The challenge: The highest quality coffee is produced by large, technically sophisticated companies which do a much better job at delivering fresh, consistent, good-value coffees than do most of today’s smaller specialty roasting companies.
Neither size nor technical sophistication assures quality. Only the obsessive and unrelenting commitment of a company’s leadership assures a steady output of high-quality, distinctive coffees. Some companies, regardless of size, produce such exceptional coffees on a regular basis; others produce good coffees always and exceptional ones now and then; far too many produce little but mediocrity.
The original model for specialty coffee came courtesy of Alfred Peet in 1966, which is roasting fine, distinctive coffee at the back of the store and walking it up to the front to sell it fresh out of the roaster. Today there are small companies that have successfully revived this model, in some cases successfully updating it by selling via the Internet. They buy small lots of very fine coffee, roast them skillfully using skillful hands-on artisan roasting, and ship them fresh. Some of these companies have produced coffees that without a doubt are among the most memorable coffee experiences of my life, and rank as genuine triumphs of almost transcendent artisanry stretching from small producer through boutique importer to boutique roaster. On the other hand, second-rate versions of the archetypal boutique roaster abound, companies that buy mediocre green coffees on the bad advice of an importer and roast ‘em ‘til they’re brown – or, more usually, black. These companies are on the wane or changing, as they are pushed by the latest generation of smaller coffee roasting companies that buy with more precision and roast with a more careful and lighter hand, but there still are many of them around.
And even the good boutique roasters face the challenge of growth. At a certain point volume increases until the small-scale, roast-and-sell-them-fresh model doesn’t work anymore, and the company either has to start buying expensive packaging equipment to assure a longer shelf life (see Kevin Knox’s excellent companion blog to this one for details), or slow down and stay small, which I can imagine is almost as difficult a business proposition as getting big enough to afford a minimum of about 70K of new packaging and testing equipment.
Or these companies may be tempted to take the easy way out to expansion, which is packaging coffee in valve bags without equipment to properly evacuate oxygen and instruments to monitor it, subsequently allowing it to sit on store shelves or in back rooms until it’s half stale. There is a whole segment of the specialty coffee industry, new and old, that appears to handle coffee this way. These same companies often apply similar carelessness to buying green coffees and roasting them. They produce some of the least impressive whole bean coffees in the country, but you can’t tell that from reading the bags, which may be full of staling coffee on the inside but display a lot of fluff on the outside about buying the finest coffee and roasting it in small batches.
Maybe the consistently best coffee in the country is produced by a handful of companies that are large enough to afford top-end packaging lines and obsessive enough to actually take the time to source top quality, distinctive green coffees. These companies range in size from medium-small to very large. The road to excellence is easier for the smaller ones because their volumes are smaller and they can be more selective in their green buying, but what remains most important, regardless of size, is the commitment leaders make to the demanding, unrelenting attention required to put out well-sourced, well-roasted, well-packaged coffee.
Then there are the big commercial companies that turn out canned roast-and-ground coffees. These coffees are a clear case of garbage in and garbage out. Unless it is a 100% Colombia, the coffees that fill the plastic roast-and-ground supermarket cans are objectively and unarguably bad. But the companies that produce them have amazing technical capacity – for example, they can turn Robusta coffees that literally taste like stinking, two-week-old compost into dull, tasteless brown water. That is a genuine technical achievement. I’m quite serious. It is difficult to pull off, but it lets people on a severe coffee budget get stimulated relatively cheaply and without gagging while giving investors a decent return on their money.
Finally, a word on what are probably the most technically sophisticated coffee companies in the world, the big European espresso roasters. To my taste, the best among these espresso giants is Nespresso, with its intimidatingly good and distinctively different range of espresso capsules. On the other hand, for me Illy Caffè is a triumph of technical sophistication aimed at a regrettably limited goal: a consistently characterless espresso, as technically perfect but as limply elegant as a French academic painting from the 19th century.
For another perspective on this challenge, click here to see how Kevin Knox responds
The Challenge: Coffee buyers for roasting companies should be doing much less travel and much more cupping, quality control and customer education.
