If you’re willing to sacrifice a few specialty flavour notes, it is entirely possible to grow and prepare your own coffee, right in your backyard.
We’ll work through the basics here, but to take a deeper dive you can watch our full workshop with Selena Griffith and the Randwick Sustainability Hub using this link. Recorded on Gadigal & Bidjigal Country, Sydney.
GETTING A COFFEE PLANT
Either Arabica or Robusta varieties grow fine in temperate to sub-tropical Australia. Arabica’s typically produce lighter, fruity flavours, while Robustas are known for stronger flavours like those of an Italian-style espresso coffee. Seedlings can usually be purchased from your local nursery or Bunnings, but be prepared to do a little shopping around.
Coffee also grows well from a seed. You’ll just need to find a friend who has a coffee plant and steal one of their cherries, or you can order online. Plant your coffee cherries at a depth of 2cm and water them in.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT GROWING CONDITIONS
Coffee plants are surprisingly robust, but to thrive they’ll need a few simple things:
- A warm protected spot. At least half a day of good sunlight, protection from the wind, and winter frost is a no go (sorry Tasmania).
- Rich, well drained soil. In Uganda, Kua Coffee grows in volcanic soil on steep well-drained ridgelines. You may not be so lucky in your backyard, but you can do your best to replicate those soil conditions. Dig in chicken manure and scatter rock dust to ensure the soil has a good spectrum of nutrients and minerals.
- Regular watering especially while young. Once established, rain and intermittent watering in dry conditions should be enough. If you’re growing in pots, you’ll probably need to water a little more regularly.
- Fertilise occasionally. Natural fertilisers like worm juice, seaweed fertiliser, comfry tea etc.
- About 1.5 metres of room to grow. If well cared for, a coffee tree will reach head height in 2 - 3 years and the foliage will extend out in a drooping circle when laden with cherries. If you’re growing in a pot, ensure the plant has enough room to mature.
- Mulch well. Mulch around the base of your coffee plant to keep the soil moist in summer and warm in winter.
MAINTAINING A COFFEE PLANT
- When they are young, remove the lower branches and leaves from the plant. When fully laden with fruit the branches will droop and can touch the ground. Removing the lower limbs will prevent any caffeine-addicted critters or pests from climbing up and taking a bite.
- Somewhere around 6 -12 years old (we’ll be impressed if you return to this article in 12 years time), you’ll notice the yield start to deteriorate. To extend their life, cut the top of the plant right down to it’s stump (The technical term is ‘coppice’, in Uganda they farmers take a more literal approach and call this ‘stumping’). The resulting re-growth will give you at least a few more harvests.
HARVESTING AND PROCESSING
Around September-November, small but fragrant flowers will appear along the branches of your coffee tree. Soon afterwards these flowers will be replaced by green coffee cherries and around Christmas the cherries will start to ripen.
The cherries are ready to pick once they ripen to a dark-red purple colour.
- Pick your ripe cherries and place them in a tub of water to ferment. Leave them in the tub with a lid on for 3-5 days. The water will darken and may start to bubble. The cherries will lose their lustre and become slimy.
- The cherry will have softened as it ferments. You’ll now be able to squeeze the cherries between your fingers and pop the beans out one by one. Laborious, but oddly satisfying.
- Dry your seeds (cherries removed) in the sun. A large sieve or mat will work well. After a few days the cherries will be completely dry, but there will be a thin light brown husk (known as ‘parchment’) encasing the green coffee beans themselves. Don’t be fooled by this husk, it may look like a coffee bean at this point but you’ll need to go a layer deeper to roast.
Home roasters are expensive, so if you’re not keen on spending big you have a few options:
- Use your oven. This allows you to roast big-ish batches, but can easily take your beans from light brown to burnt very quickly. Set your oven at 250 degrees and keep a close eye. They’ll only need around 5-15 minutes depending on your oven and how dark you like your roast.
- Use a pan on your stove. Old school. Just like roasting in the oven, your coffee can burn easily. Keep the heat even, watch carefully and listen for ‘the crack’.
- An old popcorn machine. Nifty little things that people are always selling on Gumtree or donating to Op Shops. These do smaller batches but produce an even roast. We’d recommend skipping to the 20:00 minute mark in our workshop to see how this works.
- An air-fryer. This works in a similar way to a popcorn machine, but it will allow you to do larger batches.
Here’s a few tips on roasting:
- Listen for the crack. This is a literal ‘crack’ sound which you’ll hear as the coffee darkens. It will happen 2-3 times in the roast process. If you’re not using a commercial roaster we’d recommend taking your coffee to the 2nd crack or a little after.
- Be brave and experiment. At first, try things in small batches. A lighter roast will give you a more fruity flavour, a darker batch - a stronger, richer taste.
- After roasting let your beans cool and then store them in an airtight container. They'll stay fresh like this for up to 4 weeks.
GRIND AND PREP
You have a world of options to choose from here. Check the video and we’ll run through a few options. Brew your coffee however you like it. We’ll just give you a few tips on grind:
- Coarser grinds are often used for infusion methods, such as Aeropress (coarse-medium), French Press or filter (medium). This generally results in a softer brew with more delicate and fruity flavours.
- Finer grinds are often used for percolation methods, such as stovetop (fine) or espresso (very fine grind). This generally results in a stronger and richer flavour.
How you grind your coffee has a lot of say on how your coffee tastes, so experiment.
And that’s it, everything from crop, all the way to cup. Get in touch with questions, share photos and let us know how you go. Enjoy!
Our thanks to Selena Griffith for sharing her seemingly infinite coffee and gardening wisdom. To Jullian Lee for his support and hosting the workshop with us. And to the Randwick Sustainability Hub for allowing us to run a workshop beneath the beautiful Gums. Thank you also to Randwick City Council for the support - helping us connect coffee drinkers with the coffee journey from Crop to Cup. Happy days.