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.
Recently arrived in the mail is a certificate (suitable for framing) from the Coffee Quality Institute, the non-profit coffee research organization spun off from the better known Specialty Coffee Association of America. That I earned the certificate through some cupping in Uganda is not of much note; of late the American specialty coffee industry has been passing out certificates like cookies to kindergartners.
However, this certificate reads (at length): “In recognition of the extraordinary contribution of time, energy, and knowledge by creating a standardized formal protocol in order to discover and reward all the intrinsic flavor characteristics of Fine Robusta Coffee, freely given for the betterment of millions of small holder farmers who plant and harvest them, this certificate has been duly earned by … “ etc., etc.
The coffee insider will have no trouble spotting the flaming word of controversy here: Robusta, as in “Fine Robusta Coffees.” Awarding a certificate for contributions to a high-level symposium aimed at achieving something positive and uplifting for coffee of the Robusta species and the farmers who grow it may sound as strange to many in the specialty coffee industry as the Catholic Church proclaiming a feast day for Judas.
This is a blog, not an article, so I will not retrace in detail the history of Robusta, which has less flavor, more caffeine and more crema-producing solids than coffee from trees of the arabica species. It also has been tabooed in the American specialty coffee industry ever since that industry first raised its flag forty-plus years ago determined to free America from bad coffee.
Robusta also has been abused since its appearance on the world coffee stage. Since it was cheap to start with, the commodity trade did its best to keep it cheap by stripping it off trees and letting it dry in rotting piles wherein every taint known to coffee had an opportunity to develop: sugars fermenting to compost-pile intensity, attracting moulds that would make your old walking shoes taste sweet, all ending with a sewer-gas-like flourish. The fact that in the last twenty years some producers began to treat Robusta well, even meticulously, is a development mainly noticed in Europe, and until recently ignored completely in the U.S., where Robustas continue to be associated with rotten stuff fit only for (after some taint-muting steam-cleaning) instant and canned supermarket coffees.
But over the last decade or so producers have been producing cleaner and cleaner tasting Robusta grades, in which their nut-like neutrality, low acidity, modest spice and chocolate aromatics and fat heft can reveal themselves free of rot, ferment and mildew.
Over the past decade some U.S. specialty roasters started discreetly slipping in 10% or 12% Robustas into espresso blends to mute acidity, knit the blend together and fatten the body and crema. But the anti-Robusta taboo remains in force, as inexorable as an eleventh commandment.
True, there are those who will abuse the situation should the taboo erode. So long as Robustas remain cheaper than Arabicas, and so long as no clear distinction is made between fine Robustas and cheap, rotten ones, those slide-by roasters who have contempt for their customers will be tempted to use them to cut costs rather than fatten body. But lousy, tainted Arabicas are also subject to abuse. In my own work I find the best Robustas an invaluable ingredient in certain kinds of blends, and lately, partly owing to my experience at the Coffee Quality Institute Robusta event in Uganda, interesting possibilities for (oh my god) single-origin drip coffees as well.
Ted Lingle, the great visionary student of coffee and Director of the Coffee Quality Institute, mounted the Uganda event mainly on behalf of Robusta farmers worldwide, who largely have been left out of all of the changes and new opportunities that the fine coffee market has afforded Arabica coffee farmers over the past thirty years. Robusta farmers have little incentive to produce quality because no clear criteria for a specialty or fine quality Robusta exist. Ted and his funders at the USAID wanted to create those criteria through mounting the Uganda event. And by creating them they hope to encourage farmers who want to produce better Robustas to get the price they need to continue producing them. Ted also, like me, acknowledges that the cup character of truly fine Robustas is definitely different than the cup character of any fine arabica, but that that difference constitutes the very reason Robustas are valuable. The specialty or fine coffee industry is based on product differentiation and variety, on the excitement of exploring both quality and diversity in fine coffees. Last I checked, it was not based on limiting diversity through taboo, only through proof of quality. So the essential question is: Should a flawlessly prepared Robusta with fine Robusta character automatically be considered poor quality simply because it is a Robusta? I think not. However, I have had the opportunity to cup a good range of fine Robustas over the years from both India and Uganda, so I am aware of their intrinsic character and possibility.
I expect to take some hits over this first blog entry, and will respond to challenges that do not employ bad words about my mother or question my sanity. I also hope to report on a Robusta quality competition taking place at the East Africa Fine Coffee Association in February at which Ted Lingle and I both will be present.