Kenneth Davids writes:
I guess my reservation with the challenge statement is the repetition of the “much” word. If the thrust of the challenge statement is to argue that coffee buyers should focus first and foremost on the actual character of the coffee they buy and sell and less on travel stories glamorizing a quest for perfect coffees, etc. then I would agree. This critique applies as well to the traditional, older-fashioned marketing apparatus for fine single-origin coffees, wherein imagery of samba dancers and giraffes seemed to figure more prominently in promotional materials than attempts to describe the character of the coffees and what made them taste that way.
One of the reasons I like the latest trend in promotion of high-end coffee is that it tends to focus on what made the coffee taste the way it does – botanical variety, growing elevation, processing method, etc. – rather than on tourist hype or giraffes. True, the affectionate accounts of growers and their families one runs across on websites and packages may come off as a little irrelevant to how the coffee tastes, but I’ll go with it in the spirit of fairness, because if the media can turn hysterical cooks and pretentious winemakers into heroes I don’t see why we shouldn’t try to do the same for our own friends and collaborators in producing countries. True too, the tendency to brand coffee farms or coops and for roasters to buy green coffee by these brands rather than by the actual character of the coffee offered for sale in a given crop year is a little distressing from the point of view of coffee quality and authenticity, but again, if executives in soft-drink company board rooms can try to brand their stuff I can’t see why coffee growers can’t make the same attempt.
Although that does take us back to the argument made in the challenge statement, which is that coffee buyers should focus on the cup in front of them in this time and space and crop year and not on hype, safari glamour, or even on genuine friendship and how great the ron Zacapa was that night in Huehuetenango.
But finally, I think a certain kind of serious coffee travel undertaken over the long run is probably essential for coffee buyers. This is the kind that happens during harvest, and is slow, thorough in its observation, and ultimately focused on a better understanding of the cup itself and the almost infinite number of variables, both natural and deliberate, that go into determining its character. It is not the kind of touring in which a group hits three farms or coops per day and its all “we pick only ripe cherries and they go in here and come out there and our coffee is the greatest in the world, and we treat our workers well, and now let’s have a great lunch up at the house.” It’s a process of observing what actually happens during processing and drying, and talking a lot with the people who actually make it happen, and then following up with systematically cupping the results. And if at all possible continuing to cup the results through subsequent years and the changes those years bring. To me, newer roasters should have such an education, and as the money and time come available should spend time witnessing all of the major variations on processing method and drying. In other words, rather than four trips to Central America it might be better to make one trip to witness wet-hulling in Sumatra and another to some large hi-tech farm in Brazil where they do three different processing methods and another to some farm or coop that does both traditional wet process and small-scale dry process; in Ethiopia, for example.
We in the fine coffee industry need to make these investigations ourselves with an open mind, because the traditional lore of the traditional coffee industry is out-of-date and useless and the empirical work of the scientists is necessarily narrow in focus and, it would seem, oblivious to subtle sensory variation in coffee, which is precisely where we, as students and teachers of fine coffee, need to focus our attention.
For another perspective on this challenge, click here to see how Kevin Knox responds
The Challenge: The latest roaster emphasis on offering high-priced microlots without also offering a core lineup of good-tasting origin coffees at decent prices is a disservice to consumers.
Kenneth Davids writes:
I like “micro-lots,” if what is meant by that term are coffees that 1) are small, distinctive lots that have been purchased with particular precision and care by the roaster; 2) take advantage of seasonable opportunity to maximize quality and distinction; i.e. are not limited by the need to be repeatable from season to season, and 3) are described with precision on the package, particularly in respect to botanical variety and processing method.
Whether that same roaster is obligated by industry tradition and consumer expectation to also offer a familiar lineup of fine coffee standards, i.e. a Kenya AA, a Sumatra Mandheling, a high-grown Central America, etc. is of no consequence to me. I think consumers speak for themselves through their patronage, and if a successful business can be built on nothing but fine microlots that take advantage of seasonal opportunities (and the roaster’s own taste in coffee) then I can only admire the savvy and persistence of whoever pulls that strategy off. Down the street or at another URL we can be sure that another roaster is competing on the basis of traditional coffee naming and sourcing. If a one-location roaster opens in some small market and succeeds with primarily microlots then we can be sure that there is Starbucks and other biggies like Peet’s or Green Mountain or Caribou lurking somewhere else on main street or a nearby strip mall offering the traditionalist the usual choices.
