Mar – Apr 2004: South America Now! (Centrals Later), The Coffee -Wine Comparison

South America Now! (Centrals Later)
It’s a struggle to have people recognize that coffee is a crop. There is a yearly harvest cycle; coffee crops from different regions reach their peak harvest at different times of the year. As a general rule, the best coffees come from the “heart of the crop,” the middle of the harvest when the higher altitude coffee cherries ripen to a deep red, almost crimson color. That’s when we do most of our buying.

Right now, it is the South American coffees that are coming in, and in 1 to 2 months it will be the Central American origins. You can see by our Offering List that the Centrals have atrophied to a few of our best coffees, and the South American section has swollen! Do we really need to offer 6 or 7 Brazils at once?
Probably not. But the way we buy is simple: stock everything good, don’t buy anything bad. So if a region is off for the year, we won’t have it. And if it’s good, we have a selection that borders on overkill. We have a diagram of the crop cycle periods on our web site’s Coffee Library (which you can also access by typing into your browser.

Among the Brazils, we have just received two excellent Cup of Excellence lots that we won in the auction. One is great for espresso, Fazenda Laranja-Cravo. The other is my choice for brewed/infused methods, Sitio Araucaria.

The Coffee -Wine Comparison
Coffee seems like a straightforward topic, at least it did when you bought coffee in a can, dissolved it in hot water, (clenched your jaw) and slogged it down. When I started in coffee, many people still did not know what a roasted coffee bean looked like, let alone the green seed! These days Joe Consumer may have an inkling that there’s more to coffee than the can. But when a local TV station in the Bay Area (aren’t we supposed to be sophisticated?) had a “coffee expert” guest, the discussion was limited to Latte vs. Mocha. Information about the coffee origin, where it was grown, by whom, how it was processed, etc. is pretty hard to find at a Starbucks … the names of proprietary beverages and blender drinks dominate the menu. The discussion in Specialty Coffee has been how to get people to take coffee seriously… how do we get them to ponder the notion that there is a lot to know about this very complex beverage? The answer has been to make coffee the “new wine”; talk about it like wine, write about it like wine, sell it like wine. I guess the argument was convincing; one company started to sell their roasted and green coffee in clear, corked wine bottles! Another roaster deep freezes green coffee to save “vintages” as one would cellar Burgundy.

In a general sense, it is easy to compare coffee to wine. Neither are nutritional necessities, but are integral to our food habits. They are both consumed for pleasure. The complex aromas and flavors of both have the potential to connect those who imbibe with the lives and fates of people throughout the world, to their culture, their nation, their soil. What we enjoy is a direct result of their care of the plant, precision in processing, careful transportation and handling, and diligence in preparation. The more we enjoy single-farm coffees from distinct origins, the stronger and clearer that connection might become. Why make standards? Coffee needs standards to enhance the bond between those who love the drink, and all those whose work makes it possible, standards that are adaptive and suited to our unique trade. No, you can’t certify a good cup of coffee since it could be stale, or even worse, French-roasted! And the process of
instituting a neutral “coffee board,” one not related to any trade association or business entity, is a daunting task. But someone ought to try to establish standards that can define first-tier coffees, especially when the market refuses to pay a fair price. Corporations are happy to fudge the names of offerings to make them sound single-origin, or Estate-grown. Ever wondered why Kona Blend tastes like crud, or if a Mocha-Java has Yemen or Java in it? Or that everyone seems to have Antigua and Tarrazu now, but neither region produces that much. How about “Jamaica High Mountain?”

In our trade, the highest end of specialty coffee, there is a problem with “phony specialty coffee” being offered by brokers and exporters. To an inexperienced cupper they seem passable, but the coffee has not been processed to high standards, the cup masks flaws that will eventually emerge, and the green coffee will not hold up over time “Why not let the market determine coffee denominations?” A market based on global competition over undifferentiated commodity lots makes no sense in the specialty community. True single-farm coffees often deserve double their current price. Visit a coffee farm that has its own mill; you cannot believe the amount of specialized, skilled labor that goes into each pound of green coffee. What you get without standards is a lot of coffee businesses selling different qualities of coffee, competing on an uneven surface. You have roasters with the highest principles of quality and freshness in a marketplace with crudy old coffee from an unscrupulous business, and both have the exact same name on the bag: two coffees can be called Sumatra Mandheling and be of completely different cup character and quality.

