I first heard of USDA 762 from the newly formed Specialty Coffee Association of Indonesia in 2007 or 2008. On their website they discussed coffee varieties being grown in Indonesia and had a section discussing Ethiopian lines.
Mentioned are 3 varieties: Abbysinia, Rambung and USDA. The former two I have done plenty of research on but that is another story. The USDA one I have found most interesting as it is being grown by a number of farmers in Bali and likely other areas as well whereas the former I have yet to hear of any large group of farmers who is growing in Indonesia though I suspect they do exist.
I had scoured the internet for references to this varietal on several occasions in the past couple years. The name USDA 762 was mentioned several times in reference to an Ethiopian line introduced by Americans in the 1950’s or early 1960’s. But for a long time that was all the info I could find on this variety. Early 2011 I found another piece of info that held the key to unraveling the origins of this cultivar. I can’t remember the source anymore but I found out that 762 was a shortened form of a longer number – 230762. I had no idea what this number meant but searching that number and the right key words in Google Scholar led to a reference to it. A match was found in a paper published by the USDA July 1960 – ‘Coffee Germplasm Collection and Distribution’
I wasn’t able to read this paper online or order it but I called my friend Dr. Shawn Steiman of Coffea Consulting to see if he might be able to track down this paper for me. I had mostly forgotten about it the past couple months, but then Shawn was visiting the Big Island for the Ka’u Coffee Festival over the weekend and he told me he had the paper I had asked for. Most of the time when looking through loads of information in these papers I don’t find what I’m looking for. But this time I was lucky. A little more information and another clue into finding the exact origins of this variety.
Plant Introduction No: 230762
Name under which seeds or plants were Rec’d: C. arabica Lejeune’s #8 Line 108
Year Received: 1955
CRRC (Coffee Rust Research Center, now CIFC in Portugal) No: 536
Type Resistance (referring to rust): E and C
Finally knowing what the number 230762 was (the USDA plant Introduction #) it only took a couple of late nights searching through information to find out more about this introduction.
230729 to 230780. COFFEA ARABICA L. Rubiaceae. Arabian coffee.
From Ethiopia. Seeds collected by Jean B. H. Lejeune, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Addis Ababa. Received Dec. 20, 1955.
Collected in the forest region of Kaffa Province, about 16 miles from Mizan Tafari.
230759 to 230778. From Mizan Tafari. Elevation 4,700 feet.
230759. Line 0105. 230765. Line 0111.
230760. Line 0106. 230766. Line 0112.
230761. Population 0107. 230767. Line 0113.
230762. Line 0108. 230768. Line 0114.
From 1954 -1956 JBH Lejeune a French researcher was sent by the FAO to collection specimens of wild coffee. Until receiving the paper from the USDA I was unaware of this but the USDA received the seeds from many of these expeditions and then distributed them to the various coffee research gardens/germplasm collections around the world and to the coffee rust research center in Portugal.
I finally found the documentation showing that USDA 762 was an Ethiopian line and where it was collected from. And where it was collected from is quite interesting. Mizan Tafari. To most, that likely means nothing… unless you have spent way too much time researching the history of the Geisha cultivar. (Here is good starting point on Hacienda Esmeralda’s website.) The area in Ethiopia known as Geisha/Gesha gave birth to the varietal Panama is now famous for is very near Mizan Taferi. At first this sounded surprising, but also in the context of what was going on in coffee breeding at the time it makes perfect sense. In the 1950’s breeding programs were underway in Kenya and Tanzania as well as Central America utilizing Geisha for its leaf rust resistance. Geisha was known for having poor yields so it was crossed with other higher yielding varieties. By the late 1950s the USDA already had several introductions of Geisha/Caturra hybrids. That an expedition was sent to look for other wild varieties that might offer similar resistance and other desirable agronomic traits isn’t a surprise. The Kaffa province is also one of the areas of greatest genetic diversity in coffee and larger scale expeditions were launched in the 1960’s by FAO and ORSTROM that also made collections near Mizan Tafari and attempted to reach the site the original Geisha plants were collected from. Rust resistance was in important part of coffee breeding at the time and wild arabica coffee is where people were looking to find it. This was before the Timor hybrid became the main plant material used for rust resistance breeding. Sure enough USDA 230762 is listed as showing the same type of rust resistance as the Geisha. Given rust is a major problem in Indonesia and much of Asia it makes sense that this variety would be introduced to Indonesia. I don’t know yet but I suspect that 230762 was not the only introduction to Indonesia, but that this selection had some other desirable agronomic traits and good field performance there and was introduced to farmers there for that reason. It must have decent yields as it is even recently being recommended for planting.
