The Coffee Pioneer

From ‘Serendib’ magazine, September & October 2007

Spurning pesticides, chemical fertilizers and monoculture, Lawrence Goldberg and Hansa Coffee are restoring to Sri Lankan coffee a reputation for quality won and lost over a century ago. Words by Richard Simon, photography by Dominic Sansoni.

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Face aglow with the smile of an enthusiast, the master coffee maker rambles through his herb garden, pausing every few steps to lean over and break off a sprig for his visitor to sniff at or chew. “We have thyme, marjoram, Italian parsley, lemon burdock and three different kinds of mint,” he announces proudly, pointing out each plant. And look here…:” his voice thickens with awe and delight. “You know what this is? French lavender! And it’s flowering! Right here in Sri Lanka!”

Lawrence Goldberg, founder and master roaster of Hansa Coffee, is an organic farmer, herbalist and devoted champion of all things sustainable and green. Five minutes after shaking my hand on the veranda of the Nuwara Eliya Golf Club, he’s well into a passionate denunciation of the agricultural chemicals favoured by his vegetable-farming neighbours, with carcinogenic properties enlarged upon and castrophes predicted.

Lawrence’s own agricultural enterprise is – naturally, to coin a phrase – very different. Almost single-handed, he is restoring to Sri Lankan coffee a reputation for quality won and lost over a century ago. And he is doing so without pesticides, artificial fertilizers or industrial farming techniques, with a decent regard for the growers who supply him – small cultivators who often receive only a miniscule profit from what is an exploitative trade. In his gentle, determined way, Goldberg is trying to foment a revolution.

In 1870, Ceylon was the world’s largest producer of coffee, exporting over a million hundredweight (51 million kg) annually. This output, both enormous and of high quality, was regarde4d as equal orsup0erior to any other and fetched record prices at the London auctions. The success of its coffee enterprise had made Ceylon one of the wealthiest and most sophisticated outposts of the British Empire, frequently spoken of as ‘the premier Crown Colony’.

 

This eminence came at a high environmental and social price. Hundreds of thousands of labourers, or ‘coolies’, were imported in droves from villages in South India to work the plantations. Debt-shackled, cruelly treated and housed in conditions of scarcely credible filth and squalor, the coolies endured lives of misery almost beyond the comprehension of those who enjoyed the fruits of their labour. Yet their plight was, at least, recognized by the writers and social reformers of the time. The same could hardly be said of the ecological devastation caused by the coffee enterprise: nobody cared much about the environment in those days, and the pioneering, empire-building –planters of Ceylon saw nature largely as an enemy to be beaten into submission. Alone with their shivering labourers among the trackless forests of the interior, isolated from European society, under constant threat from wild beasts, venomous snakes and fearsome tropical diseases, these dogged fortune-seekers felt no sentiment or regret for the creatures they destroyed or the landscapes they desp0oiled. As far as they were concerned, the sooner all that was gone and replaced by orderly, profitable rows of coffee bushes, the better. “The hills,’ as one observer reported, ‘range with the merry chime of axes.’ By the peak of the coffee enterprise in 1878, over a quarter of a million acres of forest had fallen to those axes. Whole ecosystems perished.

They did not go unavenged. Among those ravaged hills lived a brown, spiny fungus, an ‘obligate parasite’ which first came to human attention in 1856. That was when Ceylon planters began to notice small brown spots on the leaves of their coffee bushes. In a year or two the bushes were dead and the fungus had moved on, spreading like wildfire. The planters called it coffee-rust. Botanists, in awe of its destructive power, named it Hemeleia vastatrix. By the end of the 1880s it had completely wiped out the Ceylon coffee enterprise.

But the planters decided that if coffee wouldn’t do any more, they would find something else to raise and make their fortunes afresh. And so it came about that, through the agency of Hemeleia vastatrix, Ceylon became famous for producing the world’s finest black tea.

Sri Lankan coffee is today a home-garden crop. Poor hill-country farmers will raise a dozen or so bushes beside a selection of other cash crops in a mixed garden. The harvest – a bag or two of green beans per household – is sold along with their farmers’ other produce to itinerant Muslim traders who double as moneylenders. The relationship between farmer and trader can be exploitative, but it is sanctified by tradition; the traders’ direct forebears dealt in exactly the same way with the farmers of the old Kandyan kingdom, bartering salt, cloth and dried fish from the coast for coffee, cardamoms and black pepper.
Via the traders, the hill-farmers’ coffee finds its way to merchants in Colombo. Some is exported as ‘fair average quality’ green bean. The rest is sold locally, though in quantities insufficient to meet even the demands of Sri Lanka’s modest domestic market. Local coffee manufacturers must import beans from abroad to makeup the shortfall. The coffee they produce is of unremarkable quality, though very strong.

Lawrence Goldberg made his debut in this old-fashioned trade in 1996. He and a friend, a Dutchman named Harm van der Hoeven, were convinced that there was still good coffee to be found growing ‘in pockets’ around the hill country. Together they wandered the mountain passes, stumbling upon tiny villages still half-buried in the forest, returning with a bag of beans per expedition if they were lucky. The beans were roasted under Lawrence’s supervision at Lion Coffee in Kandy. Experience and study quickly taught him the roaster’s art.coffee1-sSo things might have remained, but for Shani Hulugalle, whom Lawrence met at the end of the Nineties. They became personal partners and then, when Harm moved on in search of fresh adventures, business associates as well. Hansa Coffee was founded soon after. A small roaster and some other necessary devices were purchased and manufacture commenced.

