Women go on 3,000-mile coffee run in search of the perfect bean

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RICHMOND, Va. (Richmondgrid.com) – About two hours east of Managua, Nicaragua, deep inside the rainforest, two Richmonders shared an experience that will forever change the way they serve a cup of coffee in RVA.

Stephanie Garnett, owner of Richmond’s Lift Coffee, and Mia Tankersley, manager of Lift, recently spent a week working on a farm called Selva Negra, or Black Forest, named for its lush canopy.

Mia Tankersley, manager of Lift Coffee, and Stephanie Garnett, owner of Lift Coffee, recently spent a week working on a farm called Selva Negra in Nicaragua. (PHOTO: Richmond Grid)

Mia Tankersley, manager of Lift Coffee, and Stephanie Garnett, owner of Lift Coffee, recently spent a week working on a farm called Selva Negra in Nicaragua. (PHOTO: Richmond GRID)

“We set up this trip with the aim to gain a better understanding of the process from plant to cup,” said Tankersley.

What they returned to Richmond with was much more.

Learning to pick coffee cherries with a resident picker, Garnett and Tankersley were allotted one hour to pick as quickly and accurately as possible.

“As we compared our laughably empty baskets we started to understand just how much time, energy, and effort goes into each batch of beans,” explained Tankersley. “After picking we went to the wet mill, where the beans are plucked from their outer cherry meat and separated into different fermenting tanks, and then they were off to the dry mill to bake and dry out in the sun.”

After picking, the beans go to the wet mill, where they are plucked from their outer cherry meat and then off to the dry mill to bake in the sun. (PHOTO: Richmond Grid)

After picking, the beans go to the wet mill, where they are plucked from their outer cherry meat and then off to the dry mill to bake in the sun. (PHOTO: Richmond GRID)

Next the beans were de-husked, to remove the final dry and crackly shell around each bean, and sent along a conveyer belt under the watchful eyes of seasoned sorters who pick out the damaged beans from the healthy ones.

Tankersley said the insect-bitten or broken beans go to gas stations, chain stores, and restaurants, while the perfectly whole beans are sold to shops like Lift in Richmond.

Garnett and Tankersley say their experience picking beans will forever change the way they serve a cup of coffee in RVA. (PHOTO: Richmond Grid)

Garnett and Tankersley say their experience picking beans will forever change the way they serve a cup of coffee in RVA. (PHOTO: Richmond GRID)

It was when Garnett and Tankersley weren’t picking beans that the real education began.

The entire Selva Negra estate, which is both “Certified Organic” and a member of the Rainforest Alliance, only produces one 55-gallon barrel of trash per week and produces less CO2 on a daily basis than the average American household.

“Absolutely everything that can be recycled, is,”  Tankersley said.

She pointed out that methane gas on the farm is captured from livestock feces and harnessed underground, then used as cooking gas for the pickers who live and work on the farm. And the hydroelectric plant on the estate generates almost all of the energy necessary for the entire mountain. Food waste is either fed to livestock or used in a highly regimented and calculated composting system that feeds and nourishes the coffee plants.

“Basically, in the event of a zombie apocalypse, Selva Negra is the place you’ll want to be,” laughed Tankersley.

Making the farm possible, between 400 and 800 people work on the estate at a time, depending on the season. The farm’s owners provide housing to the pickers who have been on the farm the longest (some families are in their third generation of workers).

Tankersley said that to incentivize the families to keep their houses and villages looking neat, the owners of the farm rewarded the prettiest homes with the freshest paint, brightest flowers, and best children’s murals.

Outside of the farm Garnett and Tankersley created more memories, ones that they now share with their Lift customers at home.

“Driving through the slums on our first afternoon there proved to be a beautiful display of life and laughter, family dinners, and stories told,” recalled Tankersley. ”I wasn’t mentally prepared for the people of a country riddled with civil war to be so giving, patient, generous, and kind.”

What struck Tankersley as the most defining element, however, was the female presence on the mountain.

Tankersley said that owner/operator Mausi Kuhl bought the estate with her husband in 1975. Half German, half Nicaraguan, Kuhl influences every part of the estate.

“Stephanie and I both loved that three generations of women were living and working on the mountain; we catch a lot of grief for our strong female presence at Lift, and it’s always nice to see other successful businesses who utilize the power of the She.”

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This story was written by Paul Spicer and originally published in Richmond GRID magazine.  

Launched in July of 2009, Greater Richmond Grid has profiled living, working and playing in the region.

With an eye on innovation, inspiration and individuals’ accomplishments in Richmond’s business, retail, arts and entertainment, the magazine and its website (RichmondGrid.com) strive to profile the area’s creative vibrancy and authentic character.

 

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