Toby Smith, left, tests out the first crop of coffee beans from his new farm in Santa Clara, Panama, earlier this year. Photo: Supplied
Until recently, Toby's Estate wasn't really an estate – it was several very fine cafes and a roastery in Sydney, a cafe in New York and, since May year, a cafe in Melbourne's Flinders Lane.
But now there is a Toby's estate – 63 hectares of coffee farm in Santa Clara, Panama, one of Central America's prime coffee-growing regions.
Owner Toby Smith and his business partner Andre Wierzbicki bought the farm, Finca Santa Teresa, in May last year. Moving into farm ownership is the next step for several of Australia’s third-wave coffee pioneers: Seven Seeds and St Ali in Melbourne have also bought shares in Central American farms. All cite a desire to learn more about coffee growing and processing.
Barista Paul Schliewe prepares coffee beans from the Finca Santa Teresa coffee farm in Panama for the Toby's Estate cafe in Flinders Lane, Melbourne. Photo: Simon Schluter
In June, coffee from Smith's first crop at Finca Santa Teresa scored highly in the annual Best of Panama competition and auction.
“We picked up three awards, including a third place and a fourth place, and we had four coffees in the auction, which was more than anyone else. So we had a pretty good start,” says Smith.
Coffee from the farm is now available at Toby's Estate's Australian cafes.
La Trinidad is a single origin “blend” of three different processes of Santa Clara beans – honey, washed and natural. The three different processes give the coffee a nice malty sweetness, some tangy acidity and a long finish. (* Explanation of these processes at end of story).
Smith's first experience with coffee farms was in 1997, when the young Sydney law student took off for a summer holiday in Brazil.
“I was into coffee and I wanted to learn more,” he says. “And there wasn't a lot going on in Australia at that time.
“I hooked up with a family who had a farm in Carmo do Rio Claro in Minas Gerais state. The local co-op had a lot of educational stuff going on, as well as agronomists who were very helpful in taking me around and showing me farms."
When Smith returned to Australia he began his own business, setting up a five-kilo roaster in his mother's garage in Woolloomooloo. A cafe in the suburb was next, followed by others in Chippendale, Bondi Junction, New York, Melbourne and Brisbane. But Smith wanted more control over the coffee he was selling.
“It was always in the back of my mind to go into farming,” he says.
Panama is a long way from Sydney – why not a farm closer to home? Smith says growing specialty coffee in Australia is difficult because the climate is too variable, and we don't have the prized gesha variety trees that produce some of Panama's finest green beans.
Finca Santa Teresa will supply about 25 per cent of Toby's Estate's coffee this year. Green beans from the most recent crop were also sold to buyers in Taiwan, Japan, the US and Panama.
Early this year, Melbourne's Seven Seeds took a share in a farm called Finca Santa Lucia in Honduras.
Seven Seeds' owner Mark Dundon says he saw the investment as a means to learn more about coffee and he also had a desire to experiment with processing methods.
“I'm looking at drying methods, fermentation processes and milling,” he says. “The methods are new for any farm. For example, we are looking at using solar energy to run drying beds with a drying system, so we currently have solar panels being set up at the mill.
"I can look at new approaches and feel free to be able to implement them knowing I'm the only one who will suffer if they don't work. That's something you can't expect a grower whose livelihood is on the line to do.”
Meanwhile, St Ali's Salvatore Malatesta has invested about $US100,000 in buying a half share in a small farm in Cali, Colombia. The 20 hectares will yield about seven tonnes of green coffee a year.
“Seven tonnes is not much at all in terms of volume,” says Malatesta. “So the farm's purpose is to provide an educational platform for the serious-coffee kids who work for us. It's a way for all of us to continue our education.”
Buying a share in the farm also means spending a further $US25,000 or so a year to run it. “Even though it sounds impressive, it's not a massive investment. It's like a training room or cupping lab at origin. And it's nice to have an association with a farm for all of the people who work for us.”
Toby Smith says he plans to visit the Panama farm about four times a year, and hopes to take some of his staff and other Australian roasters with him.
The day-to-day operation is in the hands of a farm manager who has been with Finca Santa Teresa for seven years, and an agronomist.
“They know this farm, how coffee trees grow, the weather and the climate much better than I do,” Smith says.
The farm employs 25 or 30 permanent workers, and about 80 seasonal pickers. There's a school with two teachers for children up to the age of 12, and the farm runs a bus service into town for older students.
“And we have a soccer team – the Finca Santa Teresa Stars. They finished second last year,” says Smith.
“The beauty of owning a farm is to be able to roast and brew the coffee as well as growing it – most farmers don't get that opportunity.”
* Toby's Estate La Trinidad is a single origin “blend” of three different processes of Santa Clara beans – honey, washed and natural.
Natural process – the whole coffee cherry – skin, pulp and bean – is dried. Skin and pulp is then milled off the bean (traditional African process).
Washed – all of the fruit is removed from the beans by fermentation and washing before they are dried (usual Central American process).
Honey process – the beans are dried with some of the pulp still adhering to them, but the outer layer of the fruit is removed, then milled.
Matt Holden is editor of The Age Good Cafe Guide 2013, available in bookshops and online for $9.99.