Like the Geisha and many other Ethiopian lines rust resistance has largely been overcome and these plants never had the kind of resistance the Robusta hybrids exhibit. So it is only recommended now for higher elevations where rust isn’t as big of a problem. This is good news. An Ethiopian cultivar being grown in the highest elevations available at a latitude and altitude similar to its native environment. I haven’t had a chance to cup yet but some others have and I have heard the cup quality is better than other cultivars being grown. I have stumbled onto a Japanese site that suggests it maybe similar (in morphology at least) to the S4 Agaro varietal which I have cupped and can say is quite excellent and exhibits the citrus and floral qualities one generally associates with Ethiopian coffee and the Geisha. Being from very near where the Geisha was collected doesn’t mean it is genetically similar to Geisha. Quite the opposite is likely as this is a center of most of the genetic diversity in arabica.
I still have some unanswered questions. What is the morphology of this plant like? (If anyone who has been to Bali has some good pictures I would love to see them.) Was there any reason why this plant was originally collected in Ethiopia and what traits does it have that led to it being recommended for planting? Many Ethiopian lines have been experimented with around the world but few have ever been distributed to farmers. Some of the answers might be found in this report “Lejeune, J.B.H. 1958. Rapport au Gouvernement Impérial d’Ethiopie sur la production caféière. FAO, Rome, Italy.” … Another paper to try and track down.
Most people don’t think of Indonesia when they think of Ethiopian cultivars but the earliest Ethiopian coffee researched perhaps anywhere occurred there. In 1928 coffee researcher PJS Cramer in Java brought back coffee plants from Ethiopia. (see ‘A Review of Liturature of Coffee research in Indonesia’ page 103 &104)
Simply called Abyssinia (as Ethiopia was then called) Cramer had been looking to other species that might be cross bred with Arabica to produce disease resistant cultivars at the time and happily discovered resistance to rust in the Arabica plant he brought back from Ethiopia. I don’t know where to find this plant in Indonesia, though it is apparently still being recommended for planting in some areas. But it does exist in other parts of the world under a different name. That from which was distributed… Java.
On the Island of Maui a unique cultivar called Mokka is commercially cultivated. I first heard of it perhaps a decade ago and over the years I have heard things like it is a varietal brought from Yemen or Ethiopia; always an air of mystique around its origins. While it’s a wonderfully romantic notion that it is some unknown cultivar from who knows where, the reality is that there is nothing mysterious about it at all. The Mokka tree produces very small seeds that look more like split peas than coffee beans. Very tiny. The tree itself is very bushy compared to other cultivars with tiny cherries and narrow leaves. It is one of four cultivars planted on Maui. The Mokka planted there all originates from one tree at the CTAHR research station in Kainaliu on the big island of Hawaii, about 10 miles from the town of Kailua-Kona. It, like most of the cultivars at that research station, came from Brazil in the 1950’s or 60’s. When it was sent to Hawaii it was simply labeled Mokka. Mokka is a mutant of Bourbon that was documented long ago. It was well known by the time Uker’s book ‘All About Coffee’ was published in 1935 and written about by coffee researcher PJS Cramer earlier than that. It is a dwarf mutant, very bushy, looking more like a hedge than a coffee tree growing to only 4-6 feet tall, whereas Bourbon which it mutated from grows 20+ feet if left unpruned. Its appearance is very very close to that of the Laurina varietal discovered on the island of La Reunion in the 19th century. The distinguishing difference between the two is that Mokka has round beans. Laurina produces seeds that are sharply pointed on one end and often is referred to as ‘Bourbon pointu’ because of its shape. In fact both forms result from mutations of the same gene. Both are pleiotropic mutations (one gene causing several morphological changes, whereas most mutations cause only one small change, like the color of the cherry.)
