Highwire Presents: The Undugu Project, Uganda
In celebration of National Coffee Day at the end of September, Highwire selected a single-roast’s worth of a naturally processed coffee from an individual producer in Ethiopia and offered it as a pre-sale exclusive through our website. The reception was overwhelmingly positive, so we followed up last month with a pre-release sale of our holiday blend, Celebration 2023.
As there appears to be an interest in small, exclusive offerings such as these, we're making a commitment to source and offer unique coffees through a program that we’re calling Highwire Presents. For November’s installment, we have a truly unique offering, a mere roast’s worth of coffee from a farm located on the slopes of Uganda’s Mt. Elgon. Not only is this coffee incredibly fresh (it was harvested in the last couple months), it also represents the hard work of several individuals connecting Highwire to this special lot.
It all started with a knock at the door of our roastery in Emeryville back in early September. A coffee sample was handed to our roaster, Cory. Highwire gets unsolicited samples every once in a while and generally the coffees are nothing special. Even knowing that, curiosity is difficult to deny.
Very little was known about this mysterious sample other than it was a Ugandan coffee presented by a company called Undugu and that the variety of the coffee is SL14, a Typica selection that’s popular in that part of the world. The green coffee looked clean and consistent and roasted easily enough. All good signs.
When it came time to taste, the aromatics of the ground sample gave a sense of what to expect in the flavor: soft but present floral notes with a marked sweetness. In tasting, it was clear this coffee was something special. The acidity was clear but in context with the flavors of mild stonefruit and lingering florals over a bed of milk chocolate. This coffee’s flavors were clean and clear, and for me, unique.
Intrigued, I followed up with the information on the sample packet which connected me to Raj Dev, who in turn was able to fill me in on how this coffee came to be. The project started as a group of close friends and former colleagues – Maina, Damien, Kimiti, and Raj – all who’ve previously worked together in East Africa. Maina and Kimiti are coffee farmers who were born, raised, and still live in East Africa. The group committed to working with other farmers and their communities to adapt to climate change while improving economic outcomes.
They called their venture Undugu, after “a wonderful, evocative word in Swahili that has no equivalent word in English,” said Raj. “The word connotes a feeling of fellowship, kinship, and friendship. Undugu captures the essence of how we feel when we deeply connect with others. At Undugu, we feel that way about each other, and we believe coffee encourages connections to others that lead to that feeling of undugu.”
Recognizing from their work that climate change is putting global coffee farmers at great risk, Undugu looks to work closely with farmers, encouraging careful coffee selection and introducing innovative processing techniques. The goal being to produce coffees of extraordinary quality, enabling producers to receive higher prices for their crops, all while reducing the demands on natural resources.
Through Maina’s connections to a producer named Elijah, Undugu was able to put some of these theories into practice. When Elijah told Maina that he wanted to experiment with post-harvest processes to improve the quality of his coffee, Undugu jumped at the opportunity to work with him. Only the ripest coffee cherries were carefully and meticulously selected before being placed in a sealed tank to ferment in the fruit. After a short period of time, the coffee was removed from the tank, depulped, and then moved back into the tank to ferment again in an oxygen-less environment.
This style of anaerobic fermentation has been used to varying success by some within coffee for more than a decade, borrowing techniques from wine making. In this case of Elijah’s coffee, the fermentation times were carefully controlled in an attempt to create a coffee that has all of the environmental benefits of this style of fermentation without any of the funky flavors that are the hallmark of some “anaerobic” processed coffees. From what I tasted, this process was an incredible success.
I wanted the chance to feature Elijah’s at Highwire, but as it worked out, the sample I received represented the very last of what was available from a previous harvest. After some heroic effort on the part of the Undugu team, the very first out-turn of Elijah’s new harvest is available to you on November 30th. Think of this as a coffee Beaujolais Nouveau, the very first pickings, processed with care, and shipped months before most Ugandan coffee is ready to export. Understandably, there is very little of this precious coffee to offer, so we are pre-selling the 40-ish 310g bags we think we’ll produce, adding you to a long chain of friendships, connections and chance encounters that has made this Undugu and Highwire collaboration possible.
We will be taking advance orders for this coffee ahead of our single batch that we'll roast on Wednesday, November 30th. Orders will ship that day or be available for pick-up at the roastery.