▲ Left, the Samyang coffee farm of Rho Jin Yi, pictured at right. Photos by Chris Moule
Like an old Western fairytale, this story begins with a handful of beans and a dream.
Rho Jin Yi, a Jeju resident living in Samyang — just to the east of Jeju City — was not dissuaded by the initial failure of her coffee beans to germinate after planting in 2007.
Switching strategy, Rho purchased a number of coffee plant seedlings and began cultivating them on her Samyang plantation. As the seedlings grew and matured, she took cuttings and planted them, thereby expanding the plantation to approximately 25,000 plants.
Rho doesn’t mind that the farm is still not generating a profit, three years after its establishment. She observes that her farm is not so much a business as a testimony to her pursuit, and love of fresh coffee.
“Hobby?” laughs Rho when asked, as if such a time-consuming pursuit could be described as such.
Rho is a genuine lover of coffee. When not tending the coffee plants, she is either teaching courses about coffee preparation, or working as a coffee consultant or a coffee bean roaster. Her consultation skills, she told The Jeju Weekly, are offered to those seeking to learn the hand-drip coffee technique, to those who use espresso machines, as well as to those preparing to open a coffee shop wishing to serve quality coffee.
From her farm, which is also equipped with a large coffee bean roaster and space for her classes, Rho roasts beans for individual coffee shops.
The 6,600 square-meter farm is kept modest to reduce expenses. Along with the living and classroom buildings, the farm consists of a well-organized green-house, containing rows of potted coffee trees and the occasional orchid. A small field of similarly potted coffee trees is located in front of the greenhouse.
“There are three things needed for coffee trees to grow well,” Rho said. “The first is an ocean wind. The second is volcanic soil because water drains through it quickly... The third is temperature.”
As Jeju is a fairly small island with an abundance of wind, ocean winds can be counted on. The island has naturally porous volcanic soil. The third factor, however, remains problematic.
Jeju is not located in the so-called “coffee bean belt,” a band around the Earth ranging from the Tropic of Cancer to the Tropic of Capricorn, according to National Geographic (www.national geographic.com/coffee/map.html). The coffee belt enjoys tropical weather and prime cultivating conditions for coffee growth, as opposed to Jeju’s “sub-tropical” classification which leaves its conditions as less than ideal for coffee cultivation.
Rho explained that controlling temperature is a problem because “if the coffee trees are exposed to even a single day of temperatures less than 15 degrees, they will all die.” The majority of Rho’s difficulties are found in temperature maintenance. During the winter, she is forced to keep the plants warm with artificial heating, which adds greatly to the overall expenses of her farm.
Rho’s coffee plants are not grown in the ground. Rather, they are potted, which allows for easy transport around the farm and permits greater control over soil type and quality, but the system can be time-consuming. When the plants outgrow their pots, they must be moved to larger ones.
That Rho is the first to successfully cultivate coffee on Jeju is a major achievement, but it leaves her lacking in resources to turn to for guidance when obstacles arise. She overcomes this by referring to Japanese books and Internet research.
So what does the first coffee to come from Jeju soil taste like?
Rho says that flavour is “purely subjective.” When pressed, she said when she first tasted the coffee, “... it was so good that I cried.”
The bad news is that pure Jeju coffee isn’t available for purchase — there simply isn’t enough of it produced. But 70,000 won can buy 100 grams of a coffee blend containing 10 percent of Rho’s Jeju coffee. Though pricey, it has the advantage of being fresh. Most coffee sold in Jeju is stale, insists Rho.
“By the time the coffee comes from other countries in the coffee belt to Korea, it is no longer fresh,” she says. Some coffees do not blend well with others, ruining the flavors of the other coffees in the blend. To its advantage, Jeju coffee blends well with other varieties.
Rho’s coffee is available for purchase at her Samyang farm.
It’s at her farm that she also offers courses on hand-drip style coffee preparation. While she wasn’t forthcoming on the price, Rho said that groups will be discounted. Similar coffee-theme courses, also taught by Rho, are being offered by the HallaSan Cultural School.
With the classes, farming, consulting and roasting, Rho is clearly passionate about coffee and has bright dreams for the future. She likes to joke that she’d turn all of Jeju’s farmland into a coffee plantation. Rho also has a vision of a future interactive coffee museum where people can learn firsthand about coffee cultivation. Also in her plans is her own coffee shop, which will likely sell her own coffee.
If you would like to visit Rho’s coffee farm or get in touch, the address is 1475 2-dong Samyang, tel. 064-721-0055.
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