Archive for the 'new ideas' Category

Funny or Not, Here I Come…

So I made a send-up coffee travel video that was supposed to parody the potential silliness of a coffee travel video, and the responses to it range a wide gamut. I am sure many people get a small chuckle from something in it and move on. A few think it is hilarious, others don’t realize it’s an attempt at humor, and a handful are a bit offended. Because some comments were a little “out there”, a couple downright mean, I actually turned on “moderate comments” for the first time ever, and I culled a few. I kinda regret that now, because the responses are far more interesting than the video. So let me earnestly respond to this, because I think the points it raises are interesting.

The fact that coffee buyers travel at all has recently been examined in posts by Kevin Knox and Ken Davids. Aleco Chigounis wrote a great little piece a while back on the same topic. Wish I could find the link to it.  Kevin in particular has raised some points I feel are sentient, that traveling to origin and doing a direct trade deal is not any guarantee of getting the best coffee. It’s dead on true, but its also mildly annoying to me personally because here I am spending a wad of money, precious time (away from Maria and Ben and my important tasks in the cupping lab, not to mention missing possibly good surfing days at OB!) to make sure each trip is relevant, and absolutely does result in better coffee than I can get by trolling the brokers list. And the last thing I want is to ruin my good carbon-neutral standing. LOL.

But there is something potentially ridiculous about this kind of trip; if you take some of what I do and nudge it a few degrees further, becomes laughable. I thought I would just have a little fun with that, because when viewed form a certain angle, the way I (and other buyers/companies) represent what we do is silly. We go to a place for 3 or 5 or 10 days and pretend we know it? We take pictures of coffee cherry in 1:1 Macro, and that means we know more about coffee? We know the name of the farmer, his wife and kids and his dog, so we understand them? Really? An intern spending a summer in the area might find some humor observing this. A doctoral Anthro candidate living in the area for 16 months would chuckle, and probably an NGO worker who has been worked in the zone for 12 years would guffaw. So what does the farmer who has spent a lifetime there think to witnesses our hit-and-run wisdom?

After all, I come to a place to buy coffee, and if I make videos and photographs to use on our site, isn’t there the possibility that I am just hawking something with these materials, that it is all part of a shtick? Pushed to the levels I attempt to make humorous (I say attempt) in the video, whats the difference between this and Cal Worthington and his Dog Spot?

So the earnest criticisms and parodies of coffee buyers do land some deserved punches, and I think there is good reason to assume the position of the skeptic, and have a dialogue about the logic of coffee buyer travel. Is it to create Direct Trade marketing? To seem more authentic on a web site? To sell a product with more flair? Or is it to understand the source of a product you sell, to get access to a good reliable coffee source. Are these things all intertwined in a way, the noble aims and the not-so-noble benefits of the coffee trip?

In fact, my experience is that the way different buyers travel, what they achieve, the visual materials and stories they come back with, the way the represent themselves and what they do … there is really quite a range of players out there in both style and substance. (And style and substance seem not unrelated). I have traveled with people that are incredibly focused and skilled, who understand the hard job at hand, and who know how to have the difficult conversations with coffee producers that ultimately form the basis for a mutually beneficial business relationship. I travel with others who are “coffee tourists” (we all are a little bit, I would say), who just want pictures of red cherry,  video of themselves with the locals, or just to drink a lotta beer and whoop it up. Fine, but that get’s old really fast. And it’s a big waste of money, time and a very finite amount of energy I possess. Frankly, it’s the reason I usually travel with one or two people I know well, or alone.

Let me say that I absolutely DO try to amuse myself and others when I travel, usually as a way to bear with my jetlag, and the anxiety of being in a new place and missing home. And I do find humor in what I do. But when it comes down to it, I am there to use any observational and intellectual ability I have to make those 3 days, 5 days or 10 days the most meaningful, most informative, and most valuable in terms of sourcing better coffee. I am amazed at the courage some other travelers have, the stories they spin, but I don’t feel like some hero out there, some Indiana Jones pushing through the jungle, all alone (or pretending to be), on a quest, and in the typical Hollywood denouement, “winning” by slinging a sack of fine coffee over my back and coming home.

