craftcoffee

Diaries of an Aspiring Specialty Coffee Roaster: The Journey From Their Farm to Our Cup

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So we were pretty stoked about the final results of roasting those last five pounds of organic, fair trade Peruvian coffee from the “El Palto” co-op in the Amazonian Andes of Peru. The farm our batch came from was owned by Mercedes Carranza Montenegro and the beans supposedly exuded notes of lemon and toffy with a clean nutty finish (thanks for the description Coffee Bean Corral). My completely unrefined pallet liked the coffee, but I like pretty much all coffee so I’m typically not the best judge of these things. Hopefully after a few more podcasts and a lot more coffee roasting and drinking I’ll get a little better. I feel like in order to run a successful craft coffee roasting business, you must, first and foremost be passionate, but also become an expert in the field. This means from the plant itself and various varieties (there are over 120 different plant species of the genus Coffea, but Coffea Arabica and Coffea Canephora or Robusta are the major two commercially coffee grown plant species) to processing, packaging, shipping, storage, roasting, cupping, brewing and consuming.

Riding my bike to work each morning (I work part-time at the local Middle School here in San Clemente) has helped to fuel this desire to learn more and more about coffee. I can throw in my new knock-off earbuds and listen to informative podcasts from the Specialty Coffee Association and other much more knowledgable coffee aficionados. For years now, I’ve slowly become more and more enamored with organic food, where it comes from and what it does for our mind, body and spirit. Just now though, I feel like I’m really making this same connection with coffee. The coffee we drink is the result of roasting and brewing the seed (a coffee bean isn’t actually a bean) of a real fruit tree. It is harvested and processed by real farmers on real farms. The coffee is eventually packaged and shipped on real boats (it’s sent other ways too, but this is the most common) to real coffee roasters and eventually brewed by real baristas (you’re one too if you’ve ever brewed coffee!). Each cup of coffee touches so many different lives and I feel like this is what makes coffee such a special thing. It provides a platform to transforms lives.

The genuine excitement about craft coffee roasting and the positive impact it can have led us to our most recent coffee purchase. We bought five pounds of organic green coffee beans grown on the 18 Rabbit Farms in the municipality of Marcala in Honduras. These farms are owned by Senora Flhor, her mom and eleven other extended and immediate family members. In total, there are thirteen different farms and each are separated into microlots. Microlots (we didn’t know before what they were before this most recent purchase) are small lots that produce anywhere from five to one hundred bags of coffee each harvest. In order to be considered a microlot, the coffee must receive a cupping score of 85 or higher. But what exactly is cupping (we also didn’t know this until very recently)? Cupping is a tasting technique commonly used in industry to “grade” roasted and brewed coffee based on taste and aroma. “Q” Graders officially score coffee much like sommeliers (they even take a fancy test) in the wine industry, but “Q” graders aren’t the only people to cup coffee. Anyone can do it, and numerous specialty coffee roasters do this often to ensure optimal quality. We’ve never tried cupping coffee, but we’re eager to give it a go because it looks pretty fascinating and even kind of fun. People put soup spoons in small cups full of hot coffee and then loudly slurp it up. The reason behind cupping lies in the fact that coffee can taste so drastically different based on brewing methods, grind settings, water temperature, water to coffee ratios and the list goes on. Cupping is an effort by the specialty coffee industry to create a universal system for scoring coffee. The method of brewing is quite simple (all you need is coffee, a scale, a grinder and hot water) and a score card (found online through the Specialty Coffee Association). Senora Flhor and her family are paid more than 300% higher wages than Fair Trade because of these consistently high cupping scores in addition to her farm’s dedicated use of exceptional organic farming methods. We dig cupping and the high cupping scores, but that three hundred percent higher wages than Fair Trade stat was definitely the ringer. Because of this, we wanted to dig deeper on what exactly that meant since we didn’t buy that coffee directly from Senora Flhor and I’m honestly not sure how much she made on the coffee and how the money was allocated.

