The Home Growers Circle: Real people with a passion to grow real food

Ethel & Bill Robert Charmaine & Brian Brandon Nancy Lewis & Tara Malika & Donny Andy & Susanna Craig & Gary Warren & Lovejoy

Lewis & Tara / Santa Monica

Coffee Cherry to Cup: A Minor Miracle

Lewis & Tara

Thursday, November 04, 2010 at 8:08AM

Kona on the branch

Harvest Call August 2010

Washing the cherries at Forage

A good look at Santa Monica coffee cherries

Shucked and sorted

“A minor miracle” is what we’re told about this year’s coffee crop. We recently brewed our second pot and shared it in the backyard with friends. The crop was roasted by the knowledgeable and patient folks at fair trade and organic Groundwork Coffee in Los Angeles. They indulged our Fitzcarraldo-like journey of attaining a near-impossible dream: growing coffee in Santa Monica, about 1,000 degrees latitude from where it’s usually grown, and at an elevation of nearly sea level.

On this journey, we’ve learned that Lewis’s two bushes -- one Kona and one Java -- are producing maximum yields. Back in August, we harvested 3.5 pounds of coffee cherries which resulted in 2 pounds of green beans, reduced to 1 pound of roasted, highly drinkable beans. The math versus the effort leads one to appreciate the (increasing) expense. One full pot per bush? Lewis preferred the darker roast, which had real backbone and cinnamon notes. Tara enjoyed the medium roast with its smooth caramel undertones.

There are 150 or so roasted beans remaining. It was Lewis’s idea to save three cups, for the kids to savor when they come home for Thanksgiving. We envision in our mind’s eye, the progeny will wonder in awe that we are productive professionally and personally, yet still have time and energy for blogging, each other and socializing. To riff on the Coca-Cola ad, the secret is: Everything goes better with gardening.

The global band of coffee cultivation is not lower than 900 feet above sea-level, in Hawaii, and up to 6,000 feet above sea-level, in the Andes. Most coffee is grown in the middle elevations in South America, Central America, Indonesia, Africa, Jamaica, and a small area in India. Coffee needs mottled shade to grow. If the recent climate change continues with foggier, cooler and rainier seasons, then Los Angeles is due to become more tropical and conducive to coffee and other exotics. For the last few years, it hasn’t been cold enough to get a decent plum crop.

Here in Santa Monica, we’re clearly outside of traditional coffee territory, and sitting at 200 feet above sea level. So what makes our microcosm successful? What are the components to the formula, in addition to watering when necessary and spraying hose mist from above, like rain, to keep the leaves clean? It is Lew’s method of recreating a balmy niche. The bushes are planted in the corner of two high fences, surrounded by a fig and persimmon tree enveloping them for multi-layers of a mostly shady environment. A terrarium effect of humanly orchestrated, artificial shade is achieved. This canopy of flora mimics a tropical environment.

Earlier, we mentioned Werner Herzog’s movie, Fitzcarraldo. It’s about an opera enthusiast with the dream of building an opera house in the Amazon jungle. To do this he needs to get a steam ship with building materials down the Amazon River. His adventure is financed by becoming a rubber baron. As the river route is already dominated by a competitor, Fitzcarraldo is forced to take another, more dangerous route. He navigates obstacles by working with rather than against the elements he faces. While far less dramatic, our story has a similar feel. For starters, we love good coffee.

Tara set out to pick fruit one gloriously sunny, early morning in August. This was the day Forage restaurant held one of its Harvest Calls. Chef Jason is highly selective as to the acceptable produce uses in his cuisine. He welcomes suggestions for recipes from the Home Growers Circle and took a gamble on our coffee cherries. Lewis had an idea for caffeine-laced compote to counter balance the sleep-inducing tryptophan in turkey. Cleverly, Lewis called it Wake-Up Turkey Dressing. A skeptical good sport, Jason seemed willing to give it a try. If nothing else, Jason promised to deliver beans for roasting.

In the meantime, Internet research revealed that we could have roasted the green beans with a popcorn air-popper. Afraid to destroy the crop, Tara decided to contact local coffee roasters to see if they’d help us. As beginner’s luck would have it, the first call was placed to Groundwork Coffee. Richard Karno and Robert Mozejewski came through brilliantly -- thanks again. Just so happens they have a classic 100-year-old small-batch roaster for testing samples. One more glitch surfaced. The head roaster informed us that the cascara, the parchment-like hull around the actual bean, if not removed would combust and burn the coffee.

Instead of enlisting otherwise hostile natives as Klaus Kinski did in Fitzcarraldo, Tara channeled the natives within her. Without the rather rudimentary coffee cherry de-pulping and husking machines used on coffee plantations, it took two weeks to peel each pit individually. Despite Lewis’s pleading that a homegrown pot of coffee or two wasn’t worth the remaining effort, Tara was driven. She spent two hours a day shucking beans, only stopping when her head ached and eyes blurred, as her cut fingers and lips bled from this painstaking manual labor. Victory was close at hand. Lewis joined in the last two days using a dull knife, liberating each bean from its chaff. Three in four beans were kept, the others unacceptable due to its hollow or shriveled state, like a bad pistachio nut. The de-nuded green beans were finally ready for roasting.

This was a considerable improvement over the 2009 crop, which fell victim to over-baking on a cookie sheet without even removing the fruit. We know so much more now for next year’s harvest, should we be so fortunate to have one. The 2008 crop was beautifully ripe, but was eaten, completely stripped to the branch by birds while we were away one weekend.

In 2011, we’ll dry the coffee cherries on Lew’s concrete backyard patio, which gets quite hot and sunny. We’ll attempt to remove the cascara differently, perhaps with a leather glove and a washboard. It doesn’t make sense to invest in the large hand-cranked or bicycle-powered machinery, unless we can find and join forces with more local growers producing coffee cherries! Maybe we should try smuggling them into Guatemala for the processing. Think, what would Klaus Kinski do?

Lewis and Tara live and grow in Santa Monica, California, where Tara works as a family therapist and Lewis works with clients as a real estate, insurance, and securities broker. You can learn more about Tara's work at Lewis' websites are and

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