I know this isn’t a video

And now you do too.

However, it is probably a bit of a rant.

There was much discussion on Twitter the other day (I know, that sentence still seems awkward and embarrassing to me too) about naturally processed coffees.  The discussion had started about how everyone seemed to be ignoring washed coffees from Yirgacheffe, having become distracted by the naturals – often the microlots from Beloya and Aricha.  1

The problem wasn’t so much that people weren’t excited by washed Yirgacheffe coffees – more that these new darlings of the coffee industry contained flavours that many would consider defective.  Reading this I began to worry in an odd sort of way about our approach to coffee, as well as our approach to the consumer.  2

Firstly – I get why people really don’t like some naturally processed coffees.  There are undeniably strong fruit flavours within them but often the wild, barnyard, almost manure quality will deter some seasoned coffee tasters and amateurs alike.  Where I think we run into difficulty is when we start thinking how a coffee from Yirgacheffe ought to taste.  Granted – we want any coffee to taste clean (I hope – more on this in a second), but our expectations can start to work against us quite quickly.  When it comes to being a professional taster (outside of the realm of coffee) you can start to lose value when you stop tasting as objectively as possible and start to develop “oughts” – i.e. how things ought to taste.

However, I think if we focus on the negatives of the natural process then we close of some potential.  A lot of people love the quantity of fruit flavours you get in the cup, and they are extremely accessible to anyone tasting coffee.  That potential interests and excites me.

A quick aside on the natural process, and all processing in general.  Their roots are not in flavour development.  The natural processed is favoured in areas where access to large quantities of clean water is limited, and it is therefore most effective way of processing the coffee.  It is also the cheapest so lower quality/unripes will often be processed that way.  The wet process became the preferred process for speciality coffees not because of the increased acidity, or cleaner body, but because it resulted in a much lower rate of defective beans.  If your coffee is going to be worth more because you did a better job of cultivating it then you want to minimise damage post harvest.

Only relatively recently have people begun to explore the potentials of each processing method, and these Ethiopian microlots and other microlots of natural processed coffees are really just baby steps.  Processing great coffee this way is risky, and few producers are capable of taking the financial hit should something go wrong.  However, I’ve been lucky enough to taste a couple of naturals this year that really feel like a progression.  I look forward to cupping them more now they’ve landed, but one in particular made me very excited.  If we can experiment and improve this processes, and end up with something that is super clean but tastes nothing like “coffee” then isn’t this worth exploring?  Maybe it will amount to nothing, maybe it will turn out to be the emperors new clothes, but surely as an industry we have to pay attention to coffees that excite and interest so many people even if we don’t like them ourselves.

I don’t particularly like most coffees from Indonesia.  I find the earthier tones they have off putting.  However, lots of people really like them.  It does take a certain kind of arrogance for me to presume that what I like is somehow better/more correct/superiour than what someone else likes.  3  My subjective experience is more correct and important than someone else’s?  It frustrates me that, as a cupper, I just switch off when I hit a table of Indonesian coffees – because I don’t like any of them I am poor at distinguishing which might be appealing to people who like them.  I don’t do very well at finding the better one and I think that is a failure on my part.  4

I will, however, keep cupping tables of coffees from Indonesia because there is great potential there.  Whichever way you look at it there is potential – amazing soil, some interesting varieties and, if nothing else, huge potential gains to be made with better processing controls.  If we, as an industry, were to walk away from coffees like that now then we wouldn’t give them a real chance.  This would be a terrible shame.

  1. I am aware that it really start with the discussion of the rather disturbing word “Beloyagasm” but that is kind of beside the point  ↩︎
  2. It should be added that if twitter could work out a way to nicely present a conversation amongst multiple users then I would be very happy!  ↩︎
  3. I do concede that it takes a certain type of arrogance to run a blog too, full of videos of myself, but that isn’t the point!  ↩︎
  4. Another reason I am very grateful to work with Anette, who has a great objective palate.  ↩︎

21 Comments

  1. Hey James,

    As I eventually bought myself into that very discussion that you are talking about on Twitter, I will say that I (we? I wont speak for them) do not approach an origin with a handicap nor a predisposition on how the origin should taste.

