Do Origin Countries Make Sense?

(01/20/14)

Before coffee was sold by the name of the source country, it was listed by the nearly mythic names of the port city from which it shipped. Names like Mokka or Kalossi or Rio or Mandheling were not where the coffee was grown, nor was the name of the country the primary identifier.

Contrary to modern concepts of “waves” in coffee innovation (as if pouring water from a kettle through a paper filter was just discovered), for me the most monumental shift in the coffee trade developed in the trading house of C.E. Bickford and a handful of others, where instead of evaluating the quality of coffee by where the ship came from and what it looked like, they began to “blind taste” coffee. Suddenly, the value order of coffee became intrinsic to the substance itself, not a matter of provenance.

But even in the 1920s the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal offering ads from brokers would list an extensive list of origin countries. Coffees like Mokka and Java that had sold for 5x to 10x a Santos Brazil coffee dropped in value. The fetishism behind aged coffee, which would include all the distant origins that traveled largely by sail, slowly faded away. And refreshingly, Hawaiian “Kona” coffee was listed as a reliable mild, a good blender. And a new appreciation was born for the Hard Bean coffees of Central America.

But as I look at our offering list now, and see that, by following cup quality where we truly find it, we end up with a lopsided listing, I start to wonder if the logic we inherited has much merit. For me, it’s no longer about whether Guatemala is a better coffee than Costa Rica or Honduras. Who cares? And who in the world can compare a Copan coffee versus an Ocotopeque coffee, or a Fraijanes versus a San Pedro Necta coffee? They stand as distinct as their flavor profiles, and the coffee shrub has no concern if it’s roots are in El Salvador or Panama or Chiapas or Cuilco.

Should a roaster care if all their coffees at a given time come from Africa, because that is where all the good samples came from? Or their entire menu is from, say … Guatemala and Colombia? When customers ask for coffee from Bolivia, do they just want to chat, or show off what they know? Or do they actually know the flavor profile of Bolivia and believe they cannot find that from somewhere else? Right now we have an amazing list of Rwanda coffees, sparkling fresh. Does it matter that Rwanda is no where near Central America, or is it more important that in the landscape of taste, you can find compelling relationships in these coffees?

I was video chatting with Dan and Schooley and that’s the thoughts that percolated up from our conversation. I would like to hear yours. -Tom

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