As soon as the first batch of beans was ready, Lawrence and Shani began making the rounds of hotels and restaurants in Colombo, trying to convince skeptical managers that their coffee really was better than most imported brands. Their best sales gimmick proved to be the product itself: halfway through the meeting Lawrence would casually tear open a sealed bag of Hansa coffee, filling the room with its complex, bracing aroma. The trick nearly always worked.

:It took us a year,” Shani recalls, “just to break into restaurants.” Retail marketing came later, first to upmarket specialty stores, then to selected supermarkets.

But supplying large orders was, and remains, problematic. The quantity of raw coffee available for sale is limited. Hansa demands the best available, paying premiums of as much as 100 % over the market rate, but beans of acceptable quality are rare.

The threat of mass-market success is further averted by Lawrence’s extreme commitment to quality. Every bean of Hansa coffee is hand-sorted and blended under his eye. In fact, he oversees the entire manufacturing process, from raw bean to vacuum-packed, market-ready ground coffee. But it is in the roasting – that occult, poorly-understood process which, more than anything else, determines the flavour and aroma of the final product – that the art of Lawrence Goldberg, master coffee maker, comes into its own.

The roaster occupies a smoke-stained backroom of the modest Nuwara Eliya house that serves Hansa coffee as combined factory and corporate headquarters. With its funnel-shaped loading hopper and boiler-like roasting drum festooned with valves and spigots, it looks like the front end of an ancient American steam locomotive. It is fired by an arrangement of LP gas burners that scorch my cheek when Lawrence ushers me over for a ceremonial peek into the roasting drum. Stooped over the roaster, his eyes gleaming, his face and beard wreathed in smoke and sparks as he fiddles with a spigot to extract a sample from which to ascertain the progress of the roast, he looks like a mediaeval alchemist at his retort, labouring to transform base matter into gold – which is, in a sense, precisely what he is doing. He even has a kind of sorcerer’s apprentice who tends the roaster expertly under Lawrence’s supervision and whose skin, like the wicker baskets in which the roast beans are carried back and forth, seems impregnated with the dark essence of coffee.

The roasting is slow. After about an hour, the smoke issuing from the funnel begins to smell like coffee – but not very good coffee. Lawrence is unperturbed. He tells me that some coffee makers judge how the roast is going by the smell of the smoke, but he himself seems to rely more on visual cues. Sampling and inspecting the beans every few minutes, he comments on the colour of the smoke from the funnel, and frequently bends over to inspect the innards of the machine. At length he judges the roast complete and commands his assistant to ‘open up”.

All the visual drama of coffee manufacture is concentrated in the opening – up. His assistant slides a panel at the bottom of the roaster upwards, revealing a stainless-steel chute down which a torrent of dark-brown beans comes tumbling. The beans pour into a shallow circular tray where they are leveled and aerated by rotating paddles; the flow is so rapid that the assistant, who is now skimming off the overflow in a small silver bowl, can barely keep up. A heavenly aroma fills the roasting room. Lawrence bites into piping-hot bean, testing its consistency and flavour. The beatific smile first glimpsed outside the herb-garden reappears: the roast has been a success.

”Care for a cup of coffee?” he asks.

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Shani Hulugalle is a descendant of Mudaliyar Jeronis de Soysa, who founded the leading Sinhalese capitalist dynasty of the 19th century and became the first Sri Lankan to invest in coffee plantations. Her partnership in Hansa Coffee thus establishes a link between the old Ceylon coffee enterprise and the new.

Jeronis de Soysa practiced monoculture, of course. At one point, the de Soysa family had three thousand acres under coffee, worked and administered – after the manner of the day – at fearful human and environmental cost. Their objects and methods were identical to those of European planters. Lawrence reviles these methods, which he is striving to eradicate by example; yet the old coffee enterprise has similarities to his own the have nothing to do with his wife’s ancestry.

In his energy and commitment to his vocation, his contempt for obstacles and setbacks, Lawrence Goldberg is very much reminiscent of the pioneering coffee planters of the 1820s. Like them, he seems to take privation – long mountain hikes, rough living conditions, the occasional bout of dysentery – in his stride; like them, he has mud on his boots and stars in his eyes. And like them, he produces coffee of outstanding, world-beating quality.

Back at the Golf Club, I wave goodbye as he and his wife drive away in their tiny red car. No old-time coffee-planter would willingly have trusted himself to so modest a conveyance; as for the planters of the tea era, who gave themselves aristocratic airs, their contempt would have turned the air on the Club veranda blue. Yet to me the departing couple seemed to embody all that was finest in the Ceylon planting tradition: one in which integrity and quality counted most in product and producer alike, ideals were clear-cut and unambiguous, and obstacles existed only to be surmounted.

Richard Simon is a Sri Lankan writer and editor whose publications include Sri Lanka: The Resplendent Isle (1990), a collaboration with photographer Dominic Sansoni. He has written widely on Sri Lankan history and culture, particularly with respect to the colonial era.