    We, as cuppers should approach all coffees the same no matter processing or origin, we, like you said should be looking for sweetness and cleanliness among other things, but importantly taint free, consistency and repeatability are key. Meaning if you want coffee pulp (aromatic taint) in your cup, then you should get it in every cup that is on the table. You should aim for those blueberry, cherry, strawberry notes being there every single time, if that is what you want. I am not one to tell you, you should not buy it if that is what you want, go for it.

    With most Naturals that have come across the cupping table in front of me, that has not been the case, there have been many peaks and troughs, and by the time I reach the end of the 30 min session the coffee has tanked and become unpalatable.

    I was involved in a cupping session which we conducted blind and a prominent cupper scored a coffee in the 90's, until we did the reveal and that coffee, which he thought was an Indonesian, turned out to be a Colombian coffee, he immediately changed that 90 to a mid 70's score.

    That bought up something interesting, why would we handicap an origin? Why should a 90 in one region be a 70 in another? If I were that farmer back in Indonesia and I was getting told that my coffee was scoring in the 90's, I would be so happy and content I would probably not try and change my practices as I would believe it was already great, when in actual fact it is not. Would it not be better to tell that producer that his coffee is scoring poorly so he could try and improve it? Maybe that is another discussion all together perhaps?

    I believe we should not leave any stone unturned when purchasing, we have purchased 90 bags of natural Brazils before, as it was consistent and did what it promised, gave much fruit sweetness, all the time and did not tank. I still have not had the luxury of tasting a Natural Yirg that did what it was "supposed" to, if you have, then send us some over I would love to experience that for the first time.

    my 0.02

    Deaton

  2. I will send you a bag of an interesting natural, but it won't be from Ethiopia.

    I agree completely about handicapping coffees – if a coffee tastes great, within the bounds of being a clean and enjoyable cup, then I don't think we ought to have heady expectations for how it should taste. I cupped a great coffee the other day – clean, juicy and full of peaches and pears – and was astonished to find out it was 100% Catimor. Granted – this was a very well kept selection of Catimor trees, but had I known that in advance it could well have tainted my experience.

    Coming back to the natural yirgs – I get that they don't do it for you, but surely you agree that there is potential they could and if they did they'd be a great weapon in the fight to promote speciality coffee.

    I should finally add that the above post shouldn't be taking as "picking on" anyone or any company – it was just the sum of my thoughts after that discussion.

  3. Understood no offense taken. Yes, you could be right that there is potential there for a selling point, as long as there is not a Natural Yirg "halo" attached to it. Cup it blind, if it is good, consistent and holds true through the cupping session then great. If it is bad, sweaty, funky, overtly fruity to the point of being way over ripe then, no it should not be bought nor awarded.

    My fear with these types of coffees that for the un-informed or ill educated they could easily mistake a tainted coffee as being good, then hunt this coffee down creating a false sense of what is right. Taints can be very hard to pick up on if you are new to the game and selling points like "skittles" in coffee could be miss leading, causing a demand for a bad product. I would rather see a new coffee comer get wowed over a clean, consistent, sweet, round washed coffee then a potentially tainted natural.

    Lets be careful, do not award the wrong coffees, folks!

  4. My God, people!! Is there no room in our constant logarithmic analyses of coffee that allows for a gestalt that supersedes terroir? While I think that the trendiness that seems to prevail in the higher echelons of specialty coffee can produce some negative results (farmers ripping out their shrubs and planting Gesha in locales not suited for it, for example), those trends can be eye-openers for many. I choose to see that trendiness as the evolution of our coffee community's common consciousness' collective palate.

    Several years ago I was fortunate to fall into the company of a coffee professional that had a commanding understanding of terroir, varietals and regional flavor profile norms, but did not limit his offerings to those norms. I did not have the base of knowledge to really understand the level of coffees that he would end up with as the result of spending several months at origin each year, and so my journey in coffee was by the guidance of a very open-minded professional. Over the years I have watched his concern grow at the impact of "top echelon trend" on farming and processing practices, but never once have I heard him say how a coffee "should" taste. I have seen him say that, "This coffee may not be your bag, and is atypical in reference to its origin, but it is tasty and distinctive."

