Always keen on a good cup of coffee, SUE ADAMS discovers the real deal in Sabie Valley, where the distance from bean to cup ensures that it’s always fresh
Kombi, a dog and a stereo are not the usual prerequisites for starting a coffee business, but Tim and Kim Buckland of Sabie Valley Coffee are a little different.
Tim arrived in the Lowveld with the Kombi, dog and stereo, to look at a piece of land his father had bought in the Sabie Valley between Sabie and Hazyview. He never left. Kim, a schoolteacher at White River Primary, met Tim ploughing the land at night while listening to music on his headphones. They dabbled in different crops such as kiwi fruit, pawpaws and avocados until they came across coffee, and that was that.
A romantic story it certainly might seem but it’s taken a great deal of sweat to build Sabie Valley Coffee to where it is today. “We had no electricity, no telephones, no running water and only dirt roads,” says Kim. But the Lowveld community has been quintessential to their success. Their old friends, the Mullers, let Tim dismantle their roaster to be able to build his own, a fruitful endeavour as the 26-year-old roaster still stands there roasting daily.
“The coffee industry globally is a mafia,” says Tim, explaining how hard it is to make a living as a coffee farmer. “Yes, in dollar terms coffee is one of the most highly traded commodities in the world, second only to oil, but it’s the traders and not the farmers who benefit.” For this reason Tim and Kim decided that, with the coffee culture growing in South Africa, they would add value to their own product by roasting it on the premises, something very few coffee growers do.
Added value is definitely what Sabie Valley Coffee is all about. They have made a few different roasts from espresso to light roast, but the favourite seems to be a medium roast called Bushveld Blend.
The next step was to market their coffee and Tim began by selling to the Numbi Hotel in Hazyview where he sat for many hours in ‘philosophy lessons’ at the local bar. “We moved from farming to agri-tourism,” he says. “We sell our coffee locally to lodges, local supermarkets and we have a system called Roast to Post, where people can order and we post the coffee to them.”
The final step was to start their own coffee shop on the confluence of the Sabie, Sabaana and Mac Mac rivers. The shop has a daytime restaurant, a fully operational factory and a gift shop, as well as scenic gardens with a jungle gym for the kids.
When I first meet Tim he is doing ten things at once, but it’s just a normal day: checking whether the coffee trees are about to burst into flower, ensuring that the roasting beans aren’t burning, clearing a fallen branch in the garden. At the same time, everyone feels welcome and Tim always has time for a chat.
“We value our personal relationships with customers,” explains Kim. “We are passionate about what we do and take pride in it. We have met people from all over the world who keep coming back.” If you taste Kim’s famous chocolate cake with your coffee you’ll understand why people return.
Tim is full of interesting facts and trivia about coffee but possibly the most interesting is that coffee has also found its place in the medical fraternity as a diuretic, antioxidant and aid to those with Alzheimer’s.
The one thing he’s adamant about is that decaffeinated coffee is something to be wary of. He explains that it’s often made using an invasive solvent-extraction process that leaves a residue in the bean. And, as he points out, you also don’t know how much caffeine has been extracted as beans have different caffeine levels not accurately measured.
Surprisingly, Tim says, “There is no perfect coffee.” Just because an imported coffee is expensive does not mean you will necessarily enjoy it. The expense attributed to certain coffees is largely due to marketing. Coffee varies hugely in the growing, roasting and brewing and in all three phases you can make a difference.
“Everyone has their own opinion about what they like in coffee,” says Tim, “and no one is right or wrong. It’s personal.” But there’s no doubt that a freshly ground cup of coffee with a thick slice of chocolate cake goes a long way to making me happy.