Exploring Sicilian coffee production
In the summer of 2021, the first-ever domestically-grown coffee was produced in Sicily. The 30kg cherry harvest was grown by Arturo Morettino and his son Andrea, of Morettino Coffee roasters.
After a trip to Guatemala to source green coffee for Morettino, Arturo was inspired to start his own coffee farm back in Sicily.
The Palermo Botanical Garden provided the first seeds for the project: an Ethiopian heirloom variety. These seeds were then planted in the small village of San Lorenzo ai Colli on the outskirts of Palermo.
After many trials and much perseverance, the Morettinos’ project finally resulted in its first sizeable harvest a year ago. But is this significant for the wider coffee industry? To learn more, I spoke to Andrea Morettino and Dr. Christophe Montagnon.
You may also like our article on the emerging specialty coffee origins to pay attention to.
How is coffee grown in Sicily?
Sicily is the largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, with a typical Mediterranean climate of mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers. The island’s proximity to Africa can result in higher temperatures than most areas of Italy – making it more suitable for growing coffee.
The Morettino roastery is located in the city of Palermo, northwest Sicily. Palermo sits around 15 degrees higher north of the Tropic of Cancer. This latitude is important to note as most coffee is grown between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn – 23.5 degrees above and below the equator. This area is commonly known as the Bean Belt, which mostly includes countries in Africa, Central and South America, and Asia-Pacific.
Andrea is the Head of Sales and Marketing at Morettino Coffee, which was established by his great-grandfather in 1920. He explains that the seeds were planted at around 350 metres above sea level (m.a.s.l.) in open air.
“The seeds were able to adapt to the Sicilian climate in the more northern latitudes,” he says. “But, over the years, some plants didn’t survive or produce many cherries.”
While it is largely uncommon, small-scale coffee production is possible outside of the Bean Belt.
More than 3,500 km west of Palermo is a small coffee farm in São Jorge in Azores (an autonomous region of Portugal). Azores has a subtropical climate, which has allowed the farm to grow some 800 coffee plants.
The São Jorge farm was established around 40 years ago and grows coffee solely for local consumption.
The Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa also grow small quantities of coffee, particularly in the Agaete Valley, Gran Canaria.
The state of Hawaii produces around 2.3 million kg of green coffee every year, but coffee has also been grown elsewhere in the US.
In California, after several research trials, arabica trees were planted at altitudes of up to 180 m.a.s.l. Now, over 70 estates are growing and selling coffee for local consumption.
Scientists at the University of Florida are growing coffee plants at the Plant Science Research and Education Unit. The plants are cultivated under controlled conditions, before they are intercropped alongside citrus fruit trees.
Although coffee has been present in Australia since the 1800s, coffee has only been grown at a very small scale since the late 1980s. Most of the country’s coffee is produced in the southeastern coastal town of Byron Bay and the northern rural town of Atherton Tablelands.
There are around 50 coffee farms in Australia cultivating over half a million trees; mostly Catuai and K7 varieties. Here, coffee can be successfully grown from altitudes as low as 15 to 900 m.a.s.l.
The first Sicilian coffee harvest
Andrea states that the Morettino coffee project was “an ambitious medium-term vision.”
He explains that the first green cherries appeared during December. He says small-scale harvesting is possible during spring, but notes that most of the harvest occurs from June to September.
The Morettino family handpicked the ripe cherries and then processed them using a gold honey processing method. This included an initial 48-hour washed fermentation stage, before leaving the cherries out to dry. The coffee was then roasted to a light-to-medium profile and cupped.
“It had a very refined taste, with balanced acidity and natural sweetness,” Andrea tells me. “We are really proud of it.”
He adds that Sicily’s unique terroir helps to give the coffee distinct flavours.
“The tasting notes included Zibibbo grapes (an ancient variety of Muscat grapes), carob, and sweet white plumeria flowers, which are native to Sicily.”
However, he notes that the project is still in its early days, so substantial production may take some time.
“It will be at least a decade before our farm can produce more coffee.”
Will Sicilian coffee be grown more widely?
Naturally, the success of the Morettinos’ project raises questions about growing coffee elsewhere across Sicily, as well as other Mediterranean regions.