The Bourbon mutant Mokka exists in the collections of many research stations around the world. But this varietal is low yielding and extremely difficult to harvest by hand so, to my knowledge, it hasn’t been commercially cultivated anywhere, at least on any scale. What is grown on Maui isn’t this mutant. It is something called ‘tall Mokka.’ At some point, intentionally or accidentally, the Mokka mutant hybridized with Typica, a tall variety genetically distinct from Bourbon. The resulting plant retains the small cherries, leaves and beans of the Mokka mutation but is a tall tree like Typica, but much bushier. It is this hybrid that is planted on Maui and nowhere else that I know of.
Interestingly both the Laurina and Mokka mutations produce seeds with half the caffeine of most other Arabica cultivars. Whether or not the Maui Mokka retains this characteristic I’m not certain, but it may be less than others.
Even with some of the mystery removed it is still quite an interesting varietal and I have become quite fond of it. In my experience, it seems to make a heavy bodied coffee that is very chocolaty and often with notes of dried fruit or spices. And as a natural processed coffee it can have a rose-like floral quality. Because of the small size of the cherry it seems ideal for the natural process, but unfortunately, except on farms that mechanically harvest like they do in Maui, it is quite unpractical to plant as it is very difficult and time-consuming to pick by hand.
Jamaica has long grown coffee, at one time, for a short while, it was one of the world’s largest producers of the crop. Much of the coffee comes from Jamaica’s famed Blue Mountains. Despite its reputation for quality I, like many coffee professionals, cannot remember a time in which it actually was great. I traveled to Jamaica recently to better understand the industry there and why the coffee is perhaps not as good as it should be. On paper it seems the coffee should be great or at least have the potential to be. Mostly of the Typica variety (although I discovered more than that is grown there) and much at high altitude (3500-5000 feet) at a northerly latitude.
I spent my time in Jamaica mostly high in the Blue Mountains at an estate around the 4000 foot altitude. Certainly felt like coffee country there and in an area at the upper limits of possible coffee cultivation. The terrain is quite steep and the view very majestic. Most of the day the coffee was shrouded in clouds; the area receives immense rainfall. In this wet tropical environment grasses and foliage grow incredibly rapidly, growing two feet within a month and needing to be constantly kept in check by machete. The area has experienced several hurricanes in the past decade, severely damaging the coffee fields. I honestly can’t imagine a much more formidable land in which to try and farm coffee.
I expected to see all Typica. (Jamaica has its own strain of Typica called, conveniently enough, Jamaica Blue Mountain which has be planted in many other parts of the world.) While the Jamaica Coffee Board prefers everyone plant Typica, and most of the coffee I saw was Typica, at various times they have recommended planting Caturra, a local dwarf hybrid called 5159 and Geisha. I saw varying amounts of each driving though the coffee country. I expected to see poor harvesting and all mechanical demucilaging and mechanical drying. While it sounds like that may be the case with the bulk of the coffee, I was quite pleased to see artisan production still exists. Excellent picking, traditional fermentation and careful patio and screen sun-drying.
One problem that may be a limiting factor on quality, if not watched carefully, is that coffee is pulped in the mountains and dried down near sea-level in Kingston. If the coffee has not had all of its fruit removed and is quickly transported down to where it will be dried problems can easily arise. Storage in hot port towns like Kingston also can cause coffee to fade prematurely. So while great coffee may be coming out of Jamaica that doesn’t mean it necessarily is making it in that condition to its intended market. This is certainly a concern in many more places than just Jamaica.