It’s hard to say whether micro-lots typically are “better” than coffees offered with under traditional, more general nomenclature by larger roasters, mainly because some roasters specializing in micro-lots are much more consistent with their quality than others, just as some larger roasting companies are more consistent in quality than others. But I can vouch for the fact that the flexibility of the micro-lot concept – run across a smaller lot of great coffee, print a label, put up a paragraph on the website, roast it and sell it fresh until it’s gone – allows for considerably more freedom to experiment with unusual coffee types than allowed by the often ponderous, slow marketing systems of some larger roasters, where marketing departments may insist on literally months of notice to prepare marketing and packaging for some new offering. Meanwhile any opportunity to sell thirty bags or a hundred or even a container of a really exceptional or different coffee has vanished and that coffee is buried in the stream of more conventional products.
Kevin Knox writes:
I agree with the sentiment in the challenge statement but think one needs to define some of the terms in order to flesh it out and make it meaningful.
Even among the purveyors of “microlots” there’s no consensus on what the term means. It’s rather like “roasted in small batches,” which has been used to refer to roasts ranging from a few ounces to a thousand pounds or more.
A core lineup to me means excellent single origin coffees representing the four primary types of origin-derived (as opposed to roast-imparted) flavors: mild Latin American coffees, washed East Africans, dry-processed coffees from Ethiopia and Yemen, and the classic semi-washed arabicas from Indonesia. In recent years we’ve seen several well-regarded and influential “third wave” roasters restricting their offerings to a handful of washed Central American and East African coffees. Certainly cupping for clarity and refinement of flavor can lead to strong preferences in that direction, but in my extensive experience sampling coffees for both retail customers and highly-educated food and wine professionals the wine-like complexity and richness of a great Yemen Mocha or Ethiopian Harrar and the infinite depth of a first-rate Sumatra typically receive far higher accolades than the more familiar washed coffees. These are also coffees of great historical and commercial importance without which none of the newer types would exist, and I feel that their distinctive flavor and heritage make them essential offerings.
“Decent prices” is clearly an elastic concept, but to me it certainly does not include pricing 12 ounces of coffee at a full pound price (a pervasive bit of trickery that has no place in specialty coffee and evokes the famous 13 ounce and smaller “shrinking can” and brick packs from Folger’s and the like). Alfred Peet used to mandate that at least 5 coffees be retailed at prices no more than $1 a pound over average supermarket whole bean prices in order to make sure customers knew Peet’s offered good value and wasn’t snobby. I wish more roasters thought this way.
Readers occasionally call Coffee Review to task for rating coffees too high. (On the other hand, others ask why we’ve never rated a coffee higher than 97. That latter question I’ll save for another time and another blog.)
But in response to those harboring the “too high” suspicion, the first thing I would point out is that in general we only publish reviews of coffees that exceed 87 or 88. That doesn’t mean we don’t rate many more coffees lower than 87, often considerably lower. We just don’t review these many lower-rated coffees. We only publish reviews of the good ones because we generally prefer to reward excellence, not punish failure. If we do identify weakness we try to do it in a more general context in the introductory articles to our reviews, rather than naming names in the reviews themselves. For example, we pointed out the overall deteriorating quality of many Hawaii and Caribbean coffees in our March 2010 article “Island Coffees: Hawaii and the Caribbean,” and gave some reasons for that trend. However, we stopped short of printing reviews of the disappointments that supported that generalization, focusing instead on reviews of those coffees and producers that bucked that trend.
The other exceptions to the we-only-review-87-or-above approach are situations where consumers are limited in their choices. When we review mass-market coffees rather than specialty coffees, for example, we cover the whole range from dismal to pretty good, on the assumption that readers who buy these inexpensive coffees are limited to what they find on the supermarket shelf. Similarly, when we review single-serve pods or capsules that fit only one kind of machine we tend to review a range of whatever is available for that machine, regardless of rating.
To sum up, for a typical review article we sample an average of about 25 to 40 coffees. These coffees have already gone through a selection process. They have been nominated by roasters (or in some cases by consumers) as outstanding coffees, so they presumably represent some of the best options for a given origin or category. Nevertheless, we typically find no more than about one-third of those 25 to 40 coffees worthy of review.