No, it’s frustrating to deal with language barriers, I am anxiety-ridden to take on the huge risks of a more direct purchase, it’s exhausting to have so little time and try to do so much, and it’s a big bummer to lose so much sleep. Oh, and and I hate missing good surf in OB.

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Video: Coffee Processing in El Salvador

From a couple weeks ago, I shot some video with my SLR. It’s not heavy on information, more of an atmospheric thing. I recommend watching it in HD on youtube.

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Coffee Research – What is next?

I reported before on our involvement in the Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative. This is a project funded primarily by coffee roasters to advance research into improving coffee quality, and improving the volume of quality coffee produced in the world. It’s not as if there is a lack of great coffee out there, but we are definitely on the threshold of seeing production of really good arabica drop, given greater consumption and agricultural issues with pernicious pest and disease. And, despite the nay-sayers of global warming, everywhere I go farmers are commenting on changes in their local climate and how it impacts their crop.

I am lucky; I am sitting on the preliminary Research Planning Committee for the GCQRI and the nascent projects I am hearing about are intriguing. Quite a few projects involve scientific collaboration to bring new technology to the old methods of the coffee industry. NIRS (Near Infrared Spectrophotometry) is a newer tool for analyzing chemical markers and has already yielded breakthroughs in coffee research. Under GCQRI, one possible project is to form an open NIRS Database of Quality Coffee samples from all growing areas. New samples could be submitted by roasters for cost-effective and complete analysis of all the complex factors that contribute to flavor and quality, and then the sample would be indexed among all other known samples from that region, providing a global context for understanding differences in coffee flavor. It ties right into another project, described as such “Identify Main green coffee candidate molecules strongly impacting quality.” Yes, it is true. We don’t know what it is in coffee that makes it taste good. Using older techniques, we have some pretty good ideas, but many things have been left. Coffee is just so darn complex. The project design would involve rapid screening techniques on the thousands of metabolites in coffee and then set out to correlate and identify those related specifically to cup quality. When we know that, we know how to test for quality components in future studies.

Another project along the same lines involves sensory evaluation, cupping as we call it. The project is called NextGen Coffee Sensory Evaluation. Traditional descriptive cupping has it’s place; it’s how we find coffee we like, and describe it to our customers. And some biochemical screening techniques have come along lately. (Everyone recalls the press for the “electronic nose” a couple years back). But what about relating the two in order to form a broader understanding of coffee quality. In the current methods, humans do not reliably attain repeatable results in sensory analysis (I am talking about the kind of cupping that can be a basis for scientific study of coffee quality, not the kind of cupping for someone to find and describe flavors). On the other hand, current chemical evaluations might tell us if a compound is present, but doesn’t tell us what that means … and there being a lack of understanding of which core compounds relate to quality, how do we know what we are looking for? So this new technique would involve a panel of tasters that would calibrate and agree on levels of quality and flavor attributes, then run the sample through a battery of these new, rapid techniques to validate the finding.

Repeat this, and you find out exactly what chemical components are behind flavor attributes that coffee roasters find valuable. When these findings are informed by the other two project approaches I already mentioned, you form a much greater understanding of exactly what it is we find desirable in a good cup of coffee, which can then be used to discover ways to grow higher quality coffee in the producing countries.

You might ask yourself, why doesn’t all this exist already? It might, but it would be locked in a vault at Nestle in Switzerland. And nobody else has had the means to define and fund research that centers entirely on coffee quality. Producing countries focus on fighting disease and pests, and on higher yields. Both of these are important, but in the absence of a buyer’s regard for taste quality, we end up with hybrids that have robusta genes; Catimor, Sarchimor, CR-95, Ruiru 11, Castillo, Etc. It’s only this type of collaboratively funded research that can pool resources to address the concerns of quality-oriented coffee business, and by extension, all those who drink coffee because it tastes good.

