Matt Higgins – Growing Coffee
I’m in line at Coava’s shop on Grand Ave and I spot a few coffee plants in their upper sill. Matt tells me he has fifty more plants growing in his basement. Coava Coffee Roasters is testament to the fact that Matt Higgins explores his curiosities in a very refined way, so his coffee plant growing operation becomes my next pilgrimage.
I descend into the basement of Matt’s North Portland house. The plants are in a small room directly under his living room. “I excavated this room last year. Before that it was just a wall of dirt.” Germination of his initial batch of beans was unexpectedly successful, and now he has an unsustainable forest of seedlings. With limited light and room, most of his plants are starved for sunlight and root space. However, after recently installing two Sun Blaze T5 overhead lamps equipped with 8 48″ florescent bulbs each, Matt is ready to remove the weakest of his current crop and focus on increasing the size and health of a select few plants.
It’s mostly Caturra varietal. Matt brought 1,300 freshly picked Caturra cherries through customs on his way back from visiting Arnold Paz in Honduras. “I think germination was so easy because I brought them back as fresh cherries. Germination rate is much lower with dried green coffee, and especially low if the bean has been hulled and is missing its parchment.” The seedlings are held in bins and grow bags, and receive 10 hours of photo time from the lights.
I watch as Matt pours water from a gallon milk jug onto certain plants. He has an eye out for the healthy plants he will keep and the plants that are already too far behind. Matt pulls two plants out and compares their roots. “This one has bigger roots because it has had more room. This other one hasn’t received enough light during it’s early stages and I won’t keep it.” He points to a few other plants that have wrinkled leaves from lack of light. It’s an exercise in survival of the fittest, and Matt is learning how to spot the healthy plants and favor them.
He bends down and mixes various liquids together. “It’s a cocktail of beneficial microorganisms, nitrogen, bat guano, worm castings, and the root biostimulant mycorrhiza. Everything mixed together supports healthy root grown and ultimately better nitrogen uptake. Mostly everything is organic.”
We go upstairs to leather chairs in the lamp-lit living room where we talk about the point of it all. Matt’s not growing coffee plants in order to harvest beans for roasting. “It’s not feasible for me to grow coffee plants and produce green beans. This isn’t the Napa wine country.” The roots die at 40 degrees F and the ideal humidity is 60%. To recreate those conditions would require an artificial environment and a very large amount of capital.
Matt confesses, “It’s all about the green. A roaster can’t produce good coffee without being able to source high quality green beans. Period.” This is at the heart of why Matt is growing coffee. The growing experiment downstairs may help him develop strong green buying practices.
Matt’s plants will teach him how to spot nitrogen deficiencies, crowded farming, and other flaws. “I’m trying to understand the correlation between farming practices and growing regions, atmospheric variables, and weather conditions. I’m trying to learn more about the biology of the plants.” The experience will hopefully allow Matt to source better green beans by understanding the various varietals and by understanding the growing process.
As I sit at Matt’s dining room table he unpacks bags of green beans of different varietals: Dilla Alghe, Montecristo, Geisha, Purpurascens, Erecta, Villa Sarchi. He’s going to germinate the beans, choose the healthiest 5 plants, and let them teach him something about each varietal. All this from the owner one of the most exciting coffee roasters in the world, a 29-year-old who graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in German. Our last stop is his garage where he shows me some of the motorcycles he’s flipped. “Some of the better money I have earned has come from buying, repairing and selling motorcycles. I love machines.”
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