Better, More Distinctive Coffees Mean Higher Ratings
A second development to keep in mind is that the many of the best specialty coffees have gotten better – often much better – over the past two or three years. The leading edge of specialty coffee production, composed largely of smaller, younger coffee companies and a newer generation of more savvy, worldly coffee growers, has raised the bar for quality and distinction in specialty coffee. The historical dynamic of this change is too complex to go into here, but it starts with consumers who are willing to pay higher prices for small, one-time-only lots of exceptional coffees; roasting companies that are willing to spend time and money ferreting out the best small lots of exceptional coffees; coffee growers who understand this situation and are willing to meet or exceed the expectations of both demanding roasting companies and aficionados; and finally the growth of institutions that foster competitiveness in coffee, like the Cup of Excellence and the Barista Guild, and development institutions that fund improvements in coffee production at origin aimed at helping producers meet higher expectations and thus merit higher prices for their coffees.
In other words, the high end of specialty coffee is simply producing better and more distinctive coffees than ever before, coffees that, when they hit their mark, deserve the recognition of high ratings.
The Macro-Lot Challenge
We at Coffee Review find ourselves concerned, however, that we may not be sufficiently honoring the middle range of specialty, those coffees from larger specialty roasters or more traditional smaller roasting companies that are sturdy, pleasing, reasonably distinctive, but perhaps only occasionally exceptional, yet offer a good value for their often modest price and are widely available. For coffees of this kind and price, a rating of 88 may be something to celebrate. We are trying to find more ways to focus on such coffees, along the lines of the “best wines under $15” approach to wine reviewing. For example, this year we are planning a review of single-origin coffees from larger lots of green coffees (at least one hundred 150-pound sacks), which we are calling “macro-lots” rather than the tiny, precious (and often high-priced) “micro-lots” that rightfully yet perhaps dauntingly tend to dominate the highest ratings at Coffee Review.
A few weeks ago I took a few steps across a relatively new frontier of coffee connoisseurship known generally as “pairing,” i.e. recommending certain coffees that best pair with certain foods. Although I’ve always found the pairing process interesting, I’ve never pursued it in any depth. But when I was offered an opportunity (in this case a modestly paid opportunity) to attempt to pair coffees with chocolates I took it up.
Pairing coffee and chocolates has always seemed a bit more apropos to me than pairing coffee with porcini mushroom soup or pomegranate braised duck leg. For one thing, coffee and chocolate share origins and processes that both overlap and diverge in fascinating ways.
Plus I had as my co-taster Mark Magers, currently CEO of the North American distributer of Divine Chocolates, the producers of a line of attractive chocolate products that incorporate cacao produced by a Fair-Trade certified cooperative in Ghana. Mark, with whom I have on occasion worked before, is, in the old vernacular, a cool guy, calm, incisive, and very fair-minded. Mark coincidentally also has a long connection with coffee, most recently as a manager at TransFair USA, the organization that provides Fair Trade certification and promotion for coffee and other products in the U.S.
The “deliverables” for this project, as they say in the business world, were sets of notes for six pairs of chocolates and coffees, with the coffees provided by Paradise Roasters and chocolates chosen from a selection from four different companies. We ended by including chocolate bars from three companies in our pairings: Amano Artisan Chocolate, Divine Chocolate and Lake Champlain chocolate. Readers interested in the results can find them at https://www.paradiseroasters.com/categories/Merchandise/Gifts-And-Samplers/For-Chocolate-Lovers/. Keep going past the rather fervent sales pitches for the paired products (for which we bear no authorial responsibility!) to the product description pages, where you will find the actual tasting notes I delivered with Mark’s help near the bottom the pages devoted to specific chocolate/coffee pairings.
Most of the relatively small selection Paradise coffees made available for our tasting were familiar to me. On the other hand, we had a huge stack of chocolates to choose from. Mark agreed with my essentially purist’s decision simply to not test the chocolates that had things added to them: hazelnuts, fruit, etc. We experimented with all of the pure chocolates, however, both dark (minimum 70% cocoa solids) and milk (30% cocoa solids).
Basically, we approached the pairing experiments with a simple two-part schema: we started by testing coffee/chocolate pairs that promised intensification of similar or overlapping characteristics (like +like), then went on to pairs that contrasted in certain dramatic ways while promising to complement one another by creating balance through difference.
