I ran into Jay Ruskey on the floor of the SCAA 2014 Exibition hall in Seattle last April. He was carrying a crate over flowing with arabica shrubs, their pots wrapped in burlap. I had heard whispers of a coffee farm in California before this moment, but hadn't come across anything concrete. Seeing these living, breathing coffee plants being toted around thousands of square feet of products and machinery was like spotting a beacon in the chaos. Their presence made me realize there is another - incredibly important - dimension to coffee that I would love the opportunity to explore.
Jay runs a coffee and exotic fruit farm called Good Land Organics. His coffee growing is a collaboration with Mark Gaskell of the University of California Cooperative Extension. The farm is nestled on a hillside just north of Santa Barbara in Goleta—which is about a two hour drive from LA . Taking a trip to 'origin' is now incredibly accessible for coffee loving Angelenos.
Only a few weeks after our introduction, I made the drive up the coast to Goleta. I traveled up the winding hillsides and found myself in the company of a group of coffee and botanical enthusiasts eager to learn about coffee production and understand the challenges of growing coffee organically in an a-typical region.
The tour started at 10 a.m. in the farm shed. Like students around a blackboard, we casually learned the basics of production from Jay. He also explained what makes growing coffee on the coast of California—at an elevation of 650ft—unusual. Jay introduced his co-worker and head coffee roaster, Lindsay. She was busy brewing up her roast for us to enjoy while we sampled exotic fruits grown on the property. The experience took the concept of 'local coffee' to an entirely different level.
We put on our hats and made our way out into the sun, beyond the koi pond and toward the coffee plants. Along the dirt roadway, we came across Good Land's cherimoya crop. The tall and bushy trees were covered in fruits. Jay explained that the cherimoya flowers had to be hand pollinated in order to produce a symmetrical and fully expressed fruit. Hearing about these intricacies is a reminder that farming is a labor of love.
Our next stop was a visit to Good Land's collection of finger limes. They are a small crescent shaped citrus fruit that is filled with caviar like fibers. Often referred to as 'caviar' limes, their unique texture compliments their tangy and fragrant flavor.
When we arrive at the coffee crop, Jay explains what to look for on the surface of a coffee cherry as well as how to measure it's sugar content using a refractometer. With buckets in hand we are sent out into the field of trees to hand pick the ripest cherries—a task not unusual in the specialty coffee supply chain yet completely novel to us.
Though I have been on the pursuit of coffee for years now, this is is the first time I have tasted a coffee cherry. It's mind blowing. We sample all the varietals jay has growing: Cattura and Arabica Typicas, Cattura Amarillo, Pacas and Gesha. Each cherry has it's own distinct taste and none are reminiscent of the 'typical' coffee flavor that most of the world is familiar with.
Our tour culminates back at the shed where we started. We learn how Good Land modestly processes their beans on a hand cranked machine. The machine requires water to wash the coffee and to enable the separation of the the fruit from the seed. It is simple, effective and enlightening to see.
Once the pulps have been removed, both the seeds a skins are placed on drying racks. When the beans are dry they will be stored for roasting. As for the dried cherries, they are to be sold as cascara—a tisane made with coffee cherries.
The Good Land Organics coffee farm tour was one of the highlights of my year in pursuit of coffee. It was a reminder that the coffee in our cup requires hard work, dedication and expertise at every stage of the supply chain. Though Jay is very humble about his California coffee growing project—that has been nine years in the making—it is clear that he is on to something grand.