On the coffee trail, from seed to a cup near you

The coffee market in Ireland has proved remarkably resilient through the downturn, and it’s catching up on tea as our favourite beverage. We trace the beautiful bean’s journey back to a remote farm in Tanzania where elephants roam free

As the sun sinks below Kilimanjaro and a warm afternoon gives way to a chilly night, a group of middle-aged men – and one young hipster – circle a coffee kitchen on the edge of an African crater like hungry lions eyeing their dinner.

Their eyes are all fixed on eight cups of coffee. First the men gently wave the steam from the fresh brews of Tanzanian beans towards their noses before slowly stirring it and practically immersing their faces in the blackness. There’s no talking, and the only sound that breaks the silence is ugly slurping noises when the time for tasting comes.

Aideen Christianakis looks on nervously. She and her husband, Leon, are the owners of the Acacia Hills coffee plantation, and their beans are being assessed by this collection of master brewers, buyers and roasters from all over the world.

If the Acacia Hills coffee scores highly in this “cupping” – as coffee people insist on calling tasting – it will attract more attention from international buyers and command higher prices. If it scores poorly, it will have to take its chances in the nearby auction houses – and while coffee prices are at record highs on commodity markets, prices on the auction room floor will still be lower than if sold privately.


When the cupping is completed, one by one the cuppers offer up their opinions on the eight varieties the Christianakises have put before them. This is where I get lost. “Can I be a cupping Nazi?” asks the young hipster judge from Portland. Everyone nods. He explains that only one person should have “agitated” (stirred, to you and me) the coffee before the smelling because the aroma can change depending on the technique of the stirrer. “I would feel bad if I didn’t say anything,” he says. “Knowledge bombs; dropping them.”

Right so. For the next hour or so the coffee is described as “bathrobe” and is said to have the flavour of cashews, fudge, cranberries, chocolate, wood – sorry, who’s tasted wood? In fact the only flavour the coffee does not appear to have is, you know, coffee flavour.

Good result

At the end of it all, Acacia Hills scores very highly, and Aideen and Leon Christianakis look relieved. Aideen walks from the "cupping kitchen" she had specially built for this and similar events, through the farm and on to the veranda of her mountain-top home and asks the staff to start preparing "supper". She looks out over the valley below. It teems with wild animals and ancient tribes. Not so much as a solitary electric light spoils her view of the Milky Way above.

It is far from all this she was reared.

Aideen is the daughter of a Wexford cattle dealer. She studied pharmacy in Trinity College, where she met Leon, a third-generation Tanzanian-Greek coffee farmer. After graduating, he suggested they try out life as coffee farmers before settling down as Irish pharmacists.

“I was in my early 20s, and when you are that age you don’t think too far ahead,” she says now. “So I said okay, and we are still here almost 20 years later.”

Her life could scarcely have panned out any differently from what she imagined when she first walked through the gates of Trinity College Dublin in 1988.

“First of all there’s the climate; the sun shines every day here,” she says. She has a large staff working for her, and she tells me she hasn’t ironed a shirt in 20 years.

So the couple don’t exactly live a hand-to-mouth existence, but with two children in schools in the UK, and all the overheads that come with reclaiming an isolated and sprawling farm on the edge of a volcanic crater, they must budget carefully to keep the show on the road.

They had to build the roads through their farm and keep a power supply running. The list of things they need to buy to maintain their plantation is always long. Water tops it every time. They recently installed a reservoir – which is also used to run water to the local village – and they keep a constant watch on rainfall levels.

They dream of the day they will be able to afford an elephant fence; and they really need one. On one drive through the farm we see an elephant and a family of buffalo out for an evening stroll. While such sights are a delight for an Irish city boy, they are not for the Christianakises or their carefully cultivated coffee plants.

“Tonight we could have 50 buffalo coming through here, and they don’t know not to trample the bushes,” says Aideen.

The farm is in its infancy. The couple bought the land in 2007 from a German who “had run out of luck and money”.

Today Acacia Hills employs more than 100 local people, who would otherwise have had to move to a city nearby in search of work.

