With this brief overview I begin the story of how quality coffee is produced, from seed to cup.
There are three key stages of production. The first is farming , which involves planting and nurturing coffee plants in a tropical environment that punctuated yearly with a nine month development of the coffee bean from flowering to the harvest. The second stage is the processing of the raw, green coffee seeds which we call "beans;" this involves removing the two seeds from the fruit, drying them to a stable moisture content, sorting them, to assure quality consistency from cup to cup, and storing the coffee before shipping. The second stage ends when the coffee is shipped to the roaster. The third and last stage, roasting , involves long-term green bean storage, roasting, packaging, and brewing of the coffee beans into a beverage, ready for consumption.
A fine coffee should be clean tasting, sweet (not sugary), and aromatic. Before reaching our cups, however, coffee goes through a long and perilous journey of transformations. There are many decision points through all three stages of production where quality can be irretrievably lost and often is. At the farm level, for instance, it can be forfeited in the choice of the seed, or in the decision of where the coffee plants will grow, or in caring for the plant, or in the harvest. Processing and finishing involve many more quality decision points. The consumer can even purchase a masterpiece only to destroy it in the brewing, the final decision point!
There is the potential for the world to produce a lot of very fine coffee. Sadly, quality is usually sacrificed due to error or cost considerations. Chronic low coffee prices paid to farmers throughout most of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first have held back coffee's full potential to delight consumers.
First Stage: Farming
There are four critical decision points that a coffee farmer must make to produce quality coffee. The first one is relatively permanent: The farmer chooses where , location, he will grow the coffee plants. More or less costly adjustments can later be made regarding what slopes to concentrate on, what areas are less productive, or finding an ecological balance for the overall health of the farm. The second quality decision is what species and cultivar of coffee to grow (Seed). Because of coffee's low prices during most of the twentieth century, choices have often been made on the basis of productivity and disease resistance but not quality. Such decisions can be reversed, but at great cost in time and money.
The third quality decision is the how (Grow) , the cyclical and costly hard work of maintenance of all facilities, and the complex care and nutrition, in tropical conditions, for each plant in its environment. It takes nine months to get from flowering to harvest, twice that for grapes. Damage to the ecosystem, whether due to lack of resources, poor craftsmanship or natural causes can have a crippling impact. The final decision stage is the harvest (Harvest) where much can and often does go wrong. The cardinal rule is coffee must be picked ripe, yet this is rarely the case. The small coffee fruits, called cherries, are often in varying degrees of ripeness side by side. Each ripe fruit must be hand-picked. A cherry contains only two coffee seeds inside, which we call beans.
Farming – Where , the first quality decision
All coffee grows in the tropics, within the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn. Fine coffees grow at about 3,000 feet in altitude to over 6,000 feet. Some rare exceptions exist: Hawaiian Kona is so far north of the equator that coffee cannot be grown higher than 2,000 feet; it is simply too cold. Imagine Garden of Eden conditions with year-round moderate average temperatures between 68 F and 75 F; this is where you will find happy coffee plants. Freezing will kill the coffee plant and temperatures over 90 F will affect quality and even productivity negatively.
Moderate rainfall is ideal, distributed in just the right way: there should be a dry season immediately before, during and after the harvest, followed by "blossom showers," which soak the earth just enough to initiate simultaneous flowering of all the coffee plants, during which time the showers politely stay away so as not to mess with the setting of the fruits which, once set, announces months of rains that conveniently arrive in the afternoon, after a glorious morning, and depart in time for a spectacular sunset! Certain places in some years can be like that; the Tarrazu area of Costa Rica flirts with this pattern.
Of course almost none of the coffee growing areas meet this "perfection". The great Kenya coffees grow in relatively arid conditions while other famous growing areas such as Cobán , Guatemala have heavy rains, even during the harvest. Indeed, apparent handicaps may often also be responsible for special overall environments conducive to creating unique flavor profiles once obstacles are understood and accommodated.
Cloud cover, position of the sun, temperature range, rainfall and its pattern of distribution, soil composition and structure, accessibility - all play a critical role in the production and cost of quality. Higher altitudes can produce longer growing seasons and more ideal temperatures, below 90 F and above 45 F year round, with high diurnal contrast, ideal for growing complex, floral, bright yet balanced coffees – but often very expensive to develop or maintain due to the steep slopes' poor accessibility and proneness to erosion.
Places like the Cerrado of Brazil provide still a different environment: here the land is at 3,000 to 3,500 feet, can be very flat, and is ideal for mass production, including mechanical harvesting. Lack of rainfall is not necessarily a problem, where water can be brought from rivers near the Amazon to the north. Extreme dryness allows farmers using controlled water applications to provoke an even flowering, and therefore an even-ripening harvest. Excess heat and poor drainage, on the other hand, can lead to severe quality problems and lack of complexity in the cup. Such coffees, when grown with great care requiring full labor, do best as espresso, a brewing method which applies very high pressure to the coffee grounds and squeezes out every drop of acidity, thus establishing good balance between liveliness and the heavy body produced by such environments. While these areas can produce high quality by far the majority of production is dedicated to extreme productivity at minimal cost, particularly labor. This mass production is slowly improving in quality, as technology becomes more efficient and precise, and now challenges the vast majority of coffee growers living on mountain slopes who compete on price in a coffee world that still has very little price-quality segmentation, compared to wine and tea. If this does not change, such farmers will ultimately be crushed.
