I’m here in El Salvador for “Let’s Talk Coffee,” a yearly meeting of mostly small-holding coffee producers, roasters, importer and exporters, and development agencies. It’s sponsored by Sustainable Harvest, a long-time pioneering American importer of cooperative and small-producer coffees.
I came here in part to deliver a presentation on Robusta coffees. It was part of a string of presentations and cuppings focused on exploring Robusta in a specialty coffee context. Conversations on Robusta are increasingly urgent in specialty coffee events for several reasons, all of them at bottom pushed by anxiety about the impact of global warming on Arabica production, particularly production of lower elevation Arabicas. Arabica is a very fussy plant in respect to temperatures, and as global temperatures rise more and more regions of Arabica production are being stressed by changes in rainfall patterns, higher temperatures, and intensified pest infestations like the latest leaf rust outbreak here in Central America. Robusta, of course, grows at a much wider range of elevations (though it cups best when grown at higher elevations) and is much hardier than Arabica.
So some specialty roasters, in fact, quite a few, are asking – can Robusta truly be developed as a viable fine coffee? They want to know more about Robusta, understand it better, and perhaps support its development as a complement to the best Arabicas. The very best Robusta producers, like those in India, feel that they have achieved that goal of making Robusta specialty. Others of us, like me, feel that, although some producers in India have done very well, in order for Robusta to truly contribute to specialty a new attitude is necessary, an attitude of interest, openness, and experiment.
Which was the focus of my talk. I don’t want to rebrand Robusta; I want to unbrand it so we in specialty can finally find out what it is and can be. The Arabica world is not static – look at the development of new varieties, like Gesha, the successful experiments with unorthodox processing methods – the new naturals, honey-processing, etc. We don’t really know what Robusta is from a potential specialty perspective, only what it is now, as represented by the dispiriting output of the current relentlessly quality-destructive industrialized Robusta supply chain.
On Monday, the LA Times ran an article titled Coffee drinkers rejoice: Price of beans hits four-year low. Now, we’re glad that favorable weather conditions are helping increase coffee production. And, you certainly can’t blame consumers (or the LA Times) for welcoming lower prices.
However, keep in mind that lower green coffee prices can adversely affect the financial well-being of coffee farmers and their families. Increased production can offset lower prices but not if margins and profit are squeezed to nothing. It often forces growers to cut costs and corners, which can often lead to compromises in quality.
Frankly, we would rather pay a little more for a great cup of coffee. We encourage you to continue buying quality coffee, many of which quite affordable.
And, remember, October is Fair Trade month. Learn more about Fair Trade coffee at FairTradeUSA.org and Wikipedia.com. Looking for a quality Fair Trade coffee? You can find hundreds of Fair Trade coffee reviews on CoffeeReview.com.
Our August issue, featuring specialty coffees from Honduras, should post tomorrow, Sunday, August 4. The cupping is complete. Nine coffees scored 90 points or higher. We’ll include all of them in the article.
Perhaps as we approach the All-American holiday of Independence Day, it’s appropriate to consider what the “best” American coffee is. And, given that Hawaii is the only U.S. state that grows commercial quantities of coffee, it might naturally lead to the question “What’s the best Hawaiian coffee?”
That is a question raised in a recent reader search on CoffeeReview.com. First of all, as objective reviewers, we always shy away from the term “best” because it somehow suggests absolute superiority and fails to recognize the subtleties and ambiguities of coffee appreciation. But, that said, clearly some Hawaiian coffees are better than others, both within and among the main growing regions.
The most famous of Hawaiian coffees are from the Kona growing area of the Big Island. However, coffee is grown on other parts of the Big Island (Ka’u and Puna, possibly others) as well as all of the major islands of Hawaii, including Kauai, Maui, Oahu, and Molokai. Each of the coffees have their own distinctive qualities, driven by significantly different growing conditions and processing methods. We’ve reviewed coffees from Kona, Ka’u, Maui, Kauai, and Molokai. However, it’s been roughly a decade since we’ve evaluated coffees from Kauai and Molokai so we would caution readers that these reviews are almost irrelevant when considering the quality of current coffees produced on these islands.
So, we’ll focus our attention on the other growing areas where we have at least several sample points – Kona, Ka’u, and Maui – let’s say since 2010. If you average the scores of all reviews that meet our criteria, the data is inconclusive in trying to determine the “best” Hawaiian coffee. Since 2010, the average Coffee Review rating for Hawaiian coffees are as follows:
Maui (3 reviews) – 92.3 points
Ka’u (8 reviews) – 92.2 points
Kona (16 reviews) – 91.4 points
In short, they are all excellent, but a couple observations….
I’m not sure averaging three reviews from Maui is statistically significant but it might be surprising to some that all three reviews from Maui were 90 points or higher. And two of these excellent reviews are of the distinctive Maui Mokka produced by Kimo Falconer at MauiGrown Coffee.
