Mount Elgon is a massive peak split nearly in two by the border of Uganda and Kenya. The “mountain” itself, now an extinct shield volcano, is more an enormous expanse of successive plateaus that float dramatically above the surrounding valley floor. It is also home to a dense patchwork of farming communities growing some of the best organic coffee in Africa.
Sipi Falls, named after the mountain’s most famous waterfall just down the road, is a centralized wet mill located in the Kapchorwa district that buys and processes cherry from more than 8,600 organic and diversified farms across the northern part of the mountain with an average of 0.2 hectares of coffee apiece and ranging from 1450-2200 meters in elevation. The sheer volume of quality coffee produced by this single wet mill is a testament to the truly ideal conditions of elevation, biological wealth, and human experience that abound between the farmers and Sipi Falls’ management team. Not to mention the ingenious business model itself, which, more than 20 years after its founding, continues to be a leader in affordable, certified coffee of the highest quality on the continent.
The vast majority of coffee processed at Sipi Falls is fully washed but starting in 2016 the quality team at the mill started tinkering with honey and natural processed cherry. These coffees trickled out into the world at first with very little fanfare, in what could only be considered a side project for Sipi Falls; however, with a few years under their belt, there is now an annual portfolio of honey, natural, and custom washed coffees that masterfully showcase the full spectrum of Elgon’s high-elevation terroir. The naturals in particular can be some of the best in Africa, which, with Ethiopia nearby, is saying a lot.
Cherry for natural process microlots comes from select grower communities within Sipi Falls’ greater catchment area which are located at very high elevations and who have a track record of impeccable harvesting. For coffees like this one outside of the standard fully-washed system, everything must be planned in advance by the processing staff. Upon delivery to the wet mill the day’s cherry is meticulously sorted and floated for density before being washed clean and moved to the dedicated drying tables. Originally constructed on an unused slope of mill property, the raised drying tables have multiplied as the natural and honey volumes have grown, and now feature more permanent construction and a dedicated staff. Natural processed cherry is laid in a very thin layer and consistently rotated throughout the drying cycle to maintain even moisture evaporation and prevent excess humidity from spoiling the fruit, or the seed inside.
Once the full batch reaches 11% moisture content, all cherry is removed from the beds and conditioned in the warehouse on the wet mill property for multiple weeks. Each lot is tracked throughout its conditioning phase by Sipi Falls’ quality manager, who cups and approves every lot at least once just after drying, and again about 2 months later to check that the conditioning is stable. These experimental lots are beloved at Sipi Falls, and (as with quality teams all over the world with a passion for the new and delicious) are by far the most deliberated. And thanks to the added uniqueness and cup quality, farmers selected for these microlot programs see the highest bonuses of anyone selling cherry to Sipi Falls.
Sipi Falls’ naturals are rich and concentrated, with sweetness profiles like strawberry syrup and balsamic vinegar. They tend to be intensely complex when fresh and increasingly more approachable as they rest. It is an incredible experience to see such a prime terroir be unlocked through quality processing, where just a matter of years ago it was often lost in transit.