How was the coffee I tasted there? When I tasted coffee that was fresh and very well handled it was quite excellent. Not a powerhouse of acidity, not bursting with fruit or flowers, but not a simple coffee either. It was a coffee of great balance, full body, good acidity and wonderful sweetness and with rather interesting hazelnut and savory qualities to the flavor. While much Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee may not be worth the hype, from my experience there, certainly some of it is. If carefully tended to, from harvest to export, I believe a lot more of it could be.
Like many people in coffee, the Geisha cultivar in Panama fascinates me. I’ve done as much research into its history, as well as other Ethiopian cultivars, as anyone. While I have a lot to say on it here I want to focus on some aspects of its history that were unknown to me until a few days ago and relate a period of its history I haven’t heard before.
Most people who know of the Geisha know of it because of Hacienda La Esmeralda. And the re-discovery of this cultivar by the Peterson family. In 2004 they entered into the best of Panama cupping competition a small lot of coffee selected from this varietal and the rest as they say is history. The Esmeralda Geisha dominated that competition and virtually every cupping competition it has been entered into since. At its best the Geisha cultivar is a truly astounding coffee. It’s also widely known that this cultivar has its origins in Ethiopia. And was brought to Central America decades ago.
I know a fair amount of why it was collected and likely why it was distributed to research stations around the world. What I didn’t know was WHY it was brought to Panama to be planted. A few days ago in Boquete Panama I was with Fransisco Serracin, cupping coffees from his Family’s Don Pachi estate and visiting his farm to see their Geisha cultivar up close. (It is a very strange varietal with inconsistent characteristics and behaves much more like a hybrid than an established cultivar.) He asked me if I would like to go meet his father Don Pachi. And I happily accepted that opportunity. Don Pachi is the man who brought the Geisha to Panama, and all the mature Geisha trees at Esmeralda and other farms can trace their lineage back to trees he brought from Costa Rica in the 1960’s
We arrived at another of the family’s farms and Don Pachi was out in his fields pruning his trees. This lively 70 year old man with machete at his side has an obviously love of his land, his farm and coffee and it was a great honor to meet with him and ask him some questions.
Around 1960 many farms in Panama and much of Central America began planting the shorter, higher yielding cultivars Caturra and Catuai. But Don Pachi preferred the taller trees like Typica and Bourbon. In addition to his contribution for bringing the Geisha to Panama Don Pachi has also spent his life selectively breeding the Bourbon varietal.
Why did Don Pachi bring the Geisha to Panama? The major motivation was its resistance to rust, an aggressive fungal disease that has ravaged coffee regions around the world. But at the time Don Pachi brought the Geisha to Panama rust hadn’t arrived there yet, and to this day although it has been found in Panama it hasn’t become a large problem. He brought the Geisha from CATIE in neighboring Costa Rica, an agricultural research station which maintains one of the largest coffee species and varietal collections in the world. At CATIE at the time they would have had at least a dozen and likely many more Ethiopian cultivars to choose from, many exhibiting some resistance to rust. So I asked him why did he select the Geisha cultivar in particular? The answer was simple enough. The Geisha had resistance to two strains of rust, which happened to be the two that were currently in other parts of Central America at the time. So when rust reached Panama inevitably, this cultivar would provide some insurance in case of an outbreak. A lot of forethought there. He raised thousands of trees from the Geisha at CATIE and planted at his farm as well as provided to other farms including the Jaramillo plot at Hacienda La Esmeralda. It’s also interesting to note he was a very young man at the time when he brought the Geisha to Panama 22 or 23, either recently graduated or still in college at the time. I didn’t ask. To anyone who has tasted some of the outstanding coffees this varietal can produce its Don Pachi you can thank for this varietal being around today and not just one of many curiosities at a research station. Geisha wasn’t the only Ethiopian varietal he brought from CATIE. He brought half a dozen others as well but none of them he planted widely like he did the Geisha. The names and accession numbers of these plants are forgotten and the trees are now long gone. Why he brought those as well I didn’t ask. Could any have proved the taste sensation that Geisha has become? I can only wonder.