Here’s what we found out. The price of coffee is determined several ways and is literally changing every minute because it is viewed and traded as a commodity. It is traded on the Intercontinental Exchange (ICE) in New York City. As is common in publicly traded exchanges, the price is dependent on supply and demand. Unfortunately, this system has its flaws and coffee farmers, when paid the “C” price or determined by the Intercontinental Exchange, are often unable to cover even their basic expenses. In effect, they can and do lose money on their crop. The Fair Trade program strives to right this wrong by setting a minimum price a farmer can be paid per pound for their coffee. If a coffee farmer is paid Fair Trade price for their coffee, this typically means they have been paid a significant amount more for their coffee. For example, in February of 2018 the “C” price of coffee was around $1.24, but the Fair Trade price was closer to $1.60. Following this data’s trail, we feel really good about Senora Flhor and her family being paid three hundred percent more than the Fair Trade price. Hypothetically that would be $4.80 compared to the $1.60 Fair Trade and $1.24 “C” prices in the aforementioned scenario. We’re not sure exactly what the working conditions on these farms is like or how that money is allocated (Is it given directly to Senora Fhlor and then she divides it among staff?), but we feel confident that based on what we do know about this coffee the farmers and land are being very well taken care of and at the end of the day that’s what will always matter most to us.

The higher wages and organic farming practices weren’t the only thing that got us excited about this new coffee. We were eager to try this coffee because it was processed using the black honey natural method (we thought it sounded pretty cool). But much like cupping and commodity market pricing, we didn’t really know what this meant so we decided to do a little more research. As I mentioned earlier, after the coffee cherry (a coffee cherry is what we call the fruit that grows on the coffee plant) is picked off the tree it must be processed before it is packaged and shipped. There are essentially four different methods used to do this: washed, natural, honey/pulp natural (technically 2 different methods, but very similar) and semi-washed/wet hulled. Often times, these techniques are chosen based on external environmental factors. For example, if a farm is located in an area where water is scarce and/or polluted, the farmer would take this into account when choosing his/her processing method. With this in mind, they are all very different processes and result in very different flavors. I’ll do my best to briefly explain all of the differences. Again, all coffee cherries must be picked and sorted. The goal is to pick only ripe fruit which can be tricky because it all ripens at different times even on the same tree and same branch. Many specialty coffees are picked and sorted by hand for this reason (elevation and the inability to get machinery on the steep hills coffee is grown on also plays into this). Once the coffee is harvested, it can then be processed. Washed processing means that the coffee fruit is ran through a mechanical mill immediately after it’s harvested in order to remove the skin and fruit inside. A layer of mucilage, parchment and silver skin remains on the coffee after going through the mill. The layer of mucilage is removed by placing the coffee beans into a vat of water for twelve to seventy two hours where microbes aid fermentation which consumes and removes this layer of mucilage. Once complete, the beans are rinsed in another vat of clean water and then dried under the sun on raised beds (it can also be done with a heating machine) to a moisture content of ten to twelve percent. This means they’re dry enough to be stored without rotting or developing mold. The beans are not immediately shipped after processing, but instead rested for thirty to sixty days (there isn’t too much research about what chemically happens during this, but it’s said to improve the flavor of the beans) . Days or hours before they are shipped and exported, the remaining parchment layer is taken off leaving just the silver skin on the coffee bean. This process is called hulling and is typically done mechanically through a dry mill. The coffee is then sorted again to remove any defective beans, and then packaged in bags (Jute bags are the most commonly used bags in shipping and storage and you probably would recognize them as they look a little like burlap sacks…they are awesome in that they have a very low environmental impact but aren’t that effective at keeping out moisture and heat so some new bags are being tested). The packaged coffee is next placed in shipping containers and shipped all over the globe. Keep in mind most coffee is consumed in the United States and Europe but grown elsewhere. The problem with this step is that the shipping containers also aren’t all that effective at keeping out heat and moisture and the ships can be held up in port for a variety of reasons for weeks and even months at a time. Once the coffee finally arrives to the roaster and is roasted, that last silver skin layer or chaff comes off (most of this happens while the coffee is roasting). The resulting flavor of this coffee processed using the washed method can be described by as lively, clean and acidic. Natural or Sun-Dried processing is similar to washed in many ways, but there is one major difference. The difference happens almost immediately after the coffee is picked and sorted. Instead of placing the coffee in a mechanical mill as is done in the washed method, the whole coffee fruit is laid out in the sun to dry much like raisins would be. Once dried, the skin and fruit are removed in a mechanical mill and the steps throughout the remainder of the process are the same as for washed processing. The flavor of natural processed coffee can be described as fruity and bold with wine like qualities. Honey/pulp natural processing is a bit of a combination of washed and natural processing. The process begins like washed processing in that the fruit is picked, sorted and ran through a mechanical mill to remove the skin and fruit inside. But unlike washed where the mucilage is removed through fermentation, the coffee is dried with the mucilage layer still intact (black honey natural like our batch from Senora Fhlor means that it is dried longer than normal under tarps using indirect sunlight). This gives honey/pulp natural processed coffees a flavor profile that can be described as sweet, subtly fruity and full bodied. The final method, semi-washed/wet hulled processing, also starts similar to the washed processing. The fruit is picked, sorted and ran through a mechanical mill, then placed in a vat of water where fermentation removes the mucilage from the bean then it is rinsed and dried. The major difference is in this drying process. In the semi-washed/wet hulled method, the coffee beans are only partially dried then the parchment layer (taken off just before shipping in all other processing methods) is removed. The beans are then placed back out to dry to the appropriate ten to twelve percent moisture content. This process results in a super unique flavor profile that can be described as woody, green and tobaccoesque. Again, we’re no experts in this field, but from what we’ve learned most in the specialty coffee industry prefer the washed method because of it’s consistency (the others can lead to rotting and mold more easily if specific attention to detail is not applied) and the fact that the processing method itself doesn’t impart too much flavor to the coffee. It allows the natural flavors of the coffee to shine. After learning all of this, we can see why Coffee Bean Corral described the flavor profile as containing notes of green apple and caramel (sweetness and subtly fruitiness often associated with honey natural processing). We’re stoked to cup it and find out for ourselves!

