key factor in growing coffee, this is largely a myth. Mild mean temperature is the most important factor in growing high quality Arabica beans. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘Goldilocks Zone’ – not too hot, not too cold, just right. The mean annual temperature needs to fall between 18 and 22 degrees ºC. Altitude, latitude, ocean currents and other microclimate factors are what influence temperature. Beaver Creek is situated at 31 degrees south, 200m above sea level, and is situated on the coastal belt next to the warm Mozambique Channel, so is ideal for producing the highest quality coffee in the world
Crush: Can you tell us a bit about the coffee you grow?
Dylan: We grow three different Arabica cultivars at Beaver Creek, each with their own unique flavour. We have over 50 days of harvest through the year from February to October, with most of the crop being picked from May to July. The cultivars are picked separately and each day’s harvest is tracked through all the processing, we call this Lot Tracking. We experiment with different styles of processing from wet and dry, as well as honey processing.
Crush: Are there unique challenges to growing coffee?
Dylan: Disease, drought and increasing cost of labour are the challenges Beaver Creek has faced over the years. With better farming practices, new technologies and systems we‘ve overcome these problems. Over the past ten years we’ve introduced a number of new practices to continue our sustainable coffee production. We have focused a lot of attention on soil fertility and temperature. We decreased the use of herbicides, increased the use of ground cover, introduced more shade practices such as planting indigenous trees and planting our coffee rows in an east-west direction.
Crush: So, on a more personal level, where did the name Beaver Creek originate from?
Dylan: Ed Cumming, my father, was given the nickname ‘Beaver’ as a kid, while boarding school at Dale Collage. He was referred to being ‘as busy as a beaver’ and the nickname stuck. When Ed purchased the farm (originally a banana farm) it happened to have a stream (creek) running through it, so he decided to name it Beaver Creek Farm.
Crush: This is a family business through and through, has it been important to keep it that way?
Dylan: It has indeed worked out for us, although not without it’s challenges of course! Family is very important to us and no matter what, family will always come first. What’s great about working with family is that we’re all working towards the same goals and are naturally more invested and passionate about the business and its success. Beaver Creek is a family business of three generations with the fourth already learning to make coffee at 3-years old! Hopefully the business will be passed down through many more generations still to come.
Crush: Is there a secret to making a great cup of coffee?
Dylan: There are many ways to make a great cup of coffee. The most important factor is your ratio of coffee to water, a simple fundamental that everyone can learn. With most filter-type methods, start with 1 to 15 and for espresso begin with 1 to 2. You then can experiment with grind size and brew time. Trust your taste and experiment.
Dylan: We continue to strive to make world-class coffee crop after crop. We continue to improve our farming practices and processing methods to achieve this. We believe there is a great opportunity to re-establish South Africa as a producer of high quality coffee, and we hope to lead and inspire other farmers to achieve this.
Want to know more? Visit Beaver Creek Farm and take a tour. Pop in at the café for a bite to eat (and of course cup of coffee). You can even participate in a barista course to help understand how to brew the perfect cup.
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