March 2011: The Lean Times; Coffee Research, What’s Next?

The Lean Times [We were discussing the nearly complete lack of Central American coffees in our offerings when Tom remembered that he wrote about this in a past Tiny Joy. He has a good memory because I found it in the Nov-Dec ’04 edition! I am reproducing part of that here since it is still relevant. – Maria]

We get an occasional customer who resists the preponderance of information on our web site that coffee is, indeed, an agricultural product. Yes, it comes from a shrubby tree with beautiful, deep green leaves and lovely white flowers that come and go in the course of a week. And the fruit that emerges comes and goes too, as does the really spectacular, small lots of coffee that we manage to corral into our warehouse. Dear imaginary and stubborn coffee lover; we are not talking about laundry detergent or soda pop here. It’s not a matter of simply ordering more and stocking the shelves full. There is an ebb and flow to our list of coffee offerings that, naturally, reflects the crop cycle itself.

So where are we in that cycle? We are in the gap when the really good mid-harvest Central American coffees begin to sell out. A quality conscious company like ours that only buys based on cupping will not go out and buy replacement lots from what the brokers have to offer. Yes, I could go out at any time and get more Costa Rican or Salvador or Panama. But the green coffee left after all the good stuff goes is not something that interest me, nor do I think it would interest you. The range of coffee that I would even consider buying from brokers is less than 5% of what they offer, meaning that there are thousands and thousands of bags out there that are Specialty coffee by grade, that come in nice bags, that might be estate coffee, but that do not have exemplary “origin character.”

My hypothesis is that a home roasting person who decides to spend money on a roaster, and the time to roast and brew correctly, PLUS the time reading and learning a bit more about coffee, is not going to want to buy average green coffee even if it costs $1 per lb. less. You will NEVER get an extraordinary cup from an ordinary green coffee. Sure, you can ruin a good coffee in the roasting or brewing, but that is another can of worms. It’s the old “garbage-in, garbage-out” maxim. – Tom circa 2004

We are in that situation now – new crop Centrals are shipping this month – and ought to arrive in April, and that means we ought to have them posted for sale by the end of April, beginning of May. That goes for Costa Rica and Guatemala. New crop Kenya is “on the water,” due in mid to late April (there is a lot of water between Oakland and the east coast of Africa!) More new crop Hawaiian coffees are coming – both Kona and Ka’u coffee this year. In the meantime, lovers of Ethiopian coffees ought to be very happy, as we have great both wet- and dry-processed Ethiopians to offer. And we have Java and Papua New Guinea offerings that we have not had in recent years. – Maria

Coffee Research – What’s next?

I reported before on our involvement in the Global Coffee Quality Research Initiative (GCQRI). This project is funded primarily by coffee roasters to advance research in 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 unclarified. 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 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 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 instant 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 out more on the GCQRI site. Ongoing Roasted Subscriptions I recently created an Ongoing Subscription for the Twice-Monthly Roasted Coffee Pairings. It works just like a regular subscription – we charge and ship you 2 pounds of roasted coffee every two weeks – on an ongoing basis – until you tell us to stop. For more about our roasted coffee offerings. Maria

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