I’ve spent the last week with Graciano Cruz in El Salvador, cupping lots of coffees, many of which are honey coffees he is working on. Honeys are a style recently being experimented with quite a lot in Central America, also called pulped natural and pulped sundried coffees elsewhere. In traditional wet-processing coffee cherries have the skin pulped off and then the fruit layer, called mucilage, is fermented and rinsed away. Then the coffee in parchment layer is dried. In the honey style the skin is removed but the fruit layer left on to dry. Often this is done on raised screens rather than patios or mechanical dryers. Because the fruit is sticky the coffee needs to be raked frequently so that it doesn’t clump up, dry unevenly and present opportunity for fermentation and mold.
There are some very good reasons Graciano and others around the world are pursuing this style. Traditional wet processing uses a lot of water and produces a lot of contaminated water. On the order of billions of gallons in just some small areas per year. Water is a precious commodity in most parts of the world and conservation is of great importance in coffee producing regions. Other modern coffee processing equipment like mechanical demucilagers, developed in Colombia, seek to minimize water usage as well. Also at many larger mills around the world coffee is mechanically dried, using very large amounts of fuel to provide heat to dry the coffee. Even if only a small percentage of a mill’s production drying of specialty coffees is in the sun, it saves energy. Luckily in El Salvador and many growing regions the harvest time for coffee is a time of warm sunny weather and drying in the sun is quite easy to do. But this isn’t so everywhere.
How do honeys taste in the cup? It varies a bit. Almost always there is an elevated perception of sweetness and enhanced aroma. Aroma may be a slightly sweeter, more intense version of the aromas in a washed version of the same coffee or may display very different berry, grape and grapefruit-like citrus notes. Acidity can be higher or lower depending on how the drying was carried out. More sweetness, better aroma, water and energy savings all sound like a win/win scenario right? Almost. Unfortunately this process doesn’t always produce simply a more distinctive coffee. It carries with it a lot of risk and it’s far easier to create a vastly inferior coffee than a better one and hard to create superior ones as consistently as one would with washed processing. Sugars and hot tropical weather or humid conditions as exist in many coffee regions don’t play so well together. Difficulty drying in less than ideal weather or from poor raking or too deep of coffee in the drying bed can easily result in mold, resulting in a flattened, dirty tasting cup. Fermentation of the fruit can also create a sour quality to the acidity, bitterness in the finish and over-ripe/off tasting fruit flavors. Sometimes these coffees also pick up vegetal, garlic and onion tastes which I at least generally find undesirable in most coffees. In El Salvador the climate is very well suited to doing this style and most of the coffees we cupped were clean and free of the tastes I described above. But in wetter more humid environments like Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Indonesia, and Hawaii (where I reside) doing this style and natural processed coffees is more risky. But good results can be accomplished.
I always encourage farmers to experiment, but to proceed with caution. I have tasted many samples from farmers who were experimenting with the styles but really didn’t know much about doing them or the risks associated with them. Often the coffees where very flawed and vastly inferior to washed coffees from same producer, in some cases almost undrinkable and not sellable. Of course poor care of washed coffees can yield terrible coffees as well. Honeys are a new emerging style, and quality and consistency should improve as more people experiment with them, share information and refine the process. Consumers looking to try these coffees should be able to find examples from El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, Brazil and India if they search. When they are executed well honeys can be a sweet deal for both producer and consumer.
In most places around the world coffee is harvested by hands. Quite often in marketing for coffee from various regions and farms they extol the virtues of selective hand harvesting. Everyone claims to only pick ripe red cherry. But how ripe? And how evenly ripe? The reality is most coffee is not harvested as ripe as it could be despite marketing claims.
Does the ripeness of the cherry matter? I think I and most coffee professionals would overwhelmingly say yes. Having done several experiments personally I have come to the conclusion it is unfortunately a very important prerequisite for excellent coffee. I say unfortunate because in most cases picking coffee at its peak of ripeness is no easy or cheap task.