Here are a few things I learned from this experiment:
– Properly tasting chocolates requires patience. One is asked to allow the chocolate to slowly melt on one’s tongue, observing the changes in sensation as it melts, including texture or mouthfeel, basic taste structure (particularly bitter and sweet) and the development of various flavor notes. The long melt on the tongue could be taken as analogous to the coffee cupper’s practice of repeatedly sampling the same coffee as it transitions from dry fragrance to hot aroma to room temperature cup, a sequence of acts aimed at capturing the full trajectory of the coffee’s sensory expression.
– The beauty of the coffee-chocolate pairing is the opportunity to literally combine the coffee and chocolate by waiting through the melting-on-the-tongue routine until the chocolate is almost liquid, then taking in a mouthful of coffee into or over the liquefying chocolate and experiencing the interaction from first contact to finish. I found it interesting to experiment with introducing the coffee at different moments in the trajectory of the melt; the best and most telling moment for me was the point at which the chocolate had almost but not quite resolved into a heavy liquid.
– Some chocolate companies, like Divine, offer only two (both excellent) pure chocolates: dark and milk. I suppose this is roughly equivalent to coffee programs that build their businesses around a medium roast and a dark roast of the same single-origin coffee or blend. On the other hand, such chocolate companies have the opportunity to diversify their offerings by adding dried fruit, nuts, etc. to the two basic chocolate styles.
– Other chocolate companies, like Amano, offer diversity through a geography of single-origin chocolates. For years I have trundled back from northern Europe with gift assortments of origin-specific chocolates for family and friends. I always enjoyed nibbling on them myself, but this was the first time I systematically worked my way through an entire range of origins. I found this experience remarkable, both owing to the quality of the sensory profiles of the single-origin chocolates as well as to the clear-cut differences among them. I also was struck by how much overlap exists between the sensory repertoires of single-origin chocolates and single-origin coffees. It’s true that coffee appears to offer considerably more sensory range, both positive and negative, than chocolate, given that coffee is a much less processed product than a single-origin chocolate bar. Experiencing cacao in a chocolate bar is, I suppose, analogous to always tasting coffee with some milk and sugar added. Nevertheless, the various Amano single-origin chocolates, particularly the dark chocolates, were impressively distinct and immediately recognizable once one had cracked their sensory code.
Flowers and aromatic wood situate at opposite ends of the sensory range for coffee, though they both are among the most common and attractive of aroma and flavor notes.
Floral notes appear to be a direct expression of the floral tendencies of the coffee fruit and seed; at times they show up as pure expressions of the perfumy, jasmine-like scent of the coffee flower itself. Those new to coffee often are able to pick out and enjoy floral notes in coffee for the first time if they focus on the recollection of various heavy-scented, white flowers, the kind that send out their intense perfumes at dusk and into the early evening.
Influenced by a variety of factors – from darkness of roast, to the presence of various complementary fruit notes, to processing method, to the botanical variety of the trees – floral notes can range from heavy and carnal (lilies for example); spicy and deep (roses); meadowy and refreshing (violets), slightly vegetal and green (sweet flowering grasses). In coffees that are both very pure and free of taint and light-to-medium roasted, flowers often appear as a component in a honey-like character; in other cases the flower-related sweetness is more molasses-like and vegetal, in other cases round and peach-like. One of the most impressive aspects of floral notes are their persistence in darker roasts, even ultimately dark French roasts, where they often float at the top of the profile, evanescent, sweet and delicate, even after most of the other fruit- or plant-related nuance has been driven out of the beans by the roast.
Ethiopia coffees are most celebrated for their floral character, but floral notes can surface in almost any coffee of the Arabica species, and occasionally and surprisingly, in some of the best wet-processed, high-altitude Robustas. In general, floral notes are the canaries in the coal mine when it comes to purity of fruit removal and drying in coffee. They flourish in coffees that preserve fruit nuance yet are free of any hint of the aroma-dampening taints acquired while the coffee is drying.
Aromatic wood is our general term for notes reminiscent of fresh-cut cedar, fir, or even sandalwood. We distinguish between aromatic wood notes, pungent, fresh and lively, and plain old wood notes, meaning the dead, flat scent of dried-out wood that long ago lost its aromatic oils. Wood, the tasteless kind, is a characteristic of green coffees that have faded and lost their aromatics through age, or roasted coffee that has begun to stale.
