Whether you’re sipping on a delicious cup of Velton’s Single Origin Mexico Nayarita, or savoring Zoka’s Espresso Palladino, your beans have started their journey hundreds or thousands of miles away from you (at least if you live in Seattle). Roasters source beans for their signature blends or single origins in one of two ways: They either buy green (unroasted) beans from importers, or they visit farms around the world to purchase beans directly from coffee producers.
Coffee is one of the most highly valued products in world trade, however it’s also an incredibly labor intensive crop with a yield at the mercy of weather conditions and a price dictated by market forces. An abundance of coffee in the global market drives prices down, while smaller harvests can demand higher prices. It’s a tricky business since it can take up to four years for a coffee plant to yield fruit, making it difficult for producers to respond quickly to a fluctuating market. In 2001, a global oversupply of coffee depressed prices worldwide to an all time low of 45 US cents a pound, and overnight thousands of farmers were forced out of business. It was an intense reminder of how vulnerable these farmers are to price fluctuations at a global scale.
The Fair Trade program was established to set a floor price for green beans on the global market (a minimum of $1.40/lb for unwashed Arabica, or the market price if higher, plus 20 cent premium for community development) and promote sustainable practices for commodity producers around the world. The participants must adhere to a series of standards such as participation in a co-op and investment of at least 5 cents in quality or productivity investments, and in exchange they become Fair Trade certified (identified by a black and white logo of a man with outstretched arms). Fair Trade Certification is monitored by an independent company called FLO-CERT to ensure that producers are following the outlined guidelines. How does this impact you? As a consumer you can breathe a little easier knowing that farmers were paid a fair price for the beans in your hopper. It’s important to note that Fair Trade has faced some criticism in recent years because it requires co-op participation (excluding some producers that want to remain independent) and some claim there is little evidence of community investment.
Direct trade takes a slightly different approach to sourcing, whereby roasters are traveling to and purchasing directly from coffee producers across the world. This gives roasters access to smaller growers that don’t want to participate in a co-op (and are thereby excluded from Fair Trade), and gives them more control over quality, consistency and visibility into immediate social and environmental concerns. While direct trade has become increasingly popular in recent years, there are no uniform standards that everyone adheres to. As a consumer, this means you are trusting your roaster to conduct business in an ethical manner. Some roasters like Intelligentsia and Counter Culture have established their own direct trade standards to promote visibility and accountability for their purchasing practices. Counter Culture even partners with Quality Certification Services, a 3rd party organization that verifies their own guiding principles. We are extremely fortunate to work with a number of roasters in the Seattle area who source directly; one of which, Caffe Ladro, recently traveled to Central America to source beans, visiting Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica. By purchasing directly from producers, not only can they find the highest quality beans, but they can give back to the communities they work with in a tangible way. This year, Ladro will launch a program to donate $1 of each bag of Natamaya coffee to build a soccer field.
Since direct trade relationships have the potential to create long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationships with producers around the world, the business practice itself is sustainable and more transparent. That means that even those of us who are at the end of the line, enjoying delicious cups of coffee, can better understand where this product comes from and contribute to a positive community impact with every sip … and who wouldn’t dig that?
Visiting with good friend and retired OB/GYN Dr. Francis Fote, he explained to Cox how the rate of women dying in these countries is the highest in the world, but is also one of the most preventable cancers when it’s caught early.
‘In coffee growing communities most women don’t have access for screening and treatment,’ said Jane Dale, Grounds For Health Development Director. ‘When Dan learned this he said it was unacceptable and that they needed to do something about it.’
Taking action, Cox and Fote set out to raise cervical cancer awareness and improve screening by servicing pap smear clinics in Mexico. This began the work of Grounds for Health and today it has grown in a number of other coffee cooperatives in other countries.
From its inception as a small service provider, Grounds for Health has now become a training organization to reach more women. Educating communities in the Single Visit Approach, it ‘has proven to be the most effective way to screen for and treat cervical cancer in low-resource environment,’ states GroundsforHealth.org.
The organization has also expanded from Mexico and is now running programs in Tanzania and Nicaragua, training their doctors, mid-wives, nurses and health providers on cervical cancer services and prevention.
‘In a low-tech technique, it’s a technique that is basically as simple as washing the cervix with household vinegar, waiting for three minutes and, if there are abnormal cells, you’ll be able to see it with the naked eye,’ said Dale. ‘Training is important because that’s where sustainability lies.’