But why ape the wine model? Speaking as a well-meaning and imperfect participant in a flawed trade, coffee seems to get things quite backwards. We don’t seem to understand the empirical method well, or working from a set of basic problems toward a systemic solution. We just want results. In this trade, coffee producers, brokers and sellers would love the cache (and price premiums) of selling coffee like wine, but without doing the work. The problem with comparing coffee production to viticulture is that a wine appellation system is the result of decades of history, culture and agronomy specific to wine. It wasn’t whipped up overnight as an answer to the question “what do consumers want?” It wasn’t the result of marketing. Defining coffee appellations would not start with the coffee regions, the arabica cultivars, or the altitudes of the farms. All these are important factors in quality coffee, but appellation would need to start with the cup. Why do coffees from different origins taste different? Like wine, it is a combination of history, of traditions in coffee cultivation and processing, of the people and their specific culture, and all the environmental aspects: altitude, soil, and weather. There are many ways to process coffee correctly, there are many opinions on what “correct” means. So start with the cup to determine what those who appreciate coffee, experts and amateurs side-by-side, find unique about each origin. The result will be a rough sketch of the different “signature character” cups that an origin produces. From that, the factors that produce that cup (and the negative actions that mar that cup) can be determined. Unlike wine, the resulting set of primary “causes” that result in a particular cup character will be quite different from the oenanthic universe. Yes, cultivars matter, but only as a muted and oftentimes indistinguishable element of the cup.

The method of processing, wet or dry, is much more significant. Wet processed coffees are roughly akin to white wines, fermented without the grape skins, whereas dry-processed coffees are like red wines, fermented in the coffee cherry with the skin intact. Unlike wine, strict geographical standards would not work well with coffee. Coffee is too dependent upon altitude, microregional soil variations, climactic subregions, local soil differences. A coffee can be grown in the geographical center of Tarrazu and have no “typical Tarrazu character”, another can be grown just outside Tarrazu, and be the epitome of the region. Or a coffee can be grown on the perfect plot in Tarrazu, but is planted with Catimor (a highly productive hybrid that is actually an arabica-robusta cross) and have poor cup character. And the influences upon cup character can not be abstracted and minimized to essential notions like terroir as they are in wine. Coffee is a
product of a history; not only in terms of growing and processing, but in terms of brewing and “taste.” There cannot be a universally recognized “good cup” of coffee, and so there cannot be a universally “correct” way to grow and process coffee. So perhaps what we can expect initially from an appellation system for coffee is to define defect-free cup types from various origins, and leave the search for Grand Crus and for terroir to the world of wine.

Sweet Maria’s Coffee
1455 64th Street, Emeryville CA 94608
email: [email protected]

