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80 Years of H.R.Higgins

This year we are 80 years old. When I began to think about this it dawned on me that I have been involved full time in the business for exactly half that time. Over the years my father has told me about my grandfather, whom I can’t remember, how he started in business, and I’ve read all his diaries of course. The stories belong to a time before I was born when the world was very different and therefore always appear in black and white in my mind. But now I realise that even in the last 40 years that I have been working so much has changed, and now I am telling my younger colleagues’ stories which much seem as long ago to them as my father’s do to me.

“It was a desperate start. From 7am each morning I turned the handle of the roaster and by 8.30 am got 84 lb (38kgs) roasted and cooled”.

Wrote my grandfather in his recollections. I was amazed when I learned how hard he worked, indeed he saw his ability to work harder than any of his colleagues as one of his greatest strengths.  But beyond that was a passion to take coffee to a new level. For years he had learned his trade with other firms and had been locked into buying his coffee from a wholesale list. During the wartime he had to take whatever coffee he could get but as the fifties progressed was frustrated by the restrictions placed on him. It became easier to source coffees from more producing countries, but he was forced to buy whatever the wholesale coffee businesses had on their list. They would chop and change their farms based on price and not much else, and for a lot of the time he found these coffees ok but unremarkable

“Coffee today is as the wild rose compared to the highest developed varieties. There has hardly been any advance in the last 300 years in aroma and flavours, and I am convinced that there could be.”

He always believed that each country could produce some great coffees, the problem was how to find it and source it. This led him to head off to Tanganyika as it was known, in 1960 to meet the African farmers on Kilimanjaro and buy directly from them, but it was still an exception to the norm and the wholesalers didn’t like it one bit, describing my grandfather somewhat dismissively as ‘a grocer’. I don’t believe he cared one bit what they thought, and anyway a grocer he was at the start, a member of the master grocers institute so it was hardly an insult. He was really interested in the farmers, and their coffee, and wanted to share this with his customers, not hiding the coffee as part of a blend but promoting it as something special.

By the time I began in 1982 we were able to buy coffee through UK based shippers one of which offered close contact with farmers and, like us, wanted to find and promote sustainable sources from high quality farms. I visited Tanzania myself in this same year with my parents and saw coffee grown for the first time. Arriving on a very delayed flight which landed in the middle of the night I had seen almost nothing on the way from Kilimanjaro airport to the house we were staying in. The next morning, we were driven into Arusha to the bank to change our pounds into Tanzanian shillings and I could only sit in silence and stare out of the car window.

Everything here was so different, the light, the smells, the heat, and the people, and above all the terrible poverty. People were living on the edge, and I felt very far from home.  Life in Europe was an irrelevance to these people. What struck me the most was how people treated each other. We visited a farm from which we had bought some coffee and I was at first bemused but then horrified. These people were living in a weird post-colonial world of tea dances and cocktail parties, they dressed as though it was still 1930, and referred to ‘UK’, a place they seemed to visit occasionally, but bore no resemblance to the country I knew.  But what shocked me most was their treatment of the workers who looked the poorest of people I had seen so far. I can’t say this was necessarily a light bulb moment, but it certainly showed me how easy it could be to unwittingly support this mistreatment. 

During the 1980s there were many changes in the coffee world. We saw the opening of American coffee shops, and people started going out for a coffee. We also made a big change of our own when in 1986 we left our original shop in South Molton Street and started roasting coffee at a new site in Waltham Abbey. It was a difficult transition. South Molton Street was always very busy and roasting on the premises drew customers who followed their noses to our door. Although we briefly tried roasting at our new shop it became a nuisance to our new residential neighbours. I still think back to the old shop and the characters who worked there as a special time. 

In the 1990s we saw the start of certified coffees. At the beginning the Fairtrade Foundation really had no interest in the quality of the coffees they were certifying or promoting, they had to be persuaded that fairly traded coffee needs to be good coffee. The Rainforest Alliance certification took the idea of fairtrade and allied it with environmental protection and in 2002 we were invited by one of our suppliers to meet farmers who were the first to be recognised as RA Certified. Here we met Dieter and Holly Nottebohm who run an estate called Nueva Granada in Guatemala. We began buying from them straightaway and have been ever since. 

Their farm is in sharp contrast to the one I saw in 1982. Dieter’s family have a long historical connection with Guatemalan coffee dating back to the 1800s. They were part of the development of the export industry from its infancy. When we met them we were impressed with the passion and care they took not only in the coffee itself but for the local economy and their employees and their families.

The farm introduced a primary school for the permanent workers with a library and they are starting a secondary school which they share with neighbouring farms. They also have a health care clinic for vaccinations, and basic health needs, and they donate to local social and medical centres in the nearby town.

They pipe water free of charge to 4 neighbouring settlements for between 4 and 5000 people. All water used in the coffee mill is recycled and they have installed solar panels to reduce their impact on local electricity usage.

They follow sustainable guidelines on the use of fertilizers and use the coffee cherry pulp as a compost. The coffee is all shade grown partly under macadamia trees and by the planting of over 30,000 additional trees since joining the programme. Local springs irrigate the farm and all of the land by the streams is left uncut to provide wildlife corridors. 

When we thought about our anniversary, and what kind of coffee we could introduce to celebrate it all kinds of ideas were floated. In the end it was clear to me that we are not just celebrating the past but looking to the future and maybe even another 80 years if we are lucky. The world will definitely have changed in another 80 years as much as if not more than in the last 80, especially in regards to the environment. If there is any future for coffee production, we have to support sustainable agriculture and farmers who take care of their environment and people. So earlier this year we tried samples and selected a coffee from Dieter and Holly’s farm. 

This coffee is a Geisha variety and honey processed. The Geisha coffee tree has a very low yield so in comparison to many varieties isn’t widely grown. The flavour though is more complex and layered than some of the more disease resistant commercial hybrids. The beans are hand picked then partially pulped. Some of the outer mucilage on the beans is retained and this is then sun-dried. On the patios they look very sticky at first but as they dry, they become very wrinkly and dark on the surface. If you pick them up and peel back the dry skin and you put one in your mouth you can actually taste honey.

The name Geisha has nothing to do with Japan by the way. The varietal has its origins in Ethiopia, the home of the coffee tree, and was identified in the 1930s. It was found growing on a mountain which translates as Gesha or Geisha, there is no definitive spelling in English. 

We have spent some time carefully profiling the coffee, tweaking each roast and cupping after 4 to 5 days when the coffee has had time to rest and the flavour stabilizes. 

The Geisha beans are dense, more so than most of our coffees which usually means they can and need more heat to roast right through to the centre. They have however an open structure so the heat penetrates through the seam quickly once the beans have turned brown and just before they expand and crack open. This makes controlling the heat quite tricky. Too much at this point and the beans run away, become too dark and the flavour is lost. We find the coffee reveals a balanced flavour, sweet, winey with pineapple and peach sweetness.

The future of our business relies on many factors but especially on the continued sustainable production of coffee. For me this Geisha is special as it embodies the very nature of coffee. A fragile plant not easily grown but giving us wonderful flavours to savour. I think my grandfather’s belief in the potential of coffee has been realised, and that we have played a small but important part in this. I only wish he, my dad and I could all sit and share a cup of this amazing drink that has bound us together.


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