Dale explains that women who have accessibility to screening and treatment at least once in their lives have a 30 percent less chance of dying from cancer.
Since 1996, Grounds for Health has screened over 16,000 women. Sharing the work of Grounds for Health with the coffee industry, Cox has created an organization that has been supported by almost 200 coffee companies since 1996.
‘We’re all about empowering these communities, giving them the skills and confidence to provide their communities forever,’ Dale said. ‘We still do screen and treatment but it’s all part of training now. The program has definitely evolved since it started. All the private funding from companies has made it possible for us to be responsive and nimble in changing and modifying the programs as conditions dictate in these areas.’
To learn more about Grounds for Health and to find out how to visit this organization’s mission, please visit www.groundsforhealth.org.
Whether you call it Kopi Luwak or Civet Coffee, the java produced through the ‘natural processing’ system (AKA the digestive tract) of this cat-like marsupial from Indonesia has been given high marks (and prices!) in terms of cup quality around the world.
But what many have considered an exotic yet expensive luxury bean is not just costly to the privileged coffee drinker, it recently has become costly to the lives of the producers — the civets themselves.
For those new to ‘cat poop coffee,’ Kopi Luwak ‘is the product in which coffee cherries, the complete fruit of the coffee plant, are eaten by the palm civet cats of the far East, typically in Indonesia. The cats digest the cherries but excrete the inner beans, which are then roasted and brewed as any other coffee bean,’ describes Boughton’s Coffee House.
Historically, these beans were harvested in a natural way — foragers would search the forest floor for civet feces to find these beans. Since finding them was a lot of work and there was an arguably very small supply, it resulted in a high price — a small cup could run between $30 – $50 and a pound of the stuff could cost upwards of $600.
With those kinds of prices and a rise in popularity, however, this novelty bean has been transformed from a happy accident, as it were, into a factory-like production model designed to increase financial gain and meet the worldwide demand. Instead of foraging for the beans in the civets’ natural habitat, they are now caging them and feeding them cherries in order to increase available output.
‘With the sudden rise in popularity, the far majority of legitimate Kopi Luwak coffee sold today comes from grizzly civet cat farms where rows and rows of the enslaved creatures bred specifically for coffee production are kept in small cages and force-fed coffee cherries — ripe or otherwise — until they die,’ states coffeestrategies.com.
This ethically questionable method of harvesting Kopi Luwak has only come to light in the past few years, and there are reports that the average small farmer keeps around 102 civets and collects 550 pounds of processed coffee per month.
Is their flavor worth their high price — in terms of both monetary and ethical concerns? If you’re a fan of Kopi Luwak, it’s something only you can decide … but we think it’s well worth at least a few moments of healthy consideration.
When it comes to coffee, many may wonder, ‘What’s the difference between coffee and espresso beans?’ Some people think they are a specific strain of bean, while others think that it’s a particular roast. Ultimately, it’s a blend (or a single origin bean) that stands up well under the high pressure preparation that is the hallmark of espresso extraction.
According to the aficionados at Home-Barista.com, ‘Espresso is almost always a blend of beans…The most basic rule of espresso blending is that espresso must have subdued acidity, be heavy bodied, and be sweet enough to balance the bitter and acidic flavors in the blend.’
To better illustrate how different beans might have different flavors (after all, coffee beans are coffee beans, right?), we’ll discuss some general information on basic coffee plants, tastes by region, post-harvest processing and, finally, roasting.
There are two varieties of plants, Arabica and Robusta. Arabica originated in Ethiopia, is typically grown in higher altitudes and accounts for 75-80% of the world’s production. Robusta, on the other hand, is a lowland coffee species that originated in West Africa. It features greater pest resistance and a generally heartier plant, which results in higher overall yields — but its high caffeine content gives it a intensely bitter and inferior taste. Some very carefully grown and processed Robustas can be found in premium espresso blends, however, as they can improve the crema and body. Additionally, human-initiated cross-breeding of Arabica and Robusta, which attempt to blend the low caffeine content and smoother taste of C. arabica with the heartiness and disease resistance of C. canephora, have resulted in new varietals which are highly adaptable, hearty and commonly used in commercial coffee plantations.
Depending on where they originate, the weather, temperature, altitude and soil contribute to different flavors; you can get a general idea of different tastes by region here.
Another element is how the coffee is processed post-harvest. Processes include natural or dry process, wet process and pulped natural.