Those who lift a cup of coffee to their lips and think “Boy this tastes like an economically-produced large-scale agricultural product” or “Boy, this Insant coffee is awful but I saved myself 11 minutes I would have wasted grinding and brewing a good-tasting coffee” … well, we just can’t help you. That’s the coffee experience of the ’60s and early ’70s before the rebirth of the small roaster, and we don’t want to go back to that! You can find the GCQRI site here.

-Tom posted at Sweet Maria’s Weblog

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I can’t taste.

Well, today I can’t taste. I have had a bad cold, not that intense but just deep-seated, with sinus headaches and such. I normally don’t get that, and I wouldn’t write about it unless it lead to some thoughts about taste. (Note to self: Next time maybe I should NOT go surfing in the rainstorm on a 49 degree f day). Anyway, I don’t feel that bad, and have continued to work. Yesterday I cupped just fine but today I was quite frankly shocked when I set up a mixed table of Kenya, Brazil and Ethiopia coffees, 12 in all.

The dry fragrance from the Kenyas seemed so flat. The Ethiopias were being re-cupped from a day ago, and they seemed so different. When I hit the Brazils  and couldn’t sense a huge difference, I realized the problem. I really could not smell today. Since the majority of your sense of taste hinges upon your olfactory, and mine did not show up today, this has actually become a very interesting experience. In the Kenyas I sense the acidity as a reaction from papillae on my tongue, but can’t discern the flavor at all, or whether it is citric or malic brightness. I am getting a sense the Kenyas have a clean cup, and the body is sorta medium and pleasant; that’s about it. Bizarre. My awareness of body and mouthfeel is greater, perhaps because it’s one of the few things I can perceive. The Brazils seem very viscous, thick. But I am getting some sense, retro-nasally and on the tongue, that they are slightly more bitter than the Kenya and earthy or unclean.

One technique for tasting is to pay attention not only to the aromatics you draw it, but also to close your mouth and breath out through your nose to aid in circulating volatile aromatics via the rear of your palate (access to the olfactory is nasal and also from the rear of the palate). The fact I can’t pick out any actual flavors in the Brazil to differentiate it from the Kenya is pretty unbelievable, for you can’t find two more dramatic extremes in the world of coffee flavors. The Ethiopias are quite thin in mouthfeel, and the acidity is aggressive at these lighter cupping roasts. I know exactly how good these Ethiopias are – I scored them near 90 yesterday. Today they are completely unappealing, stripped of their floral and fruit qualities, and without any great sweetness.

What a different a day makes; it’s like seeing the world in black and white, tasting only a small portion of what is available in these stimulating coffees. But it reminds me of the huge physiological factors involved in taste. We speak about it like it exists. We even talk about “good taste” like those who have it can wave a wand and bless it upon one thing or another. But how relative it all is to the tinted lens through which we view these tasteful things, a lens that, even on a good day, is always present.

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Pay Up, Coffee Guy.

… I would write Gal to be fair, but I am referring to myself, because that is what’s happening as I travel to origin countries right now. With the NYBOT coffee market at historic highs, things have become very difficult when sourcing coffee at origin. We are paying at least $1.00 more at origin than last year, in some places as much as $2-$3 more for a pound of export coffee. You may ask yourself, “Wait, if you buy through direct relationships AKA Farm Gate, and prices are not pinned to the market, why is the market driving your prices?” Well, that’s because even the smallest producer has the option to sell the coffee to a local cooperative or multi-national mill that is buying at local market prices driven by the global coffee market. If the small grower owns their farm and picks their own coffee cherry, their real costs haven’t really gone up, but still they expect a premium price over what is paid in the local market. If they don’t own all their fruit, if they buy some of their coffee cherry from neighbors, then they are competing directly against the multi-nationals. And in many regions, Tarrazu in Costa Rica where I was last week for example, the prices for coffee cherry are very high. It’s a winning situation for the farmers, in a sense, the complete opposite scenario from 8 years ago when coffee prices plummeted to the point that abandoning a farm made more economic sense than actually tending to your harvest. The problem is the market is being driven by forces outside of the coffee trade, by speculation, by those looking to park their capital in a commodity rather than other investments or international currencies that are seen as having to great upside right now. All coffee will be more expensive as a result. But what I think we will see is that there will be a greater distinction made between hum-drum specialty coffee, fairly generic pooled regional lots that once passed as “special coffee” in the 1990s and early ’00s, and those that are produced on a small scale, with great care, and much greater costs. It’s 90% of what we buy. And until green coffee hits $10 a pound, it’s still a very reasonable deal, I think.