On the other hand, the intense, clean odor of fresh-cut fir or cedar is almost universally attractive to human beings, and in coffee often deepens and balances sweeter fruit and floral notes. Although aromatic wood notes appear most frequently in medium through dark-roasted coffees, they can emerge, particularly as fir, in lighter-roasted coffees as well.
So let’s blog again like we did last summer. Reviewing three or four descriptive terms per week is the new plan.
Judging by an occasional puzzled email, sweetness may be one of the more confusing terms for those new to coffee description. We use the term regularly in our reviews, and it’s one of the most important technical descriptors used in evaluating quality in green coffee.
Yet readers who buy a coffee we call “sweet” will be disappointed if they expect it to taste like sugar. Sweetness in coffee is subtle, yet also pervasive and precious. It underpins much of what we value in coffee, from the honeyed floral notes of light-roasted coffees to the pungent dark chocolate of darker roasts.
Yet coffee is, after all, a naturally bitter beverage, and bitterness too is part of its appeal. But we can take bitterness for granted in coffee. It will always be there. Promoting natural sweetness, however, requires effort, a lot of effort.
If you taste a ripe coffee fruit of the arabica species, fresh off the tree, several sensations probably will strike you, among them: it tastes a little tart, a little bitter, but also a little sweet. Not extremely sweet, but discernibly so.
Returning to the effort part, almost any act of carelessness as coffee is transformed from ripe fruit to roasted bean will promote bitterness and reduce sweetness. Too much green, unripe, bitter-astringent fruit in the harvest, for example, rather than sweet, ripe fruit. Failing to dry the beans properly, allowing the formation of sweetness-dampening moulds. Failing to transport or store the beans properly. Roasting them too dark too fast. And if the coffee makes it through all of that, we can destroy any amount of natural sweetness by letting the brewed coffee sit on a hot plate for more than a few minutes.
So a good part of the care that goes into harvesting, removing the fruit residue and drying a fine coffee is aimed at preserving the original fragile sweetness reflected in the taste of the fruit. It makes everything else going on in a fine coffee better: the acidity (fuller and less sharp), the floral and fruit notes (more honeyed and ripe), caramelly and chocolate sensations in a darker roast deeper.
Essentially, many coffee drinkers are so accustomed to the dominating bitter character of ordinary coffee that they automatically add whitener and sweetener to their cup. At Coffee Review we value sweetness in particular because it encourages coffee drinkers to take their coffee black, or at least without sweetener, and experience the coffee itself, its subtle pleasures unwrapped for us by a sweetness given by nature but obsessively nurtured by grower, miller and roaster.
In a few days: flowers and aromatic wood, two positive though rather opposing descriptors we use often in our reviews.
Pawel, in a recent response to my blog “Boomeranging to Super Light Roasts,” asks whether he should order his favorite coffee, a Sumatra Takengon Gayo Organic from the Aceh region, at “City+” or a somewhat darker “Full City.” He answers his own question, quite correctly I think, by writing that there is only one way to find out, and that is by trying both versions.
But his response reminded me of another theme in the complicated discussions around roast color, and one that seems to cause newcomers to specialty coffee in particular considerable confusion. This is the question of names for color of roast (or more properly, degree of roast).
In the early days of American specialty coffee there was some consistency in roast color terminology. The linguistic representation of roast color ran: light or cinnamon / medium / city (slightly darker than medium) / full-city (slightly darker still), then going European with Viennese (just into the second crack) / Light French / Espresso / Italian, and at the ultimate dark end, dark French. There were variations, but the sequence was more or less clear.
Then came Starbucks, and things got a whole lot darker everywhere, particularly on the West Coast. So much so that a few years back we received a sample from a West Coast roaster that was labeled “Light Roast.” Quite literally, this coffee was – as measured by machine – darker than the Starbucks House Blend. If Starbucks was light, what was “medium” for this roaster? A dark roast, of course, a very dark roast. In other words, the entire roast color nomenclature had been moved decisively toward the dark end of the spectrum. In those days, the old dark was the new light.