Dry processing usually takes place in areas with limited rainfall and lots of sun light. This process allows the coffee cherry to air dry on patios before their skin and the fruit itself is removed from the coffee bean. The bean outcome is usually heavy-bodied, sweet and smooth with subdued acidity. It also can develop more crema during espresso extraction.
The wet process requires the cherries to be sorted in high pressure water tanks which then removes the skin but the fruit stays on the bean while it dries. These beans usually taste cleaner, brighter and fruitier.
Pulped natural uses a combination of the wet and dry processes. Beans grown in areas with low humidity allow them to dry faster without fermentation. The end result is a full bodied bean like those of the dry process, but with the acidity of a bean that has been wet processed. The bean usually is sweeter.
Once the coffee is grown, picked and processed, it’s time for the roast! Roasters create different blends with a specific flavor profile in mind. And, since coffee is an agricultural product that changes every season, they play a little mad science by swapping out different beans in the blend in order to maintain a consistent flavor over time.
Roasting occurs in a Four Stage Process: endothermic, first crack, pyrolysis and second crack. For more information on how different roasts inform the end coffee flavor, check out this handy chart, sourced from Kenneth Davids.
Hopefully, this primer provided you with some insight as you’re selecting a blend for espresso preparation. Got questions? Leave them in the comments and we’ll answer away!
We’re excited to offer selected single origin beans from Velton’s Coffee on a roast-to-order basis! We’ll be sending over batch orders each Monday morning, they’ll be roasted and then shipped out within the following 48 hours. These selections will rotate on a semi-regular basis, depending on availability.
Currently on tap are the following:
- Ethiopia Sidamo Moredocofe: Featuring tinges of jasmine, sweet peach citrus and baker’s chocolate, this delicately tea-like coffee comes from the highly respected Moredocofe farm in the Guji region.
- Guatemala Huehuetenango: Floral, lemony-orange citrus, lingering sweetness and a rich, juicy body are a few of the attributes of this coffee, which comes from the Rio Azul cooperative.
- Costa Rica Tarrazu: This fully washed bean from the Don Mayo farm is clean, bright and leaves flavors of tangerine, milk chocolate and brown sugar behind.
As we have been tracking over the past couple of years, global warming has been impacting coffee growing regions around the world — from excessive rains leading to flooding to increased temperatures minimizing the available coffee-friendly agricultural regions.
The Guardian now has another update for us: The temperatures are warming enough that they are inviting a lovely little pest, the coffee berry borer, to live in higher and higher altitudes. This little beetle wants the same thing we do — coffee, delicious coffee! — but couldn’t hang with the coffee crops all that often because they preferred a cooler clime than the beetle’s 68F degrees. Warming kicked up temps in parts of Ethiopia’s mountainous growing region to this level in around 1984 and scientists have been tracking the borer’s population expansion ever since — it’s now present in every coffee growing region except Hawaii, Nepal and Papua New Guinea.
Coffee’s commodity price has been slowly increasing as a result of environmental and economic pressures and is at its highest this year. With an estimated $500m damage sourced to the coffee berry borer crew, it will only serve to increase the cost even more.
Crema is a little bit of a Holy Grail in the espresso world — folks are talking about it all the time, searching for it, measuring their technique, equipment and coffee by it. But what the heck is it? What does the production of crema give you? And is it really that important?
Some of the bigwigs in the specialty coffee industry (such as James Hoffman) have proclaimed crema to be ‘rubbish’; we won’t go that far, because — like everything with coffee — it’s really a personal preference. When we were at the SCAA convention in April, we went to a couple of lectures that talked about coffee preparation variables and how they effect the end result. From those lectures, we picked up the following tidbits of info that play a part in the formation of crema.
First, let’s define our terms here: Crema is the initial light/tawny colored liquid that comes out during an espresso extraction. It is what causes that ‘Guinness effect’ that folks sometimes reference. As the lighter liquid infuses with the darker liquid that comes after, it filters up and ‘settles’, leaving a tan colored layer on top of the darker espresso below.
The formation of crema is a blend of a few different things: As water is forced through the coffee under pressure, it emulsifies the natural fat/oil content in the bean, suspending it in tiny microbubbles of air. Additionally, after coffee is roasted, it out-gases C02 for awhile (generally for the next 24 – 72 hours post-roast) and so coffee that was more freshly roasted will also emit some C02 during extraction.