When I travel, I often am reminded of one idea that seems brain-numbingly basic. I thought about it a few years ago and I keep repeating it to myself when traveling to farms. It’s this: COFFEE is a word used for way, way too many things. The work, the craft, of coffee growing, processing and drying on a really small scale is so fundamentally unlike  how coffee is bulked and processed on a large scale, that using the same word for both seems inane. The differing levels of scale, and the difference in hand-work and care tendered to each, results in 2 completely different beverages as well. One is sweet, clean, aromatic and attractive. The other would be useful as a degreaser or paint stripper, if only it actually DID that, or anything else besides smell pungent and taste bitter.

I would like to officially state that I reject all terms to describe “good coffee”. Sure I use them. How can you avoid it? But I don’t feel good about myself in the morning either, writing things like “Micro Lot” or “Boutique Coffee” or “Small Batch” or “Gourmet” or what have you. Any time you take a word like Coffee and modify it to make a claim of specialness, it’s ends up cutting a fart in your face. I am sorry, that was crude. But it’s true. I mean for heavan sake’s, look at any can of coffee at the supermarket some claim of specialness is made; gourmet, for connoisseurs, special roast, etc.

So given the higher prices coming, and the greater incentive for the marketplace to conflate levels of quality and confuse people about the differences between such and such, and this and that, we’ll try to call our coffee “COFFEE”, and let all the other descriptors about the cup qualities, and the biography of the farmers, and the description of the process all stand by itself. Expect green prices to be a dollar more. Really good Kenyas are going to be around two dollars more. That’s the gist of it.

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Updates on the Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative

I had posted before about my great interest in this thing called the  Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative: GCQRI. (It’s a rare case where the full name is actually easier than the acronym!)  Basically this Initiative is trying to pull together coffee roasters, importers, and anyone else in the coffee trade who cares about the future of quality. If we can pool resources and fund the kind of research we want, about improving the quality of coffee, and growing more quality coffee, then I think a lot of other goals that have to do with economic fairness, environment, and poverty are also addressed. Buyers pay for quality, that is what a “differential” is all about in the coffee trade. If that quality is generated at the farm level, then the farm stands to have the most economic gain. Whereas if coffee is sold as a bulk commodity but is “improved” by the magic of good dry-milling, the large company, often a multi-national, will get any premium for the coffee being better-than-average. Typically research aims toward two goals: to increase yields or improve disease resistance of the coffee. Those are important and they are part of the overall quality formula. After all, you can’t get by as a farmer if you grow amazing coffee but your yields are so low that no customer could actually pay for your price of production. Farmers need to grow a good quantity of high quality coffee. With the introductions of new Catimor high-yield and disease-resistant types of coffee, quality is becoming rare. Nobody can blame local agencies for these hybrids with Robusta in their genes: They are trying to help farmers make it. But when rigorous cupping becomes part of the evaluation, cupping done by the buyers who ultimately decide the value of the coffee, these hybrids fail. And yet there are other options, ones that take considerable cooperation by producing countries and their researchers, as well as impetus from buyers. For example, Ethiopia researchers could attract funding to work with original forest coffee varietals (which represent something like 90% of the genetic diversity of coffea arabica) to look for disease resistance to rust fungus, which destroys coffee in many countries. At the same time these Ethiopia types can have fantastic cup character, unlike the catimor hybrids now propagated for this purpose. Simple-minded notion, sure … but I doubt Colombian researchers at Cenicafe who face a huge rust fungus (roya) problem ever had an option to share research with Ethiopia’s vast facilities, and yet both would gain in funding and results.