The coffee bean is the seed of a fruit often called a cherry or berry. While this fruit is maturing the color is green until a few weeks before it is completely ripe. Then the color begins to change to yellow and gradually to a deep red almost purple color once the fruit is ripe (in most cultivars, there are some cultivars that are yellow and even orange when ripe) as the fruit becomes red it becomes very sweet and sweeter the riper it gets. The resulting coffee from the riper cherry seems to get sweeter as well. At some point as with all fruits it becomes over ripe begins to turn brown and the fruit begins to ferment. Tasting brown coffee cherries is a rather unpleasant experience. Very sour and vinegar-like and they have a rather unpleasant aroma. Not to surprisingly coffee produced from such cherry tends to be sour and sometimes unpleasant over-ripe/rotten in its flavor. Eventually the cherry will dry out looking almost black in color. Often these cherries have taken on mold in most climates and there is a high percentage of defective beans within them.
Obviously to produce the best coffee possible you want to pick the coffee while its red. Sounds easy enough right? If coffee all ripened at the same time it probably would be. Rarely though does that actually happen. Coffee tends to ripen in waves over a period of 2 or more months. Coffee pickers around the world are paid by weight of cherry NOT quality of cherry generally. Being selective and carefully inspecting each cherry you pick to be certain it is as ripe as it could be is time consuming. Which will result in less coffee being harvested and less money in a pickers pocket at the end of the day. It can also be difficult sometimes while picking to tell just how ripe the coffee cherry is especially in low light conditions. Sometimes the bottom half of a cherry is red but near the stem it is still green. The coffee will still ripen more but while picking it can be difficult to tell if the cherry is completely ripe without slowing down to inspect it. Also complicating things is the frequency of the picking. Every tree is not picked every day during the duration of the harvest season. Maybe once a week, once a month or even just once in a season some places. Quite often if coffee is partially ripe and not picked by the time that tree is picked again that fruit will already be over-ripe. And likely there is some cherry that was missed the previous round and is now brown or black. These can be hard not to pick as they are very loose on the tree and tend to fall of easily especially if they are in a cluster with ripe cherries being picked. At the very beginning of the season and the very end of the season the coffee is apt to be fairly inconsistently ripe in the field. Not surprisingly then the best quality coffees tend to come from the heart of the harvest when the coffee tends to be more evenly ripe on the trees.
Now exactly how much effort and expense is put into picking cherry as ripe as possible varies a lot around the world. Many places make virtually no attempt but rely on equipment after harvesting to try and remove undesirable coffee. In coffee that is being wet processed as occurs in most regions there is equipment available that is very good at removing completely green and very under-ripe and also completely black dried cherry pods. But there is a range from half-ripe to mostly brown cherry that equipment does not seem able to remove.
Not all processing facilities have equipment that will do this kind of sorting. Another option is sorting by hand before processing the coffee. Of course this is laborious but quite effective. It would seem for at least large scale operations it would be possible to develop some sort of laser color sorter for incoming coffee cherry. Such technology is certainly used for different fruit crops but to my knowledge no one has yet applied this to coffee.
The simple reality is most coffee is not completely ripe picked. This does not mean that most coffee is not good. Sorting equipment is very effective at removing the worst of the coffee and what may have been pretty scary looking cherry of all shades and colors once well sorted may be a quite nice coffee. Although almost all truly excellent coffees I have had were undoubtedly very very ripe picked. Whether through laborious attention in harvesting, through hand sorting and perhaps with some just the luck of having a great round of picking where almost all the cherry was evenly ripe. When coffee is truly ripe-picked (and very well processed, stored and roasted) it tends to manifest itself in the cup with a clean tea-like clarity and mild sweetness that is reminiscent of brown sugar, honey or raw sugar cane juice. All flavors I would think most people would greatly enjoy.
