company - education - coffee

Friday, May 11, 2007

Seasonal coffee and preserving quality.

Coffee is an agricultural product and due to the multitude of growing regions throughout the world, it has multiple harvest dates through the year. The question I ponder today: when is coffee 'in season?'

I glanced at a forum post by Geoff Watts of Intelligentsia where he briefly touched on the facts that coffees, especially high grade coffees can degrade quickly.

"...coffees that campaign on a platform of delicate floral or fruit notes and seductive aromatics usually have a much more limited time frame within which to impress. Those are the first things to go when Chronos comes knocking, and are sitting on the beach getting a suntan long before any hint of woodiness or paper shows up. Another thing to consider is the original quality level of the coffee. Like Jimmy says, the harder they come they harder they fall. A coffee that earns a 94 in May might be closer to 87 by December, whereas one that starts at 82 might only slide to 79 in the same time frame. It's like the supermodel/beauty queen syndrome--most of these models/actresses are in their teens and twenties. Forty is geriatric by those industry standards, whereas your average person can still be considered quite attractive and vital at that age." Geoff

I know some people will disagree with that. Still others will agree then point out coffee being a seasonal crop which must be served 'in season.' Then there are others who are pushing that we simply abandon jute bags and do much more to preserve great coffees that believe the lifespan of a great coffee is much shorter.

I count myself as the latter. A sample of green for our green storage project that was open has already faded and lost considerable color and aroma. My initial fear is that our home style vac setup and freezing method are only able to slow age rather than stop any significant amount of aging.

The argument that irritates me enough to write is simply the 'seasonality of coffee' argument. Coffee is produced around seasons but I wonder if it is ever really in season. Simply put, we often get the coffees months after harvest, when are we ever really drinking something that is in season? Maybe the 'in' season is 3-6 months after harvest, after the coffee has sat in jute bags on docks or in transport on ships or over land for several months before we cup it.

It takes a series of steps to notice age in a coffee. You first have to be exposed to 'fresher' coffees that are very close to harvest and cup them regularly. This largely depends on sampling coffees from a roaster who air shipped a coffee or vac sealed it at origin or simply carrying back some high grade green coffee from origin. You must then roast in a manner that you would notice the floral and fruit slipping away and turning into woody notes aka 'the generic stale coffee taste.' You would also then have to value that fruit and floral aroma as a key component of the cup to value it at the same time devaluing the woodiness of age. Many who value body over fruit and floral would simply never roast in such a manner as to notice the fruit. The wild cup lovers on the other hand are simply not working with coffees upon which it makes a big difference either way.

While I quote Geoff, I think he is one of the people who could use his influence to push for those changes in transport and bagging for many of the farms he works directly with as well as in the industry overall. The problem is, it comes down to a definition of quality. A balance of what is acceptable financially vs an ideal. Acknowledging a problem and actually doing something about it are two different things.

How do you really define quality in coffee?

As Simon mentions to us often, it's the total package when you talk about quality. As a North American industry, we always chest thump about quality but it comes down to the entire product from seed to cup and preserving that quality... It's not simply the barista skills, equipment mods, and 'artisan' roasting. As Edwin often points out, coffee is a product in which we strive to preserve value along the way. We cannot intrinsically add value, we can only preserve what was in the 'finished' product at the farm.

Preserve quality. It's an interesting thought.