Right now the Initiative is setting it’s structure and soon will be identifying 3 to 5 research projects for 2011 that best meet the communal Quality objectives of its members. Oh … members signed on so far are roasters large and small, and Sweet Maria’s has been an early enthusiast of this whole effort, and will be funding it as much as we possibly can. More information from the “congress” I attended (really, just a big brainstorming session) can be found on the Initiative web site:  http://www.gcqri.org/ . Also, I posted the FAQ for the Initiative here so it is easily accessible  -Tom

PS: Also check out the blog of another “fan of GCQRI”, James Hoffman. He has quite a few posts on the topic.

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Everybody’s Doing It (Worrying About the Coffee Market)

The New York “C” market has risen above $2.00 for the first time since 1997, and that’s something worth commemorating here at Sweet Maria’s. We started in late 1997, and I remember that market well, and the long, slow, dramatic, depressing slide from that 1997 high down into the dark pit of the Coffee Crisis, which averaged around .50 cents. The driving forces in this great market instability now is different than previous peaks and valleys. Outside speculators who benefit from the risks of price fluctuations are in the driver’s seat, and actual coffee buyers are just the passengers these days. There’s talk of global shortages of coffee, that Colombia is not meeting it’s projected targets and Brazil is drinking more of their own coffee than ever before. Those real supply factors certainly have some fundamental impact. But the influence of pure speculation, and those seeking better place for money based on currency movements, is huge.

The rather comical thing is that people who buy coffee are clueless. I am clueless, but I am not referring to myself here; we’re insignificantly small and we don’t play the market either. I am talking about bigger companies who fix their contracts by buying futures, and coffee importers, traders, those types. Well, they don’t know either. Knowing something about coffee only gets you so far in a game where you might be moving pieces around the board and they might look like coffee, but it is the stack of cash in the players hands that is what it’s all about.

And what’s so bad about a $2.00+ coffee market. In some ways it is good. Incentive will be there for growers to plant more, and farm level prices are going to be higher … for now. But it is also a supreme disincentive to quality practices on all levels. 1.80 parchment price for coffee would motivate small producers to harvest with care, process well, and remove defects by hand. If the local buyer who cares naught about these things can now pay 1.80, why do the extra work? So, of course, we pay more to motivate and receive quality parchment coffee. Fine. Except this: we pay more because we care about coffee; that local buyer pays more because the warehouse in the capital needs coffee, because they have contracts at good prices, contracts that are pinned to the New York “C”, and will be replaced by new contracts that might be .30 cents more, or .30 cents less next time, or might go into free-fall. And the shockwave from those market fluctuations will reverberate back to the farmer in three ticks of the clock.

When we talk about Farm Gate coffee pricing (our version of Direct Trade) that has nothing to do with the global coffee prices in New York, I guess there is a perception we are going back to a pre-market agrarian hand-shake-over-the-fence deal. And in a lot of ways that image has been quite true for the 3 years we have had “Farm Gate” at SM. But, as I am pointing out here, we have to compete against the C, and we have to pay more to get quality coffee. We are, in many ways, as beholden to the C market as someone buying spot coffee based on the daily price. I think the difference is that if, and when, the bottom falls out of this coffee market, the farmer selling good quality parchment that ends up at SM won’t be getting a punch in the gut. And that fact is, our customers aren’t really going to see much change in pricing because we have already been paying far more … In Colombia for example we have been paying a high differential based on quality against a very competitive local market price for a long time. We haven’t sold a Colombia coffee for $5/lb at SM for years; they are spendy, more like $6-$6.50. They are also amazing quality. So that’s not going to be impacted much in the near future.

And I imagine when speculators find something more exciting to do with their money, the coffee market will become more stable. At whatever price level, stable is good for everyone …farmer and buyer.

(Here’s a pretty good description of some of the supply factors affecting the C market lately).

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Getting Close to a Coffee Cherry (Video)

I was shooting cross-section macro images of a coffee cherry from my yard, and thought I would shoot some video too, and explain the coffee cherry parts as best I could:

Watch this is HD on youtube for a much better viewing experience…

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