Coffee has never been successful on TV. We keep trying, but thus far, I think it’s fair to say that the beverage coffee just doesn’t translate well to the screen. Why I’m not sure, having a foot in both subjects, as a producer for much of my adult life, and a coffee lover and writer. I’ve been to all the major cable TV networks and heard the same responses when I brought them coffee concepts. The Food Network told me flat out that “liquids don’t do well at Food” – they always call it Food. When coffee is featured, it seems to get short shrift from the so-called celebrity chefs. I’ve never seen Rachel Ray do coffee. Emeril looked sheepish using a press pot, with none of his usual aplomb. Even Alton Brown, who I honestly expected to apply his OCD-style, seemed positively casual in his segment – and it was a segment, not a show. That says a lot to a producer.
Just so you’re not thinking I’m calling out my colleagues and leaving myself out, my own Coffee Brewing Secrets DVD, features editor Ken Davids, George Howell, Oren Bloostein, Christy Thorns, Donald Schoenholt and Erna Knutsen both doing hands-on tutorials demonstrating their favorite methods and interviewed about the various other aspects such as storage, grinding, freshness. Any coffee magazine that featured an equivalent cast list and that scope of information would be a sell-out issue. Imagine having this “A” list of coffee icons at your house telling you step-by-step how to brew with each brewer. It sells a couple of copies a month on Amazon. It’s a coffee success, but to date, a market failure. My backers are still asking when they’ll start seeing a return. Hopefully, they won’t call after reading this article.
Just over a year ago, my son told me of a project his college club, Students in Free Enterprise or SIFE, was involved in, where they were in a business competition. They were going to Guatemala to visit a coffee cooperative that supposedly offered growers the best of everything. He’s mentioned my name and my interest in coffee to his professors. Meanwhile, a second mention from a local coffee roaster sealed the deal for the professors, who wanted to see me and brainstorm if I could help with their project. The project was of interest, but it wasn’t until my wife Patricia suggested I produce a video that my enthusiasm rose.
Well, the series is completed. It’s running at www.missioncoffeecan.com and we’ve been uploading a ten minute episode per week. There are currently 14 episodes. The show has several aspects of it that I think are uniquely applied to make the coffee subject hopefully finally achieve viewer success.
First, it is a reality show, a true documentary. The students are real, we didn’t even cast them, although we did get lucky, as they are charming. While a coffee obsessive will find much to see and learn about coffee, it’s wrapped around a personal interest plot of the students competing in a national (worldwide really) event. It’s as much about business as coffee, and as much about the emerging third world where it’s grown as about the culture where it is consumed.
There are the first-choice episodes to attract the coffee connoisseur. While, as a producer, my favorite episode is “all of ‘em”, there are some standout moments if you just want to sample highlights and go back for the story and watch it full, which of course is out intention for the general viewer.
But, before I list episodes and their coffee-centered blurbs, let me say there are certain historic moments in art, where products have achieved their rightful place. Sideways is a cinematic success about wine. MTV, after years of Hollywood’s misunderstanding (and outright dislike) finally made rock music work on television.
Maybe www.missioncoffeecan.com will be a move towards coffee’s success as a web series.
Here’s a rundown, with a quick guide to the best coffee-related scenes, like dog earing a magazine to mark the articles you want to read first.
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.
Earlier this month I had the opportunity to travel to Kenya (if you follow @coffeereview on Twitter you already know that.) Although the purpose of the trip was to attend the African Fine Coffee Conference and Exposition in Mombasa, I was able to spend a few days exploring coffee farms and processing facilities north of Nairobi. Whenever I travel to coffee producing countries I am always struck by the depth of expertise of the people involved in the business of coffee at origin. Not to say that those of us in coffee consuming countries are ignorant of the coffee production process but the level of detail is often misunderstood or simplified in an effort to make sense of a complex, multilayered system.
This “coffee safari” consisted of visits to several farms varying in size from the small plots of the 1500 member Iria-ini Framers Cooperative to an estate owned and managed by Sasini Limited, a business that is publicly traded on the Nairobi Stock Exchange. Each facility maintained their own wet mill, often processing coffee cherries from surrounding area farms in addition to their own. Raised tables for drying parchment and natural cherry ruled the day, a powerful visual statement that quality is taken seriously in this region. No matter the size, these farms go about their daily business in much the same way — growing, harvesting and processing coffee — but, as any student of coffee knows, the production process is complicated, and when we drilled down to the details interesting differences in philosophy revealed themselves. What varieties should be planted, how should coffee tress be pruned, how and what kind of fertilizers and mulch should be applied, how long should fermentation last, should it be wet or dry and what about water use practices? Every action has a reaction and each one has the potential to yield a unique result in the cup.
On the final day of the trip we transitioned from the wet mills to the dry, in this case the Thika Coffee Mill. Most small and medium sized growers do not undertake the task dry milling at the farm level because of the investment required for the specialized machinery needed to clean the coffee, remove the parchment from the beans and sort by size, density and color. The Thika Mill serves as a vital link that moves coffee from farmers in the foothills of Mt. Kenya down the chain to roasters throughout the world.
Our last stop, another link in the chain, was the Nairobi Coffee Exchange. Now managed by the Kenya Coffee Producers’ and Traders’ Association, the exchange remains the primary means of trading coffee in Kenya. Every Tuesday the exchange auctions hundreds of lots of coffees from all over Kenya, with set reserve prices so the growers are assured a base price that is acceptable to them. The sample room is a sight to behold, bag after bag after bag of green coffee, marked with identifying names, lot numbers, grades and amounts available. Each dealer who participates in the auction is allowed a 250 gram sample of the coffees. They are provided about two weeks to evaluate the coffees, ship samples to potential customers and determine a ceiling price they are willing to pay.
Once I had made my way to the port town of Mombasa, I joined a group to visit the warehousing, grading and cupping facilities of exporters Rashid Moledina & Company. This third generation coffee export company takes the extra step of grading coffee after purchasing it from the exchange, in an effort to refine lots of coffee for their customers. Through this web of millers, dealers, marketing agents, exporters and shippers coffee is traded from grower to roaster. This part of the supply chain is perhaps most misunderstood but without the individuals and organizations involved in this process the right coffee might not ever find the right buyer.
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