    In our small southeastern US town, we have a great little Latin grocery store that serves lunch – simply fantastic authentic tacos – only ones around here, and I am partial to the chicken tacos. Well, yesterday, we went in and ordered the tripe tacos. No one in there speaks English, so we were not fully confident in what we were ordering, but I called a friend and had him translate to our satisfaction that, yes, we were about to eat cow stomach tacos. It is utterly impossible to enter any situation without some expectation attached, but we try our damnedest not to. The first bite greeted us with an unfamiliar but thoroughly enjoyable taste experience. Texture almost like al dente pasta, followed by a pronounced nuttiness moving into a very mild liver-like mineral-y iron. All of that danced with the onions and cilantro, the fresh lime and homemade picante, to produce a outstanding first time food experience.

    I say all of that to say this; can we not just enjoy a coffee for what it is, or even just because it is new and unfamiliar? I don't know about you, but I tire with the same foods and tastes and textures that are readily available to me – and the same for coffees. I want to be like my three-year-old son when he tastes a new fruit or vegetable for the first time. He likes fruit and vegs and walks into the experience expecting good things. Because of that, I have a little boy that loves broccoli, brussel sprouts, musk melon and strawberries alike. It has been said that an expectation is just a resentment in waiting and I surely do not want to resent my coffee or yours, for that matter, but I think it may be more accurate to say that a negative expectation is the seed of resentment. I don't want to limit my own coffee experience by limiting what the coffee "should" be.

    Maybe the defect is not in the coffee, but in our approach to it.

    Or maybe I'm just delirious from the constant work and lack of sleep in this ridiculously powerful obsession with coffee. Probably so.

    Hunt

  5. On the sweetness thing. It has been scientifically shown that natural process coffees retain more sugar (Glucose / Fructose) than washed coffees. So I find it interesting that people would bang on and on about sweetness and then be so dismissive of natural process.

    Otherwise – James – if I had a tune – I'd sing this post.

  6. Hi James,

    I don't think that there is a single group of customers to speak of so I would prefer to split those into different groups having different preferences each. Addressing all people at once is something that never works out well. Addressing the needs of a certain group specifically is the key for me.

    You are right, there are many people liking those coffees but there are even more that like robusta as well. Does this mean we should start adding robusta to everything we do? No. I don't see the need to satisfy all people. To me it is more important to have your own identity which you try to bring to the customer. Like a good chef we should have our own interpretation of what is good and what we want to show, this is no arrogance it is just a personal and (hopefully) unique style.

    Personally I would really like to see coffees like the Aricha develop. But to be honest, I don't think that we can speed up the process of developing those coffees very much. In the first you need exceptional coffees that might be available from time to time. Those will show the potential and people will start investing into these coffees. The amount of investment depends on what benefits you can made on the other hand so you need to balance interests of. Thus in the beginning development is poor and slow and naturally speeds up as time goes by. The Cup of Excellence program also required some ramp-up time and I think there is still a lot of potential left (even though, I don't like the trend of "over priced" coffees, but this is a different topic). I think this development will come naturally but will require some time.

    In general everybody should be open minded and being able to accept new information and impressions. For me this is the key of a personal development as well as a major aspect for the industry in general. We are in the lead of showing to the customer what can be possible.

    Wolfram

  7. Just for the record – I coined Beloyagasm. And it is very apropos. I'll explain.

    It came out of a scenario last year where I was regularly using Beloya from a couple of sources as "epiphany coffees" for consumers who didn't normally perceive coffee as something culinary. Many of these consumers were in the food trade – some chefs, some servers, some bartenders, some restaurant owners, but not coffee professionals.

    They are people who, in Vancouver at least, frequently use the term "orgasmic experience" to describe some top knotch food / wine pairings, or inventive food recipes. In a couple of the informal and formal tastings and cuppings I held last year, that term was used for drinking Beloya when the ping! light going off! moment happened for them – their epiphany moment in coffee.