Sweet Maria’s Green Coffee Offering List on Mar 10 2004.
Central American 1 lb 2 lb 5 lb 20 lb
Costa Rican – La Magnolia $4.90 $9.31 $21.32 $75.46
Costa Rican La Minita Tarrazu $6.80 $12.92 $30.26 $108.80
Guatemala Organic Coban – El Tirol $5.10 $9.69 $22.19 $78.54
Guatemala Huehuetenango-La Maravilla $4.80 $9.12 $20.88 $73.92
Mexican Oaxaca Pluma-Tres Oros 5142 $4.30 $8.17 $18.71 $66.22
Nicaragua Matagalpa – San Martin Estate $4.50 $8.55 $19.58 $69.30
South American 1 lb 2 lb 5 lb 20 lb
Bolivia Organic Cenaproc Co-op $4.50 $8.55 $19.58 $69.30
Bolivia Fair Trade “de Montana” $4.70 $8.93 $20.45 $72.38
Brazil Cup of Excellence Laranja-Cravo $5.60 $10.64 $24.36 $86.24
Brazil Cup of Excellence Sitio Araucaria $5.70 $10.83 $24.80 $87.78
Brazil Fazenda Ipanema “Dulce” $4.50 $8.55 $19.58 $69.30
Brazil Matas de Minas -Fazenda Brauna $4.50 $8.55 $19.58 $69.30
Brazil Sul de Minas – Carmo Estate $4.40 $8.36 $19.14 $67.76
Brazil Organic/FT Poco Fundo $4.90 $9.31 $21.32 $75.46
Colombian Huila “Mercedes Supremo” $4.20 $7.98 $18.27 $64.68
Colombian Organic Mesa de los Santos $4.90 $9.31 $21.32 $75.46
Colombian Huila – La Florencia $4.50 $8.55 $19.58 $69.30
Colombian Popayan Supremo “Caucano” $4.65 $8.84 $20.23 $71.61
Ecuador EScafe Co-op $4.70 $8.93 $20.45 $72.38
Peru Organic Norte -Perunor $4.50 $8.55 $19.58 $69.30
African- Arabian 1 lb 2 lb 5 lb 20 lb
Ethiopian Ghimbi Lot 5025 $4.20 $7.98 $18.27 $64.68
Ethiopian Organic Harar Gr. 5 $5.00 $9.50 $21.75 $77.00
Ethiopian Yirgacheffe Lot 4452 $5.20 $9.88 $22.62 $80.08
Kenya AA Auction Lot 369-Kanake $5.25 $9.98 $22.84 $80.85
Kenya AA Auction Lot -Kihenia $6.00 $11.40 $26.10 $92.40
Kenya AA Auction Lot -Thunguri $5.50 $10.45 $23.93 $84.70
Rwanda Masaka “Seven Lakes” $4.40 $8.36 $19.14 $67.76
Tanzania AA Songea Flatbean $4.70 $8.93 $20.45 $72.38
Uganda AA Bugisu $4.30 $8.17 $18.71 $66.22
Yemen Mokha Ismaili (Hirazi) $7.80 $14.82 $36.27 $124.80
Zambian AA Lupili Estate $4.60 $8.74 $20.01 $70.84
Zimbabwe AA Salimba Estate $4.60 $8.74 $20.01 $70.84
Indonesian- Indian 1 lb 2 lb 5 lb 20 lb
Bali Shinzan Arabica $5.60 $10.64 $24.36 $86.24
Indian Monsooned Malabar Coehlo’s Gold $5.00 $9.50 $21.75 $77.00
Indian Pearl Mountain Peaberry $4.80 $9.12 $20.88 $73.92
Papua New Guinea – Kimel $4.50 $8.55 $19.58 $69.30
Sulawesi Toraja Grade 1 $4.50 $8.55 $19.58 $69.30
Aged Sumatra Lintong $5.80 $11.02 $25.23 $89.32
Sumatra Iskandar Triple-Pick $5.30 $10.07 $23.06 $81.62
Sumatra Mandheling ’04 – Lot 5102 $4.40 $8.36 $19.14 $67.76
Timor Organic/FT Maubesse $5.10 $9.69 $22.19 $78.54
Islands- Blends -Etc. 1 lb 2 lb 5 lb 20 lb
Jamaica Blue Mountain – Mavis Bank $19.40 $37.25 $90.21 5 lb limit
Hawaii Kona Purple Mountain XF $15.60 $29.95 $72.54 5 lb limit
Hawaii Kona Purple Mountain F $14.40 $27.65 $66.96 5 lb limit
SM’s Moka Kadir Blend $5.60 $10.64 $24.36 $86.24
SM’s Espresso Monkey Blend $5.00 $9.50 $21.75 $77.00
SM’s Classic Italian Espresso Blend $4.80 $9.12 $20.88 $73.92
SM’s Decaf Espresso Blend $5.60 $10.64 $24.36 $86.24
SM’s Liquid Amber Espresso Blend $5.30 $10.07 $23.06 $81.62
SM’s French Roast Blend $5.00 $9.50 $21.75 $77.00
SM’s Roasted French Chicory $4.80 $9.12 $20.88 $73.92
Decafs 1 lb 2 lb 5 lb 20 lb
Brazil Prima Qualita WP Decaf $4.60 $8.74 $20.01 $70.84
Colombian Huila Natural Decaf $4.50 $8.55 $19.58 $69.30
Colombian Excelso Medellin WP Decaf $4.70 $8.93 $20.45 $72.38
Costa Rican El Sol WP Decaf $5.10 $9.69 $22.19 $78.54
Ethiopian Yirgacheffe WP Decaf $5.20 $9.88 $22.62 $80.08
Kenya AA WP Decaf $5.50 $10.45 $23.93 $84.70
Panama WP Decaf -Panamaria Estate $5.20 $9.88 $22.62 $80.08
Sulawesi Toraja WP Decaf $5.10 $9.69 $22.19 $78.54
Sumatra WP Decaf $5.20 $9.88 $22.62 $80.08
Timor WP Decaf $5.00 $9.50 $21.75 $77.00
Premium Robustas 1 lb 2 lb 5 lb 20 lb
Indian Organic Washed Robusta $4.20 $7.98 $18.27 $64.68
Uganda Robusta -Esco Farms 18+ $4.00 $7.60 $17.40 $61.60
Ugh! (The Coffee) $0.70 1 lb limit

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