As I suggested in my last blog, the move from darker to still darker has reversed directions, and we are in the throes of a reaction back toward true light roasts and true medium roasts. In the process of this roast color thesis and antithesis, however, the old specialty language for roast color has pretty much been left in meaningless chaos. What will replace the old language? Will it be revived? Does it need to be revived? Pawel’s favorite roast company’s use of the traditional terms City and Full City appears to be pretty much in calibration with the old specialty roasters’ use of these two terms.
Many of the new paradigm roasters avoid describing roast color at all, I suppose implying that the degree to which they have roasted a coffee is simply the “right” roast for the green coffee and the brewing platform. As it often is. They are essentially saying that they are letting the green coffee lead them. Or they may use a graphic representation, a sort of sliding “light to dark” roast color thermometer, which is a good communications solution, I think, given the confusion of the old descriptive language.
At Coffee Review, we long ago gave up on romantic or traditional names for roast color, and opted for a version of the stodgy but reasonable Specialty Coffee Association of America naming sequence, which runs: Light / Medium / Medium Dark / Dark / Very Dark, to which we added “Black-Brown” as a name for those dark-beyond-dark roasts we ran into when we first started reviewing coffees fourteen years ago.
Today some companies have more or less invented their own languages. George Howell, one of the pioneers of the back-to-medium roast movement, calls his subtly modulated range of medium roasts collectively “Full Flavor Roast.” Starbucks, of course, has gone to its own language: Starbucks’ “Mild” is by traditional standards a medium roast and the Starbucks “Medium” is medium-dark by traditional standards, but “Bold” matches up well with traditional definitions of a dark roast, and “Extra Bold” to traditional standards of an ultra-dark roast.
We have run into at least one roasting company that has tried to jump on the medium-roasting bandwagon without medium roasting. Despite put-downs of Starbucks for dark roasting and proclamations of adherence to the new taste for medium roasting, this company’s coffees (some of them outstanding) continue to come in at a roast color almost exactly the same as Starbucks’ house blend.
But this sort of linguistic waffling may be inevitable, given that many established roasting companies are faced with a substantial consumer base that still prefers darker roast styles, while the trend-setters are heading for the land of light – or at least medium.
It occurred to me again as we were cupping five beautiful single-origin samples from two of the leading new-paradigm roasting companies (call them third wave , fourth wave – whatever wave we’re on now) that some of these exciting, ground-breaking roasting companies may be edging toward, well, too light a roast.
What an irony – even five years ago in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live you – literally – could not buy a medium roast coffee of any distinction, aside from a few selections at Whole Foods Markets. You could of course buy dark roasts, good ones. And you could buy even darker roasts – some of which were good – and you could buy a whole lot of really dark roasts, most of which were not good at all.
But it almost seems as though some of the new paradigm roasters are doing the same thing the dark roasters did, but in reverse. Perhaps they are allowing their roasts to creep lighter as their palates grow accustomed to the lighter style. When the trier is hopping and they are at the edge of doubt, perhaps they get in the habit of erring on the light side rather than on the dark.
At any rate, getting back to these five splendid coffees (none from a San Francisco Bay Area roaster by the way): The green coffees were so fine, so distinctive in character, that light-roasted, medium roasted, or almost any roasted except French they would impress and attract a high rating.
Nevertheless, I had the feeling that at least two of them would have shown better at a just slightly darker roast. By slightly darker, I mean slightly – just enough to round and consolidate the flavors a bit more and eliminate any grassy edge to the flowers or grainy edge to the sweetness.
They still were terrific coffees just as they were – all the fresh, honeyish sweetness and complex aromatics intact. But I wonder whether they would have been even more exciting had the roaster hovered over the trier just a few seconds longer.
As part of a just completed trip to Kenya, I visited some farms and coops in the classic Kenya growing regions northeast of Nairobi. Before arriving at the coffee, however, we enjoyed a day’s run past giraffes, rhinos and other impossible creatures around Lake Nakuru, a lake particularly famous for the clouds of flamingos that turn the pale blue water of the lake pink with their reflections. Not as many flamingos as usual, we were told, although I certainly was impressed. The lake has shrunk owing to drought and man-made deforestation in the hills that ring the lake and we were told that many flamingos have sensibly flown off to feed in other, less shrunken lakes.