Once upon a time not so long ago most of the coffee planted in the world was from one varietal, Coffea Arabica Var. typica or typical coffee. 100-150 years ago it didn’t mater where in the world your coffee came from Sumatra, India, The Americas the trees were essentially of same variety (exception being coffees from Ethiopia and Yemen and later the island of Reunion). The reason for this lack of diversity was coffees interesting history. Essentially all the world’s coffee at the time could trace their lineage back to a few seeds stolen out of Yemen and brought to India a few centuries earlier. From India it spread to Indonesia and eventually to Botanical gardens in Europe and then from one tree there it was introduced to the new world. Typica represented just one of many varieties growing in Yemen. Recent genetic comparisons indicate that it and the bourbon varietal not surprisingly likely had their origins in Eastern Ethiopia. With the exception of the Bourbon Varietal also brought from Yemen it wouldn’t be until the 20th century that anything else was an option to coffee planters. Now in the 21st century the once typical coffee is anything but. In most places in the world it is very difficult to find. Typica trees in most places are much lower yielding than most the mutant and hybrid varieties now common and also very susceptible to diseases like rust. From the 1860’s through the early 20th century rust spread around the world devastating coffee growers. The island of Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) for a short time the largest producer of coffee never recovered from this outbreak and the growers there switched to tea instead for which they are now famous producers of. In most places in the world its population was severely limited and growers began looking for other varieties to plant. In some places Arabica typical was replaced with the Robusta or Liberica species. In many other breeding programs were developed to produce strains more resistant to coffee diseases as well as trees that where higher yielding and easier. Now days it can still be found but it takes a little searching. I’ve tasted many memorable coffees from this variety. It often displays a very balanced profile with well developed sweetness and hints of nuts and citrus when grown at higher altitudes. Although I’ve experienced things as varied as red wine and chocolate from some typica coffees to Orchid and clove in others. Only a few years ago it would have been quite difficult to get a single varietal coffee but many quality conscious growers now offer unblended varietals and are beginning to re-explore the heirloom cultivars of bourbon and typica for their quality rather than quantity. From typica numerous mutations and selections have occurred producing varietals such as Kents, Margogype (giant beans) Mokka (tiny beans) Villalobos, Golden Drops (yellow fruit) and others. Dozens of modern hybrids can also count Typica as one of their parents some notable ones are SL795 developed in India and Mundo Novo developed in Brasil.
If one searches good examples of the typica varietal can sometimes be found from Panama, Mexico, Colombia, India, Indonesia and Hawaii.
As coffee ages the first thing that tends to happen is flavors and aromas become less intense and acidity and sweetness usually then begin to follow. At some point the coffee begins to take up a past crop or ‘baggy’ taste, an astringent like quality that has a taste similar to wood, cardboard or burlap. Its not pleasant and begins to get more intense and dominate over a coffees other flavors more and more as the coffee continues to age.
How long does this take to happen? It depends. With coffee stored unprotected in the tropics exposed to high heat and humidity I’ve seen noticeable past crop tastes in as little as 3 months after harvesting. I’ve also on rare occasions come across coffees 18 months old that still tasted quite vibrant. 8-12 months though is where it usually begins to become noticeable. The moisture content and density of the coffee seem to have a lot to do with green coffees potential shelf life. Storage environment has a large impact as well. How old coffee is before it arrives to roasters in the USA varies a lot depending on where it is coming from. From Central and South America coffees are often 3-4 months old when they arrive. This is often the case for coffees from Indonesia and India as well. With some land-locked African countries though it can sometimes be 8-12 months before they arrive which unfortunately almost always means a loss in quality. In recent years some new technologies have began to be applied to coffee to help improve its shelf life and minimize damage to it before and during exporting. Vacuum packaging is available now in most Latin American countries. It is fairly expensive so is mostly being used for high-priced micro-lots and auction coffees. Special plastic liners common in the grain industry are also beginning to be used. My experience with both of these is that they definitely help. Freezing of vacuum packaged coffee has also begun occurring, pioneered by George Howell’s Terroir coffee company. This seems to extend green coffees potential shelf life even more
But just like with roasted coffee while we can do things to help limit the damage to coffees and extend the shelf life somewhat through storage and packaging it is always best if the product can be experienced as fresh as possible. With that in mind here are the likely the best times to experience fresh vibrant coffees from some growing regions of the world:
Central America –May-September
South America –October –February
India/Sumatra –February –June
Kenya/Ethiopia – May –September