Altitude can have a powerful effect on a coffee's flavor profile. At lower levels coffee plants are subject to greater heat, less ventilation and less diurnal temperature contrast. Coffee beans and their surrounding fruit ripen more quickly and develop smooth, duller, sometimes earthier, flavor tones than coffees grown at higher elevations. Very high altitude environments are subject to greater, rainier cloud cover interspersed with very intense periods of sun and high diurnal temperature contrast within an ideal range of 50˚ F to 85˚ F.
As an example, there are eight classifications according to elevation in Guatemala starting at Good Washed, at 2,300 feet, to the highest, Strictly Hard Bean (SHB) at over 5,250 feet. Beans growing at lower levels tend to be softer and less dense; in storage, they lose their flavor more
quickly than harder higher grown coffees. As a general rule, traditionally, the higher the elevation the better is the potential premium paid to the farmer. Higher elevation coffees exhibit greater floral and bright fruit flavors, with greater liveliness, which we refer to as acidity, a positive term. High altitude usually also means more difficult access and maintenance of roads, greater difficulty planting, maintenance of plants and harvesting as well as less yield per tree. The highest grown coffees are not necessarily always superior to those grown at moderately high altitudes. Latitude is also a factor, the most famous example being Kona , Hawaii which is very far from the equator and where 2,000 feet elevation is the highest one can grow coffee, barely. Most Kona coffee grows far below this threshold. Many very fine and delicate Brazils are also far from the Equator. Bill McAlpin of La Minita in Costa Rica chooses very carefully hand selected beans from a moderate to high altitude to give his coffee extra smoothness. Other factors are in play as well; while the finest Ethiopian Yirgacheffes are grown in the vicinity of 6,000 feet and have extraordinary floral aromatics they generally do not have the intense acidity of the great blackberry-laden, high altitude Kenyas, Ethiopia 's neighbor to the south. This may be due to climate and soil differences and/or the radically different varieties of Arabica coffee grown in these two countries.
It is ultimately a matter of taste! With newer, far better packaging and storage now being developed for crafted, high quality coffee (where Terroir Coffee has been leading the way! Click here) beans once too soft and delicate to withstand the travails of overseas shipments and long periods of storage are now becoming available in their full glory, at least at Terroir Coffee, for the discovery of the discriminating coffee aficionado.
Farming – What , the second quality decision
The farmer decides next, or in tandem, what kind of coffee plant(s) she will grow. The first step regards species and the second variety – or cultivar. These choices have long-term consequences regarding production and quality.
There are over 50 species of coffee plants, all originating in Africa , but only two are of commercial importance: Canephora, popularly called Robusta, as we will do here, and Arabica.
Robusta's world market share is growing and now represents about 40% of the world's coffee production, up from 30% a decade ago. This is partially due to the growth of new, more price conscious markets such as Russia , Eastern Europe and China but also to the lack of cash incentive to produce high quality coffee.
Robusta coffee tastes, at best "neutral," as we say in the industry. Usually it tastes like a liquefied brown paper bag or worse. It is added to cheap and instant coffees. A high ratio is blended with cheap Arabicas in poorer parts of Europe, such as southern Italy . An interesting exception is France , whose former tropical colonies, Indochina and Western Africa , are ideal Robusta-growing countries; the latter is the birthplace of Robusta. Traditionally the more Robusta is used in a blend the darker it is roasted to mask its harsh flavors. Robusta is also a component in many espresso blends where its high percentage of soluble solids adds body (besides lowering the price tag) and produces long-lasting crema (the fine emulsified foam on top of a properly made and served espresso), all at the cost of finesse. In the latter half of the twentieth century the espresso roasting company Illy Café set a new espresso quality standard by blending strictly Arabica coffees.
Robusta thrives in hot, humid, low altitude climates and is broadly disease and pest resistant, unlike Arabica. Sometimes Arabica plants are grafted onto Robusta roots where wet-earth-loving nematodes can otherwise wreck havoc. Much less care is generally taken tending, harvesting and processing Robusta coffee than Arabica. In certain parts of Europe commercial roasters are now steaming Robusta beans, before roasting, to soften their unpleasant flavors.
Robusta trees produce coffee fruits in globular clusters and its leaves are quite large and waxy. Robusta has nearly twice the caffeine concentration of the finer Arabica coffee. It also has more of the pigment brown and thus improves the look of "dishwater."
Arabica coffee requires the cooler temperatures of high tropical altitudes. While Arabica can taste as foul as the worst Robusta when not properly handled it is the necessary starting point for producing naturally sweet fine quality coffee. Costs to produce quality Arabica coffee, as we shall see, are dramatically higher than for Robusta. Next: the many variations of Arabica coffee.