Andrea attributes the “unexpected potential” success of growing coffee in Sicily to the farming of other tropical plants on the island, such as mango, papaya, avocado, kiwi, and Sicilian lychee.
“Sicily has thousands of abandoned properties and greenhouses that could be restored and converted for the production of coffee,” he tells me – indicating the potential.
However, he adds that this can only be possible if Sicily’s younger generations show more interest in establishing coffee farms.
Christophe Montagnon is the CEO of RD2 Vision: an agronomic research and development consultancy focused on coffee.
He tells me that Sicilian coffee is “symbolic” for the industry, but this first-time harvest is more of a “curiosity” until production can be scaled and replicated.
When asking Christophe if introducing new coffee species could be detrimental to the existing, native plant species in Sicily, he said the results could be positive.
“There is theoretically no impact,” he tells me. “Coffee trees can host one well known bacteria (Xylella fastidiosa) in some regions of the world which also affects olive trees.
“But if imported seeds are appropriately quarantined, there should be no issues.”
Considering the impacts of climate change
Coffee production is dependent on consistent and optimal growing conditions, such as plentiful sunlight and stable temperatures. For origin countries along the Bean Belt, any significant changes to environmental factors – like rising temperature or increasing rainfall – can be detrimental.
This is mainly due to farmers having to “climb higher” to successfully grow coffee at cooler temperatures. Also, less economically developed countries (which includes most coffee-growing regions) are more susceptible to the effects of climate change than the Global North.
However, the impact of rising global temperatures have actually been found to benefit coffee production further away from the equator. Generally, climate change is experienced to a lesser extent in these regions than along the Bean Belt.
Andrea tells me how the weather has changed in Sicily.
“Last year, there were incredible heat waves, with record-breaking temperatures reaching around 48°C (119°F) near Syracuse on the coast,” he says. “There were also intense tropical storms, torrential rains, and tornadoes.
“Over the last few years in Sicily, we are experiencing a shift in seasons, as well as double blooming in plants and trees throughout the year.”
Christophe points out that it’s difficult to state whether climate change is the sole contributor to Sicily’s coffee production.
“However, growing coffee in Sicily could become more suitable with climate change.”
Planting coffee further away from the equator may eventually become a reality for the coffee industry of the future. A January 2022 study from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research found that by 2050, the areas for growing coffee in Brazil, Vietnam, Colombia, and Indonesia are expected to decrease in size and be less suitable.
“Because the climate is changing globally, efforts for breeding more climate-smart coffee varieties could benefit regions such as Sicily,” Christophe says.
Meanwhile, Andrea says: “We need to monitor the success of our experimental coffee project. [But in time, this could mean that] Sicily could become a coffee-producing region.”
What might the future hold?
While large-scale coffee production in Sicily is unlikely for now, the Morettino family remains excited and optimistic about its potential.
“It’s a huge achievement that we want to share with all coffee lovers,” Andrea says. “We want to scale our ambitious project of growing coffee in Sicily.
“As a result, we are learning more about the coffee supply chain and the prospects for growing more coffee in different areas of Sicily.”
Andrea explains that Morettino Coffee works closely with several research centres in Sicily to achieve this goal.
“We collaborate with the Palermo Botanical Garden, the University of Palermo, and the University of Catania,” he says. “The different projects involve both farmers and researchers in coffee and tropical fruit farming.
“These areas were selected to potentially grow coffee based on soil, climatic conditions, and terroir,” he adds. “We will closely monitor the potential of different species and varieties.”
However, commercial viability is another factor to consider.
“Is growing coffee in Sicily profitable?” Christophe asks. “Given minimum wages in Europe, you would need to sell coffee at a huge price.”
This is one of the main reasons that prices for Hawaiian coffee are higher than other origins.
“It’s all about marketing and the growing consumer demands for niche coffee,” Christophe concludes.
The success of Morettino Coffee shows there is some potential for wider coffee production in Sicily, but there’s no doubt it would take considerable time to increase production volumes.
However, based on the cupping results from the farm, quality appears to be promising.
Ultimately, as we see average global temperatures rise, traditionally unconventional coffee-producing countries emerging outside of the Bean Belt may become a more common sight.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on rethinking coffee in Italy, the capital of espresso.
Photo credits: Morettino
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