As the specialty coffee industry has grown more and more focused on quality, distribution, craft and flavor, crema was a hallmark for two different things: First, the bean’s natural fat/oil content was higher and therefore could be assumed to be processed at the plantation in a preferable manner, and second, that the coffee had been roasted recently enough that it still had some C02 out-gassing from the beans. So espresso enthusiasts became very focused on the creation of crema as the most important element of good espresso.
This isn’t necessarily true. You can pull a beautiful looking shot that filters down and looks quite gorgeous, but that, in fact, tastes quite sour because the crema is the result of post-roast C02. Conversely, you can pull a delicious shot that has no crema at all because of the way the bean was processed at the plantation and how darkly it was roasted. Pressurized portafilters and superautomatics feature technology that aerates the coffee during extraction, to give the illusion of crema, but the flavor doesn’t necessarily back it up.
So here are some parameters to keep in mind in regard to the creation of crema:
- Plantation Processing – Beans that are naturally/dry or pulped natural/semi-washed/honey processed will naturally maintain more of their sugar and fat, resulting in more crema production during extraction. You’ll find beans produced in Africa and Brazil to use these processes, with a movement in other Central and South American growing countries toward ‘Honeyed’ and/or pulped natural processing. Beans from moister climates (such as Sumatra) will have a very different taste and oil content to them because they are most often wet processed.
- Roast Date- How recently was your coffee roasted and how darkly was it roasted? While the ‘sweet spot’ for a coffee post-roast varies, pulling shots with coffee roasted less than 72 hours before will definitely result in an early blonding that is often mistaken for crema. You want some of the C02 for the emulsification of the fat, but not so much that there’s no room for the coffee solids to actually extract.
- Roast Color – Darker roasts will bring more of the bean’s natural oil to the surface, which will then transfer to packaging containers, grinders and your other equipment, resulting in less overall oil/fat in the coffee grounds themselves that can be emulsified. So you will likely often see that darker roasts can produce less crema.
- Espresso Machine Tech – Pressurized porftafilters aerate the coffee during the extraction, giving the illusion of crema. Similarly, superautomatic machines will often utilize technology that will produce the look of crema without it actually being the emulsification of the fat/oil and the C02. This makes these machines ‘user friendly’ but it’s also kind of a hack and often doesn’t taste as rich or complex as shots pulled via traditional extraction methods.
We’re not scientists and we don’t love following rules, but we have been reading and talking about and then experimenting with crema for the last few months, so thought we’d share our current thoughts. Certainly, there could be more to crema than we’re aware and we’re always learning.
What do you think of crema? How have you achieved your favorite shots — coffee type, roast style, equipment? Please share in the comments.
If you’re expecting to head to Rwanda and sample some of their world-renowned coffee, you’ll most likely be sorely disappointed in the cup of coffee you end up with. This is true of many of the coffee producing countries of the world, who actually have a relatively small population of actual coffee drinkers. The majority of their coffee is exported around the world — and you’ll probably find a tastier cup in Finland than you will in Ethiopia.
At the end of April, Bloomberg reported (from Euromonitor) the most avid coffee drinking countries in the world, measured by the quantity consumed in liters per capita. We took that, put it in a table and assigned each country a general region, as well, so you can sort it and see which parts of the world are the biggest coffee connoisseurs.
[table id=2 /]
No, there weren’t any wrestlers present, but there was a high concentration of coffee related ninjas on the floor. Last week, we were lucky enough to head down to Anaheim, CA, for the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s Main Event, which is a specialty coffee industry educational and trade show that covers everything from coffee growers to roasters to equipment suppliers to mad skilled baristas. This year, it also hosted the United States Barista Championship — with Mike Phillips of Intelligentsia defending and re-securing his title. He’ll be heading out to compete with the rest of the national barista champs from around the world at the SCAE (Specialty Coffee Association of Europe) event this summer in the UK.
But back to the show. We attended a few different lectures, talked with many of our vendors on the trade show floor, watched Midwest Barista Champ Mike Marquard compete in the USBC semi-finals and even headed to a little partay that Intelligentsia, La Marzocco and Espressi (makers of the MyPressi TWIST) were throwing at Intelligentsia’s roastery in L.A. Yes, Grammy got her groove on.
In this video, Gail talks to us about what she learned from the lectures we attended, discusses some new products we saw and even shares with us her new love for TWIST-inspired cocktails.