Tag Archive for 'coffee roasting'

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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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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Coffee Roasting Basics – Color Changes

Tom has been talking about this for a while … that we don’t have enough basic information about color changes in roasting. Understanding the stages of the roast is fundamental to successful roasting; it is hard to emphasize it enough.   He shot a macro-image video under very strong light to show color changes during the roast process.  He emphasizes the development of each stage (in both air and drum roasts)  and what you can expect to see and hear.  The end of the roast is crucial; in the 15 to 30 seconds from first crack  moving toward second crack, your roast very quickly goes from City+ to Full City+ (and beyond!). Make sure to pull up a stool and pay attention to the end of the roast not matter what method you use.

I’ve added this video to our Visual Guide to Roast page as a permanent fixture. Hope you find it useful. – Maria

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FYI: New Crop Week

We have one new crop Guatemala and two new crop Costa Rica coffees coming on line tomorrow (about noon our time).

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Small Quality-Obsessed Coffee Roasters On the Rise!

Totally Unrelated to Anything. Captain Scarlet.

Totally Unrelated to Anything. Captain Scarlet.What coffee would the Mysterons drink?

Yawn. Double Yawn. I feel like it’s groundhog day, except this never-ending story is about exciting and fresh-faced coffee roasters who are obsessed with quality and decide to open up shop in NYC, or SF, or some other glamorous place. Never Kokomo, Indiana or Dayton, Ohio. Search “coffee” on the New York Times web site and read the same story, rewritten, over and over. It’s the basic premise of “God in a Cup” the gawd-awful book about personality-driven business. Without any substantial information about coffee itself, these stories are just a new type of consumer fetishism, but instead of being on the scale of the grand corporation they are the “humble neighborhood small-batch roaster” makes good and grows, but darn if  they don’t do  it in their own anachronistic quality-driven way. No matter how you wrap it, it’s a story about conspicuous consumption, about “where do you get yours?” as if it is a triumph of personal character to know which is the best shop to walk into and ask for coffee. If we substitute “coffee” for “perfume” or “Rolex” or typical, highly fetishized luxury goods, does it take on a new aire? And yet it is the same conversation, but with coffee brands. I am only peeved because each time I see a coffee headline, I hope that it contains some small bit of good information, planting some seed in consumer consciousness to change the way they think about coffee a bit. But I fear what we get, repeatedly in the cast of the NYT, is a basic shopping guide for those who want to be “in the know”. Unfortunately, they miss that coffee itself is more interesting than the business about business, even if you dress it up in trendy fashion. That’s too bad, I think. The odd thing is that these are some really good roasters too, offering good coffee. The roasters they reference and others are worth writing real coffee stories about. Not fluff. -Tom

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