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.
A few weeks ago Kenneth Davids and I were asked to roast, cup and assess two samples of Haitian coffee. This request came in before January’s devastating earthquake and its horrific consequences struck Haiti. As I write, news outlets continue to report on the tragedy while charitable organizations step up their efforts to supply labor, material and money to those in need.
In light of this tragic event it is somewhat bittersweet to report that the coffees we tasted a couple of days before the earthquake were good, in fact they were very good. If we were to write a formal review of the coffees we would use terms like – sweet and round, chocolate and aromatic wood, rich, clean and perhaps the ultimate compliment for me, butterscotch-like.
As a student of coffee, the samples were particularly interesting to me because they were meticulously processed and, save for one variable, they were treated identically. The only difference between the two samples was that one underwent twelve hours of fermentation while the other a full twenty-four hour fermentation period. You can read more about the role of fermentation elsewhere on this site but simply put, fermentation is a step taken during washed processing where pulped coffee beans sit in tanks or other containers while natural enzymes and bacteria loosen the sticky coffee fruit pulp by partially digesting it. It is a step often replaced today by mechanically scrubbing the pulp off the beans, but it is one of the ways coffee producers can influence the taste of the coffee they are processing. The resulting cup, under ideal circumstances, is often enlivened, highlighting aromatic and flavor nuances.
Which of the two processing types was better is academic (although it happened to be the twelve hour version) the effort and dedication put forth by the farmers in the coffee growing area around Ranquitte, Haiti is most impressive.
We were happy to learn that no loss of life, injury, or property damage happened in the community of Ranquitte. We do understand however that the earthquake’s impact in this area will still be felt. Many of those in Ranquitte have family and friends in Port au Prince and other locales impacted by the earthquake. They also rely on Port au Prince as the primary life line for coffee exportation, medicine, agriculture supplies, and food.
The organization that brought this coffee to our attention is EcoCafé Haiti, a newly formed coffee cultivation and processing group whose purpose is to enable economic self-sufficiency in rural Haiti. Over the last several years their work has included construction of coffee washing stations and hulling operations, as well as guidance of 300 farmers in proper cultivation, pruning, and harvesting procedures. To learn more about the organization please visit their website.
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.
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
I head off to attend a friend’s wedding in India. It happens to be at the same time as the beginning of the monsoon season so I can’t resist the temptation of organizing to visit the coffee monsoon processing town of Mangalore on the Malabar coast. It is the only place in the world where this most unique of coffees is processed: Monsoon Malabar
I land at the new Bangalore airport which is now world-class, slick, big and impressive. It is so far removed from the old Bangalore airport I last visited sixteen months ago where you were jolted into a profound awareness that you were in a foreign country for real: with hordes of people lining the exit ramp and traffic going in six directions at once and a cacophony of horns, calls and mass humanity pressing on all sides. The new airport is much more sedate and orderly and the immersion into the wonderfully varied and exotically, pungent Indian culture is now a little more gradual.
I am taken to my overnight lodging where I bump into Toby Smith of Toby’s Estate coffees. As coincidence would have it, he is on the same pilgrimage to attend our friend Nithya’s wedding and to explore Indian coffees including the unique and rare Monsoon Malabar which Nithya imports. Great minds think alike or fools seldom differ; never mind, we are destined to enjoy the ride together regardless.
I am interested in this coffee because it is ideal for espresso coffee. Traditionally it was primarily exported to Scandinavian countries but now it has seeped out into the broader specialty coffee world. I am continuing my quest to push the boundaries of the espresso coffee world. What is it that makes Monsoon Malabar world renowned as being suited to espresso? Its cup profile of soft, low acid and smooth, full body is definitely likeable and truly ideal for anyone on an espresso quest.
There are about 6,000 tonnes or 96,000 bags of Monsoon Malabar produced annually. This is not a lot in comparison to global output of approximately 120,000,000 bags. The hoary old legend about how Monsoon Malabar began is up there with the often repeated stories about Kaldi the goat-heard and Baba Boudan and his seven seeds coming to India. And since we are in India we hear the Baba Boudan story ad-nauseum. So just in case you haven’t heard it, the story of monsoon coffee goes like this: a sailing ship with its load of green coffee destined for Scandinavia gets held up by a monsoon and by the time the ship arrives at its destination the coffee cargo is no longer green but a pale white color and has swollen up to double its original size and its taste is obviously going to be altered markedly. The Scandinavians thankfully decide like Kaldi and friends, to try it anyway, which is always a very good habit with coffee and they find they like it and they want more. Any acidity that might have been there has gone and it is much softer and fuller in the cup. So this demand inspires some unsung pioneering hero to figure out how to reproduce this process commercially on the Malabar coast.
Malabar is one of those mythical coffee names like Mocha. It immediately conjures up exotic and remote images. In the case of Malabar it is perhaps of swaying coconut trees beside a sandy beach with dusky, workers labouring patiently and lovingly over their precious and rare harvest. The reality in the case of ‘Coehlos Gold’ monsoon Malabar is not far from that at all. In fact Mr Coehlos turns out to be a seventy nine year old gentleman who literally processes monsoon Malabar coffee in his backyard while in his coconut tree dotted front yard, the monsoon seas sometimes actually wash in through his front gate. He gets a couple of his workers to cut down some coconuts and insert a straw and we drink fresh delicious coconut milk on the spot. In between his front and back yards he is building a three story magnificent retirement home for himself.
But his is a professional approach none the less. For instance, he uses water sprinklers that spurt around his curing sheds to make up for any inconsistency in the moist, humid, salt charged monsoon breeze. He has several large wells on his three acre property and tells me that potable water is readily available only ten feet below the surface of his land. His father was a roof tile manufacturer and his family name is inscribed on each and every roof tile above the precious coffee.
His green coffee is spread out a few inches deep in three large open-sided sheds. This is shallower than his competitors. And his workers turn or rake the coffee more often as well: approximately every hour throughout their eight hour working day. The atmosphere is extremely warm and humid, and as it cools at night he tells me, there is no need to rake it then. His coffee is also closer to the Arabian sea than his competitor’s coffee too. I’m not sure, but my bet is that all these little differences make his coffee possibly the ultimate monsoon Malabar coffee.
It takes about 2 to 3 weeks for the coffee to absorb its moisture and increase from 11% to 17% moisture content and then another 2 to 3 months of tipping one half full bag into another empty bag several times a day to avoid spoiling, while the moisture content reduces back down to about 13%. This is indeed an amazing labour of love and patience for any producer. Finally this coffee is then shipped to a growing list of discerning customers around the world. I can’t wait, along with my fellow monsoon hunter Toby Smith, to taste the end result in a few months time. Oh and Mr Coehlos has invited us back to stay in his new house when it is completed, where he is happy to expire while sitting on his porch, overlooking the wonderful Arabian sea through swaying coconut trees. This is one of the rare times reality is not far removed from the myth.