She says growing coffee is “like any farming: you have to have a really sound knowledge base, and you have so have some funding or finance behind you. It can be a tricky crop to grow. The trees are really prone to disease and drought, so you really have to know when to step in”.

There are just under 200 acres of coffee planted here in total, and each acre produces about 750kg in a good year. They average production over a 10-year period and are happy if they get half a ton of coffee from each acre, which amounts to about 100 tons of coffee a year.

Coffee market

"In the last year I have developed a relationship with Bewley's," she says. "And I see that Ireland is consuming more speciality coffees. When I grew up in Ireland, we used to have a tin of coffee, and it would almost have got hard before you got to the end of it. Now most people have fresh coffee in their cupboards."

The Irish coffee market is worth about €300 million annually, and we rank in the mid-30s of the world’s biggest coffee drinkers, consuming about 4kg each year – that’s about 600 espressos each.

But how does our coffee travel from seed to cup? It takes nine months for a seed to grow into a plant sturdy enough to go into the ground, and then four years before it reaches its full production capacity. The coffee berries can only be picked when cherry red; all pickers on Acacia Hills have colour-coded wristbands, so they know exactly what colour berries they are looking for. A good bush will produce about 1½lb of beans in a good year.

Once picked, berries are pushed through machines to extract and wash the beans. They are graded and left on drying tables for between nine and 12 days, then stored and dried for a further two weeks before being sent to a local town for export. It’s a very labour-intensive process, and every single bean in a bag is touched by human hands at least five times during production.

Coffee companies such as Bewley’s roast the beans locally and either grind them or bag them whole. Paul O’Toole has agreed to buy one shipment for blending purposes, and this coffee is also likely to feature in the company’s single-estate offering in the future. He has been in the business for nearly four decades and describes recent changes as “incredible”.

“I remember being in the US in the 1990s and seeing all these people walking around with takeaway coffees and thinking to myself that it would never catch on at home. And now look at us,” he says.

The coffee market in Ireland has proved remarkably resilient through the downturn, and, while it’s still behind tea as our favourite beverage, it’s catching up. We are as comfortable with a takeaway coffee today as we were with a pot of tea in the 1980s, and terms such as cappuccino, latte, macchiato, frappuccinno and “tall, skinny, half-caff-latte-to-go” trip off our tongues. Coffee culture may be that most urban of things, but it all starts in the most remote farms, where elephants roam free.

Conor Pope travelled to Tanzania as a guest of Bewley’s


  • Legend has it that Ethiopian shepherds were the first to recognise the power of caffeine when they noticed their goats "dancing" after eating coffee berries, but we owe our coffee habits to the Turks, who were the first to convert the berries to beans for drinking purposes.
  • The word "coffee" comes the Arabic "qahhwat al-bun" or "wine of the bean". It became "qahwah", which turned into "kahveh" in Turkey and then "koffie" in Dutch.
  • The earliest reference to coffee houses in Dublin was to the Cock Coffee House – no laughing, down the back – on Cook Street during the reign of Charles II (right) in the mid-17th century. Charles wasn't keen on them and had them banned towards the end of his reign because he thought people were meeting in them to conspire against him. He was right.
  • Bewley's supplies more than 50 per cent of the coffee consumed in Ireland. Ernest Bewley inherited his family's importation business in the 1890s and opened Oriental Cafe s – first on South Great Georges, then on Westmoreland Street and finally, in 1927, on Grafton Street.
  • The first widely available instant coffee was invented by George Washington – but not that one. This other George Washington developed the "Red E Coffee" brand in the early 20th century, and while it was said to be pretty disgusting, American soldiers fighting in the first World War liked it well enough for it to catch on.
  • The New York Stock Exchange started life as the Tontine Coffee House. It was so-called after a Neapolitan banker Lorenzo di Tonti and served as a meeting place for "underwriters, brokers, merchants, traders, and politicians; selling, purchasing, trafficking, or insuring; some reading, others eagerly inquiring the news," according to newspaper article in 1807.