Friday, August 23, 2013

Coffee Quality

From the roasters view point quality is in the eye of the customer, the customer's perception. As a consumer, you think you know quality coffee when you see it. The professed coffee officianado of a consumer may look at the label, the packaging, the brand name, or the roaster and if careful the date of roasting or the single source origin by country or region.

You may be looking at the wrong end of the supply chain, and what defines quality anyway? No matter how good the roaster, the packaging and the reputation of the product, good coffee starts with the tree and its environment. Bad things can happen to the trees and hence the beans that cannot be fixed by the roaster.

What is in your cup needs to taste good, have a pleasant after taste, be easy on the digestive system, contain no harmful ingredients and not mess up your kidneys. Do you want the caffeine or not, your choice? You do not want the decaffeination process to detract from any of the above. OK, are we in agreement?

You might also prefer the coffee source not to mess up the environment, cut down the trees or exploit labor unfairly. Are we still together on this?

Lets look at the source. You cannot have good coffee no matter how you roast it, blend it or bleach it without good healthy coffee trees growing in a disease free area with moderately warm conditions, adequate rain fall and excellent soil. Specialty coffee growers generally agree that Arabica trees, there are several good varieties, produce the best coffee. Most of these came from the mountains of North Africa and were imported to Central America early on by colonial powers for plantation farming etc. These trees adapted to the environment and went wild when colonial plantation farming ended. Production continued however on a more industrialized scale in open fields with fertilizers, insecticides, and mechanized cultivation and harvesting.  The same thing happened in Hawaii. These coffees comprise the so called "C" market trading futures as a commodity on Chicago and New York boards of trade.

Specialty coffees, however, trade for a premium in a fast growing segment of the market based on taste, origin and bean size, not necessarily the features we agreed on above but moving in that direction. Some of the specialty coffee will be mountain grown, rain forest grown, and some estate grown in the more industrial manner described. Some will be organic, shade or rain forest grown and some not. Some will be fair trade and some not. In either case the definitions of organic, shade grown, fair trade are stretched to include more industrial compromises.

What you want, if we are still in agreement, will be the best Arabica trees that have adapted to the rain forest and grow in symbiotic harmony in the high mountain rain forests in soil that may have a volcanic origin rich in nutriments from the earth and the nitrogen fixing characteristics of the forest eco-system. This is not just good for the environment, it produces healthier more disease resistant trees and better tasting coffee. Altitude is a major factor. The higher up the fewer bugs and viruses effecting the coffee beans. The shade canopy and altitude result in a slower ripening bean with better taste. It is a harder bean which leads to Central America's highest quality designation, Strictly Hard Bean, SHB.

Hand picking the ripe beans contrasts with the mechanized harvesting of beans at multiple stages of ripeness ignoring and including diseased beans. Hand picking also allows for several harvests with in a few weeks of one another and is easier on the trees that are semi striped by mechanized harvest. The high mountain regions usually involve small indigenous family farmers. This is good in that the higher price they receive for their better harvest partly offsets the inefficiencies of scale and hopefully provides money for education and community development on their terms and helps sustain their culture.

The critical nature of handling does not end with the harvest. There is a drying, shelling and a screening process that is highly developed in the coffee regions which includes grading and cupping the various harvests. Like wine not all seasons or regions are equal. Both the pergamino before milling and the green beans after milling and screening have a long storage life but are highly vulnerable to diesel fumes, insecticides and other odors that are readily absorbed by the beans.

Yes roasting is important, but most especially how the roasted beans are stored after the toasting process. The freshly roasted beans give off CO2 for a while after the roast. It is important to bag the coffee with a one way valve that allows for the last of the off gassing while denying the introduction of oxygen back into the bag. Exposure to open air ages the perishable roasted coffee more rapidly. Store in a cool dry place with constant temperature. If you are really picky ask for the cupping numbers, scale of 100; no one gets 100, and of course roasting date.

Don't worry about price, the good stuff lasts longer in the pot, tastes better cold so the cost comes out about the same as canned coffee.