All 8 reviews for Ka’u coffees also scored 90 points or higher. That’s quite impressive for a coffee growing area that until 5 years ago was largely unknown to consumers.
Kona coffees also scored very well but four of the 16 coffees reviewed earned 89 points. That is still an excellent coffee but it explains the slightly lower average score for Kona coffees. My takeaway is that you just need to be a little more careful when choosing coffee beans from Kona because you will find greater variation in quality.
Aloha and Happy 4th of July!
Here are some recommended resources for Hawaiian coffees:
Some interesting green coffees have come into the lab recently. These were green samples, but you can probably find roasters who offer them via an Internet search.
Those who have some history probably are aware that St. Helena, a tiny island located in the middle of the South Atlantic roughly between Brazil and Africa, is famous as the final exile place of Napoleon I (and also, in travel writing hype, as one “of the most remote places in the world.” ) A tiny island but mountainous, its coffee apparently was first made famous by that same Napoleon, whose claim that it was the best coffee he ever tasted made it briefly fashionable in France. After that it apparently dropped out of sight until revived in recent years.
It occasionally shows up billed as a contender for the world’s rarest coffee; alternatively the most expensive, etc. etc. Typically such story-driven novelty coffees are rather limp in the cup, blown away by any decent Yirgacheffe, for example, and the two samples of St. Helena I cupped in past years did not particularly impress. The sample we had of this past year’s crop, however, was quite engaging. Maybe my colleague Jason hit the roast just right (a slow, coaxy profile to whole-bean M-Basic 48, darkish medium), or maybe some years of careful cultivation are producing healthier cherry.
The sample was rich, floral- and wine-toned, juicy: night-blooming flowers, Concord grape, peach, with a clean, balanced structure, a little like a very good Rwanda, for example.
The beans were intriguing in appearance as well. They look a little like Ethiopia beans from regions like Yirgacheffe, smallish, definitively oval, with a deep crease that tends to retain silver skin. When I finally got myself away from the cupping table and went on line I discovered that the St. Helena variety is purported to be a pure strain imported from the Yemeni port of Mocha, originally brought to St. Helens by in 1733 by a Captain Philips of the East India Company, and currently named (at least according to material floating around the Internet) Green Tipped Bourbon. Certainly both the appearance of the beans and the profile I tasted support this history. These are maybe larger beans than one sees among the old varieties in Yemen, but they of course would have naturalized in a much more lush environment than found anywhere in Yemen. And the cup definitely has a quietly East-Africa character, in particular expressing the deeply floral and richly fruit-toned side of the Bourbon heritage.
What drove me to write about this coffee is the unusual confluence of history, exotic plant variety, exotic terroir and rare coffee hype that in this is actually supported by a distinctive and distinguished sensory profile. This spring we’ve reviewed several coffees from Ethiopia and Kenya that probably blow the St. Helena away in terms of pure sensory fireworks, but I think students of coffee will find well worth trying a sample of this quietly distinctive coffee if they can find one sensitively and freshly roasted.
The Challenge: Coffee buyers for roasting companies should be doing much less travel and much more cupping, quality control and customer education.
Kevin Knox writes:
I’d put this another way. The most important tools for buying great coffee are a well-trained palate, a well-equipped cupping room, relationships with the best importers and – last not least – sufficient capital to afford to buy top coffees in season and keep them in inventory for extended periods.
I think it’s great that people in the trade want to know where coffee comes from, but I do see many small roasting companies allocating large sums of money, relative to their size and volume of coffee bought and roasted, to extensive origin travel that is clearly in lieu of – or at least at the expense of – much-needed attention to things at home.
Wanting to have, or claiming to have, a personal relationship with every farm you buy coffee from makes for great marketing but it isn’t good business, nor is it actually possible unless one limits one’s buying to a handful of farms in a couple of countries.
More important, if the goal is having the best coffee from each origin, the way to get there is to cup samples extensively and intensively in season from as broad a cross-section of farms as one can access, rather than limiting purchases to farms you bought from in previous years. In other words, “relationship” coffee or multi-year exclusives and having the best coffee are antithetical ideals. A more open approach also delivers much better value, allowing one to reward new and unknown farms doing a great job rather than over-paying for “name” coffees from farms bent on using the roaster as a vehicle to build their own brand with consumers.
Cupping, QC and customer education are the responsibilities of roaster-retailers, while producing high quality coffee at origin is the domain of farmers and agronomists. From the point of view of delivering coffee of high quality and value as well as that of being environmentally responsible and minimizing one’s carbon footprint, I would suggest that buyers for all but the largest companies would indeed be much better off spending much more time doing their jobs while letting their partners at origin do theirs.
For another perspective on this challenge, click here to see how Kenneth Davids 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
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.