company - education - coffee

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Pandora's Box

'You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. Remember -- all I am offering is the truth, nothing more.' - Morpheus, The Matrix

Ever wonder why not many ppl talk about green quality?

This question has been bugging me quite a lot lately. If you read any of the online forums, you will notice that so much focus was on the machines and barista techniques. The coffee itself is actually not often discussed, and those who do seem to love what they are tasting.

I really don't understand what is going on? Most of the coffee I sample these day pains me. With few exceptions, I found most don't live up to the fantastic description written on the bags/cupping notes. What are these ppl tasting? Is my palate so flawed that I could not pick up all the wonderful things that most are tasting? Why am I tasting so many defects?

I dunno.

Since April of this year, we have been roasting seriously and starting to pay attention to green quality (and everything that is wrong with it). Here are things that I've learned thus far:

- Roasting light reveals everything. The good, the bad, and the ugly. Green defects and age will shout at you loudly. Roast defects (mostly improper drying) will slap you in the face.

- Defects taste bad.

- Contrary to some ppl's belief, a well sorted defect-free green actually enhances complexity. The "definition" of the coffee increases as a result of clarity, and all flavor components are more focused and pronounced.

- Agey green sucks. It make the coffee taste like cheerio when roasted light, and taste like wood when roasted dark. Interestingly, that woody note tastes EXACTLY "like coffee". It's the generic flavor you find in extracts and gas station coffees.

- There is a direct correlation between how the green smells and the roasted coffee tastes. In fact, when roasted correctly, the green aroma components carry over to the roasted beans.

- Specialty grade coffee is not so special at all. Most are loaded with defects. Sit down and pick thru your beans. You will be surprised at how much crap is in there. The nastiest stuff I've seen so far are some beans from a "new crop" of Antigua that has fuzzy molds growing on it. It really made me sick to think I drank these before.

- Good quality greens do exit. Additional green sorting, vacuum packing, and air freighting are all options available - you just need to demand it and pay for it. The really good stuff is gobbled up by the Japanese and the Scandinavians.

Just like any food product, quality starts with raw ingredients. Everything you do afterwards is merely preserving and revealing the quality inside. There is nothing you can do to make a crappy green taste good - you can roast in such way to make it drinkable, but what's the point of shooting for the lowest common denominator?

So if green quality dictates the majority of what's in the cup, then how come not many are stressing over it? I think it's an accumulation of things that make it this way:

- Ppl don't really roast light - most of the "problems" are covered up this way.

- Ppl don't have the chance to taste defects - they end up associating it and accepting defect tastes as part of the coffee flavor.

- Ppl never truly sit down and get to know their beans. If they do, they are either oblivious to the problems or choose to ignore it.

Understanding green quality turns out to be one of the definitive turning points in my coffee experience. I truly did not know the kind of problem I would discover. Once your eyes are open, it's very scary and the light at the end of tunnel seemed so far away. There were so many issues and the lack of access often make me feel helpless. Suddenly, all these focus on equipments and barista techniques seemed meaningless - nothing really matters if I don't even have good ingredients to work with.

Will you choose the blue or the red pill? Are you prepared to face the demons from Pandora's box?

- Ben C.