Thursday, September 24, 2009
REUNION ISLAND Bourbon Pointu Coffee
B ourbon pointu: a legendary coffee from Réunion is a resounding success
Sweet, fruity and elegant–That was the taste. Yoshiaki Kawashima clearly remembers his excitement when he sipped the legendary coffee Bourbon Pointu for the first time. The 50-year-old coffee expert says: “I’d never had coffee like it. It was a totally new taste.”
Bourbon Pointu was once grown on Reunion island (previously Bourbon island), a French overseas department in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar. King Louis XV of France and renowned French novelist Balzac were said to be big fans of the brew.
Production of Bourbon Pointu beans peaked at 4,000 tons in 1800. Production of coffee declined later in the century after a series of cyclones hit the island. According to Kawashima, the last known shipment of Bourbon Pointu beans–just 200 kilograms–was unloaded in France in 1942. After that, Bourbon Pointu disappeared from the official records.
Today, Arabica coffee accounts for about 70 percent of coffee production worldwide. Experts classify Bourbon Pointu as a mutation of an Arabica variety. It has unique characteristics. As its name implies, the shape of the coffee plant and the beans themselves are pointed. More importantly, its caffeine content is about half that of the average Arabica bean.
Over the past eight years, Kawashima, director of Agri-Research Center of UCC Ueshima Coffee Co., has put all his efforts into reviving the bean.
At the beginning of this year, workers on Reunion harvested the coffee for the first time in decades. It arrived on selected Japanese shelves in April. Despite an astonishing price–as high as 7,350 yen per 100 grams–the 2,000 units available sold out almost immediately.
The resurrection of the bean was the work of Kawashima, his employer, coffee maker UCC, the French government and Reunion residents.
While the project was a joint effort, Kawashima was the true believer, the driving force behind the effort. As the enterprise neared fruition, his stress levels spiked. A lot of time, money–some from the French government–and the diligence of 90 farmers on Reunion were on the line.
“I spent a lot of sleepless nights worrying,” Kawashima says. “What if it didn’t taste as good as I expected? I had no idea what I would do.”
The coffee expert spends a lot of time outdoors–he’s as tanned as a surfer or professional golfer. He went to work for UCC in 1981, personally recruited by the company’s founder Tadao Ueshima for his specialized knowledge of coffee. Ueshima, who died in 1993, wanted to establish the company’s own coffee plantations on Jamaica, Hawaii and Indonesia’s Sumatra island. From 1981 to 2003, Kawashima worked overseas on the project.
In Jamaica, he was in charge of developing a coffee plantation to grow the famous Blue Mountain bean. Because of poor public security, he says he had to carry a .38 caliber pistol for protection. Thankfully, he never needed to use the gun, but he was mugged nevertheless–by nature.
A hurricane in 1988 devastated the Caribbean island. “I couldn’t see any homes with roofs intact when I flew over the island. Fortunately, my family was safe. However, the coffee plantations we had put so much work into were all destroyed just before harvesting.”
After fixing the mess in Jamaica, he moved to Hawaii to establish Kona coffee plantations. He spent 14 years there. Simultaneously, he was also in charge of developing coffee plantations on Sumatra. “I didn’t think it was tough because I like coffee,” he says, smiling. Even now, Kawashima spends six months a year visiting overseas coffee plantations.
Born in Shizuoka in 1956, Kawashima grew up surrounded by the aroma of coffee. His father operated a coffee roasting company. As a kid, Kawashima loved to play in the coffee-bean warehouse. “Coffee was the closest thing to me,” he says. The big burlap bags of beans were stenciled with the names of their countries of origin–mostly nations in Latin America. Kawashima dreamed of traveling overseas to see these exotic sounding places for himself. When he was in the sixth grade, he wrote a letter to the Brazilian Embassy, saying, “I want to go to Brazil.”
His desire to see Latin America grew. He finally overcame his father’s opposition and left Japan after high school to study in El Salvador. His father’s connections played a role in his choice of location.
He enrolled in the economics department at a university in El Salvador in 1975. However, he really wanted to study coffee.
Back home in Japan, the quality of coffee was gradually gaining importance in the 1970s. “In those days,” he says, “the second generation–the children of coffee-related business owners–became skilled cup tasters, much like a sommelier is an expert in wine. But I wanted to study coffee from its cultivation stage.”
Kawashima begged El Salvador’s national coffee institute to accept him as a student. The head of the institute laughed at him, saying the institute was a prestigious research center, not a university.
Kawashima refused to give up. The proverbial squeaky wheel, he showed up at the institute every day. Finally, his persistence paid off. The head of the center gave in and created a special two-year curriculum just for him.
“I was really lucky. El Salvador was one of the leading countries in coffee research. I could learn everything about coffee there.” In addition to a great deal of knowledge, he gained a nickname: Jose.
Inevitably, his father learned he had quit his economics classes without consulting him. He was furious. The money stopped rolling in and “Jose” found himself on his own. He managed to continue his studies by working part time, often as an interpreter.
However, he fled the country in 1981 when civil war engulfed El Salvador. Seven of Kawashima’s Salvadoran friends died in the long war.
He says he first heard of Bourbon Pointu in El Salvador. At that time, coffee experts believed it had died out years before. “I thought it would be wonderful if I could rediscover such a rare coffee. It became an obsession.”
In 1999, he went to East Africa on business and got a chance to visit Reunion. He set foot on the island hoping to find one of the legendary coffee plants. He left the island disappointed. “Nobody knew anything about Bourbon Pointu. The islanders didn’t even know that Reunion was once a coffee producer. A local took me to a supermarket and said, ‘Here, you have coffee.’ “
Undaunted, Kawashima continued the quest. He interviewed local farmers and town officials. Two years later, he got his big break–a local veterinarian had found 30 coffee plants growing in the wild.
The discovery kicked off an ambitious five-year project that would culminate in the revival of a coffee industry thought long lost on Reunion.
In January, at a ceremony marking the first shipment, the governor of Reunion congratulated Kawashima, telling him that the Bourbon Pointu legacy would have remained forgotten if he hadn’t come to the island.
Now, Kawashima is preaching quality to the Reunion growers. Following his advice, they selected only the best beans for the first sale–240 kilograms out of a total yield of 700 kilograms.
He says it is imperative to establish a reputation for high quality, rather than flooding the market. But volume is important, too–eventually. “I hope the coffee industry in Reunion will grow enough so that the struggling farmers will be able to make a living.”
Kawashima’s current interest is in the notion of “sustainable coffee.” Several NGOs worldwide are trying to help coffee farmers in developing countries by certifying that their crops meet eco-friendly guidelines and product “traceability.” He says, “I think it’s time to think about producing coffee in a more eco-sustainable way.”
Kawashima will lead a symposium on sustainable coffee at the end of this month in Tokyo. Seven organizations will participate, including Conservation International and the Rainforest Alliance.
“I’m not only concerned with rare species of coffee,” Kawashima says. “Such coffee is just a small part of the whole. Farmers producing decent coffee should do better financially. It’s not true that one coffee variety is always better than another variety. How coffee tastes varies, depending on who makes it–how and where. I’m familiar with both production and marketing. I would like to better connect farmers and consumers while creating a more sustainable method of producing coffee.”(IHT/Asahi: July 14,2007)