All of this extensive research led us to the discovery that altitude and shade also play major roles into how coffee effects the ecosystem and overall flavor of coffee. As I’m sure you could guess, we decided to dig a little deeper. This batch from 18 Rabbit Farms was grown at 1,400 meters (just under 5,000 ft.) elevation. The high elevation is important because the lack of oxygen at these higher elevations causes the coffee plant to grow more slowly and thus produce a more concentrated, dense and rich coffee bean. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find out if it is shade grown or not. When grown in the shade, coffee plants also develop more slowly and natural sugars further develop in the coffee enhancing the taste even more. The benefits to “shade grown” coffee goes well beyond that of flavor profile. It carries major implications for the coffee industry and the effect it is having on our planet. Rainforests and natural habitats are being destroyed at a rapid rate in part to create coffee farms in an effort to keep up with the increasing demand. Often times, these coffee farms grow hybrids of coffee plants that were developed to grow under direct sunlight and produce higher yields. As a result, sixty percent of the six million acres of coffee farms across the globe have had the majority of their shade trees cut down since the 1970’s and the associated flora, fauna and wildlife have been killed and/or left with no home and no where to go. To us, this is a major problem. We found out that when coffee is grown in the shade, chemical fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides aren’t necessary because of this natural biodiversity and the shade trees also help to filter carbon dioxide (a major component of global warming), provide nitrogen to the soil and help with soil moisture retention. Additionally, it preserves the habitat of numerous bird species and prevents the further destruction of our precious rain forests. Again, unfortunately we are not sure if this coffee is grown in the shade, but believe it is more than likely shade grown as as Senora Fhlor has been praised and reward for her organic farming practices. In the future, we’ll definitely pay much more attention to these tiny, but critical details.

Overall, we simply feel so blessed to have the opportunity to stand for positive change in the global marketplace. As specialty coffee roasters, we have the ability to stand up for human rights and ecological justice. We can promote higher wages, fair and equal working conditions and organic farming practices that preserve natural ecosystems rather than destroy wildlife and habitats. This most recent batch from 18 Rabbit Farms is really something special, but all coffee when you really think about it is truly very special. We hope to always use Salty Bean Coffee Co. as a means of providing people with incredible specialty coffee that tells a story worthy of celebrating with every sip.

-Noah (co-owner)