I had expected more commercialization. The wildlife was genuinely wild, going about its collective, dreamlike existence almost completely oblivious of the occasional pop-top minivan full of tourists and cameras. The only moment to invoke true urban cynicism occurred when one of the drivers spotted a leopard (a rare sighting apparently) and let the other drivers in the vicinity know, whereupon all the minivans in the area converged, causing a kind of traffic jam. The leopard, meanwhile, a distant lump sleeping on a dead tree branch, did absolutely nothing of note except sleep.
There are probably three – no four – reasons that fine Kenya coffees are consistently among the best in the world. Reason one: they grow in deep, old volcanic soil. Reason two: they grow at high elevations near the equator. Reason three: they are meticulously wet-processed using traditional ferment-and-wash methods – no machines scrubbing the fruit pulp off the beans as is now increasingly the case in Latin America. At least there were no such machines in evidence among the farms we visited.
Reason four for the superiority of Kenyas is controversial: to what degree are the traditional botanical varieties grown in Kenya and derived from the great heirloom Bourbon variety responsible for the amazingly rich, sweetly tart dry berry notes for which the best Kenyas are famous? These heirloom varieties are the famous SL28 and SL34 (SL stands for “Scott Laboratories”). Unfortunately, the trees of these varieties, like most other traditional varieties in Kenya, are susceptible to coffee berry disease, or CBD, the scourge of Kenya coffee.
As we dozed our way in stuffy minivans from farm to farm in Kenya my particular mission was learning more about the question that obsesses the more knowledgeable admirers of Kenya coffees: Will new plantings of a recently developed CBD-resistant, high-yielding variety of Arabica called Ruiru 11 turn Kenya coffees sappy and ordinary? Will that amazing rich black currant note, already rare, disappear entirely?
Ruiru 11 is something of a coffee scientist’s triumph, representing the culmination of years of work crossing the flavor-positive SL28 with varieties that incorporate the disease resistance of Robusta as well the genetic stability of certain other arabica varieties.
The agronomists and the farmers I spoke to at first unanimously said that Ruiru 11 tastes fine. For example, our tireless and exuberant tour leader, Etienne Delbar, Chairman of the Kenya Chapter of the East Africa Fine Coffee Association, claimed during the first night the group met that no one can tell the difference in the cup between coffee from trees of the Ruiru 11 variety and the heirloom SL28.
Maybe that one time they couldn’t. But I doubt whether they would be fooled over the long run. That elegant dry berry sensation pops up everywhere in the world where Bourbon and its derivatives are grown. Not every year, not on every farm, but regularly enough to decisively convince anyone who recognizes the note and cups enough coffees that this beautiful note is related to bourbon and bourbon-related varieties.
But once past the simple black-and-white assertion – there’s no difference, just you coffee snobs causing us hard-working farmers and smart agronomists problems – the more thoughtful agronomists I spoke to nuanced the situation. Essentially, they admitted the Ruiru 11 cup is sometimes simple and empty, but the reason, they say, is that farmers don’t prune these new Ruiru 11 trees aggressively enough, so they simply produce too much coffee with a diffused or empty character. Cut the Ruiru 11 trees back so that they bear less fruit and the coffee they produce will taste just like coffee from the lower-bearing SL28 and SL34.
One problem is farmers may not aggressively prune their Ruiru 11 because they naturally want to produce more coffee, sell more coffee, and make more money. Hence, on a practical level, more Ruiru 11 probably will mean more ordinary tasting Kenyas entering the market. Secondly, although the Ruiru 11 coffee from strategically pruned trees may be outstanding coffee, I still doubt – at least until I taste enough samples – that it will reflect the dry berry character we treasure from the best Kenyas.
The last agronomist I spoke to was quite familiar with the dry berry character, but declared with great confidence that it has nothing to do with botanical variety and is purely owing to the influence of the deep, old volcanic soil of the prime Kenya growing areas.
In part, perhaps, but not completely. True, you can’t just grab some SL28 seed and plant it on some mountain in another part of the world and expect it to taste like the finest Kenyas. Terroir counts. But so does botanical variety. We eventually will understand better how botanical variety and terroir (the sum total impact of soil, climate, and typography) interact together to produce the handful of very distinctive coffees many of us treasure. But for now, and for Kenya, I don’t believe it’s terroir alone.