Shortly after nightfall, the relaxed tempo suddenly stepped up a gear, or two. The prelude to this was the arrival of the co-operative’s rusting Toyota pick-up truck as it barrelled up the slope with just enough momentum to reach the top. The sense of the excitement in the air was palpable. With its suspension groaning under the weight of the precious load, a dozen or so co-operative members jumped out of the back and – one by one – carried the queshas (hessian sacks) of red cherry on their shoulders to be weighed in on an antique floor-standing set of scales. When you consider that some of the sacks weighed in at over 100kg, this was far easier said than done.
Under the dim glow of two 40 watt bulbs, the cherries were inspected (most of the time) and the weight recorded before the contents emptied into a large metal siphon at the end of a concrete ramp. The sweet, slightly fermented smell of the cherries perfumed the air as the thirty-year-old engine was cranked into life, filling the engine room momentarily with a thick plumb of diesel smoke. Next, the valve that connected a large water tank situated high up the hill to the rotary milling apparatus was opened and the various stages of the washing process sprang into life with a cascade of rushing water towards the large spinning hulling plates. This was all connected by a series of well-greased metal and leather exposed belt drives that would occasionally whip and snap the air with a loud crack over the rhythmic, deafening sound of mechanical noise. Once everything was working in tandem as it should do, Jerbose’s son, Jamal, who was perched at the head of the rotary eight-foot long miller, was given the ‘thumb’s up’ to open the siphon chute and allow the day’s batch of red cherries to begin the next stage in their long and arduous journey towards the coffee cup.
The process of washing coffee is seriously labour intensive, and every second counts. There is no time to lose valuable coffee at this stage once the milling machine is in full operation. As the cherries reach the first three large milling plates, the ‘flesh’ is removed under the pressure of their grinding action and the mucilage – the waste product – becomes separated from the beans by a large rotating eight-foot long funnel angled under a sprinkler system (by sprinkler system, I mean a copper pipe with holes drilled into it at regular intervals). With a sense of urgency, we climbed back and forth like yo-yos over the exposed drive belts to keep the turning chamber free of any build-up or blockage. It was a constant effort to keep the steady progress of the de-hulled cherries moving down towards the washing channel outside. Moving from the engine shed, I grabbed what I can only describe as a wooden-headed broom stick and helped to coax the bean’s steady advance towards their eventual resting place for 36 hours. In bare feet, six of us would work on alternating channels at a time, slowly driving milky wave-upon-wave of washed cherries towards the tanks for fermentation. Occasionally, the light-footed sprightly Temesgen who negotiated the two parallel washing channels with ease opened up another valve to give the cherries a secondary soaking under the dim row of light bulbs overhead. Working in the shadows, water was everywhere, and the going underfoot fast became treacherous. One step out-of-place and it could spell a six-foot fall into a fermentation tank, or worse. Meanwhile, the separated mucilage was being hurriedly cleared down another sloped channel for further filtration (in theory) whereby the waste enters a separate collection chamber and the water finds its way back to the watercourse from which it was originally drawn.
With the combined effort of eight of us, it took a couple of hours to process just over 2000 kilos of red cherry. At the height of the harvest, the washing facility has the potential to process 30,000 kilos. That equates to a twelve hour night for the guys tasked with the labour-intensive process of hulling and washing.
Eventually, the rotary huller and water pump engines were cut and silence prevailed over the hillside once again. Returning to my tent that night, I felt elated by the adrenalin of the experience, yet exhausted and shocked at the conditions the guys have to work in, night after night. They are nothing short of heroes and I take my hat off to each and every one of them. By the end of the week, the volume of red cherry had rocketed – largely due to some much-needed heavy showers on the last successive two nights that helped the green cherries to ripen further – and we were washing more 7000 kilos of organic, 100 percent Choche Arabica red cherry. A promising sign for a good harvest this year. Just a little more rain is all it requires for the ‘second and third phase’ green cherries (according to the time of flowering around Feb-March each year) to fully ripen.
Now, I knew that the process of washing coffee is water intensive but I never realised just how intensive it really is until I saw it with my eyes at firsthand. Despite numerous efforts to get close to a definitive figure, nobody seems to know for sure how much water is used. But I did get a little closer to the answer. Currently, the water tank on the wet mill station has a capacity of 50,000 litres and is refilled every day. There are two of them (although one of them has been decommissioned because of a leak). Combine this with the fact that there are 52 washing stations (privately and co-operative owned) on the 45km stretch from Jimma to Choche alone – and I’m not going to insult anyone’s intelligence here by doing the math – but it is patently evident that rivers of the stuff is used in the wet processing. This is the same water that people use to drink, wash and bathe in.