We were confronted with a multidimensional universe upon meeting Vera Chamarande: the realm of coffee. “It’s impossible to imagine what is behind the cup of coffee you drink in the morning or in a café.” The world’s most popular beverage after water and the 3rd most traded raw material on financial markets, it is easy to envision the abuses that might occur. Vera wanted to return to the product’s source so as to harness its true beauty. The coffees that she grows with her two Colombian producers were selected by Connor Bramley (best French coffee roaster in 2019) for the World Barista Championship that took place in Taiwan in November 2019.
The right encounter at the right time: this is what encouraged Vera to take the plunge that would let her experience her love of coffee even more intensely. After opening OMA in Reims in 2015, a coffee shop like so many popping up in capitals all over Europe – where you can enjoy a slow coffee while listening to indie music or jazz – she met Juan, visiting from Colombia. While studying at the university of Reims, he applied to OMA for a position as a barista and ended up staying with Vera for two years. The coffee shop business was booming when Juan, recognising Vera’s potential, pushed her to move outside her comfort zone. The ensuing chain of events left Vera no choice but to close OMA and to invent something else… “With Juan we made the perfect pair at OMA since he was an expert in coffeeology,” Vera explains. “As for me, I had been interested and reading for years about the history of coffee, its different varieties and cultivation methods. Juan made me understand that I should use that knowledge. As his father had connections with coffee producers in Colombia, he could help open doors for me and so we organised a trip over there.”
So, in 2018, Vera went to discover the Colombian fincas, small coffee farms belonging to independent producers. “Juan and I called approximately 300 producers in Colombia. I wanted to know which varieties they cultivated, which cultivation methods were used, what their processes were, and more. That helped us identify the 45 farms that we ended up visiting. In the end, we selected just two.” Working with these two producers, Vera drafted a set of specifications corresponding to no particular label but rather to her own tastes. “In addition to my personal preferences, the specifications also take account of the plantation’s environment. For example, we will take into consideration the nature of the soil, the altitude, wind and humidity in order to develop the coffee’s sweetness. I am also doing a lot of research on the ancestral cultivation methods specific to each country, since there are interesting things to be learned. In addition, we work according to the lunar cycles. In short, we are constantly testing new things…”
The specifications also pertain to the period post harvest when determining the process for sorting, cleaning and drying the coffee cherries. “The process that we select will produce a coffee that is either rather smooth or strong.” Vera especially likes what is known as the Honey process.
Extremely subtle, it consists in letting the mucilage (the thin sweetish skin on the coffee bean) dry on the seeds to increase their natural sweetness.
Rigour is key to developing mildness and is used by Vera at each step in this long process, which starts with planting the coffee tree seeds and finishes in the perfect cup of coffee. The same applies as well to the roasting process, necessarily short so that the coffee remains “light” and reveals its full aromatic palette. “By contrast, manufacturers often do a very dark roast, which swells the bean and increases the volume. They sometimes go so far as to the second crack, which literally burns the coffee.”
Currently, Vera offers only Colombian coffees, produced with different varieties and processes. She is preparing however to visit different countries to source new plots: “The coffee industry is a small world. Everyone, even if they have never met face to face, knows one another. Currently, coffee producers themselves contact me directly to ask that I assist them in drafting specifications focusing on the key parameters for excellence: nutrient input, species of trees to be planted close to coffee plots (which will flavour the coffee and help fight against insect pests), the introduction of insects to manage pests, the use of coffee “waste” in line with a circular economy, and more…Selling the story behind the product is what really interests me. I could buy extremely rare varieties and sell them at a higher price, but what I really love is the work I do upstream with producers to achieve a quality product and to be able provide total traceability from the seed to the cup.”
Cereza de café
Vera does more than merely produce exceptional coffees and grands crus. In early 2019, she launched Cereza de Café, a responsible and innovative start-up focusing on promoting coffee “by-products”: the cascara (skin), pulp, mucilage, flowers and grounds. “While researching rare noble coffees, I became interested in the history of coffee as well. In my reading I realised that there was a lot of talk about chemical processing of the cherries’ pulp and skins. I also learned that slaves used to eat the pulp in order to survive during the period when the French colonies cultivated coffee on the islands. I then wondered whether there was something to be done with all those by-products — today considered to be waste — especially since I already knew that they were widely polluting any rivers in which they were dumped.”
It was in the remotest high-altitude Colombian coffee plantations that Vera came across food for thought: “These fincas, lost in the middle of nowhere, used waste from coffee for compost or they would make herbal teas with the cherry skins. I found that very interesting. And then, one day we were put in touch with a producer about whom we knew nothing other than he was relatively important since he owned thousands of coffee trees as well as mountains. To my astonishment, contrary to the person I had imagined using excessive amounts of pesticides, the man proved to deeply love his coffee trees and had a daughter who was extremely active in protecting animals and the environment. He had heard about me and knew of my interest in coffee by-products. He welcomed us in an office with enormous atriums overlooking nature… He explained that, for 15 years, his daughter as well as an entire team of agronomists and researchers carried out scientific analyses on coffee by-products. He was very surprised to learn that a European woman would be interested in this whereas nobody up until then had shown the least interest in his work. Two weeks later, he announced that our start-up would be the only one in Europe to work with them and have access to their scientific analyses.”
Cereza de Café thereby had total exclusivity throughout Europe for marketing articles manufactured based on this research and Vera had access to information that showed how to extract the mucilage from coffee to produce an extremely tasty, consumable product. This transformation of mucilage resulted in the start-up’s future flagship product: Known as “Elixir”, it resembles an extremely concentrated juice with notes of red fruits (absolutely nothing in common with the taste of coffee) and proves to be 300 times more powerful as an antioxidant that goji berries. It already ranks as a leading superfood. “What we extract from the cherry represents just 1%, which is very little. We have already had chefs, sommeliers and pastry cooks test the product. It can be used both in food and in cocktails. The initial finding included such statements as ‘It is something absolutely incredible’”. As this product is completely new on the European market, Vera had to have the scientific analyses translated so as to have them validated by the European Commission and Customs. “We have finally managed to tie up all loose ends and ensure protection against all issues. All that remains before launching the product on the market is approval at the European level. We will be able to provide total traceability for each of the start-up’s products since the producer who gave us access to the scientific analyses will be our only supplier and all our products will be completely pesticide-free.”
Proposing completely new things is the common thread in Vera’s work. She was the first to have presented slow coffee in Reims, thereby offering her clientele a chance to discover the rich aromas and textures that coffee is capable of providing. She continues to exercise her trade and is further expanding the profession with Cereza de Café. Just as she took us by the hand and led us to new horizons, Vera’s work is an invitation to think and consume on a larger scale.