    On twitter, describing it all, it morphed into beloyagasm. Other than the other Ethiopian microlots, I don't know of any other coffees (including darling child Esmeralda) that could do that with consumers TO THAT LEVEL (Esmeralda is more of a refined taste that pros get esp. those who are familiar with other Panamanian coffees – consumers go "huh, what?"). It's a true shame that Beloya, Aricha, Misty Valley, Wild Forest etc etc are going gone because of the Ethiopian coffee situation; giving beloyagasms to consumers will be more difficult. And it was a good thing – nearly all of these consumers / restaurateurs were converts – Tom, the owner of Fuel Restaurant, went from a complete coffee nay-sayer to a total convert, shopping at 49th, upping his coffee game at home and the restaurant, all because of that Beloyagasm (orgasmic experience) moment with coffee. He's one of many.

    Anyway. Just defending beloyagasm. :)

  8. Well this leaves us with a tricky problem – if enough people consider it desirable can we absolutely call it taint? We, the coffee professionals, are in the vast minority of coffee consumers. Are good naturals a bit like Happy Gilmore?

  9. The retention of more sugar in the green may be true but that doesn't automatically mean a sweeter cup. The reaction pathways for that sugar during roasting could go a myriad of different ways, and roasted coffee retains no simple sugars.

    We've been cupping the same farm's coffee processed three different ways this week (*warning – spam alert*) and I look forward to putting them into the shop next week and seeing how people react. That is probably a different post.

  10. You don't get the Happy Gilmore reference? I was really pleased with that. Ah well. (It was along the lines of Happy being despised by the industry insiders for not doing things the proper way, for having no technique and being a mess but yet he was still very much loved by the public.)

  11. The retention of more sugar in the green may be true but that doesn't automatically mean a sweeter cup. The reaction pathways for that sugar during roasting could go a myriad of different ways, and roasted coffee retains no simple sugars.

  12. David, yes that is the case, though is there not a good and bad sweetness? I don't typically like buying fruits that are over ripe, yes they are sweet but it is the wrong type of sweetness, for me…

    I guess it could come down to your thresh hold, for me, I think I have a very low thresh hold for sweetness, I get that sugar "burn" quickly, do you know what I mean? Like eating sweet candy, a small amount might be nice but their is a tipping point where it becomes over baring and unpleasant, or is that just me?

  13. That makes perfect sense to me, Mark. I tend to choose coffees for our menu that are particularly pronounced in some attribute because we are in a part of the country where specialty coffee and coffee tasting is pretty new. I find that those coffees' flavors are more easily accessible (identifiable) to our fledgling customers. For that, I am grateful. Having a bean that is full of blueberry disarms our incredulous new pre-convert and as soon as they sip it, they say, "Hey! That's blueberry!", and they have taken their first step into a larger coffee world.. So, yeah – thank you, natural/pulp natty processing. Our job (at our shop) is then to walk with that customer through the paces into an appreciation for the subtleties like balance, complexity, or fine acidity, but it has to start somewhere. I like to use nattys for that because they can easily identify something other than "coffee" and get over their doubt in their own palates enough to trust that they can take the journey at all.

  14. Albeit very enlighting and interesting, this discussion may be, I have little truck for "oughts". My two Cs on the matter is (as also my personal blog is named): Utz kapeh! This translates, from Mayan, to "good coffee". By this I mean that, for me, it matters little about methods and origin. As long as the coffee is good, I'm content. My thoughts about fruitiness and tonnes of this and that in a blend: I feel that, should I pour a Yirga in my grinder and get a cup that was very fruity and, then later, buying the same blend and recieve a taste that held much more acidity, I would be somewhat miffed. If I then found out that this had to do with processing methods and different ripeness of the berries, well… I'm more into consistency than, really, the way the coffe is processed. I know that one harvest can differ from the next, but to sell this as the same blend makes me feel a little, well, betrayed really…

    //Stefan

  15. To process a high quality Natural coffee is often much more expensive than to make a washed. It takes longer time. Also skills and control. The selection is hard, in cherry and dry, often many times, often by hand.
    A good washed coffee can be made without any hands touching it.
    Some farmers that have good access to clean water, can simply choose not to use it in favour of the Natural process. For taste and flavour – but most of all – to keep their own invironment free from contaminated water.

  16. Regarding this: “It should be added that if twitter could work out a way to nicely present a conversation amongst multiple users then I would be very happy!”
    You might be interested in this service (created by Delicious founder @joshu): http://a.tinythread.com/

    Btw, great blog!

  17. My Ethiopian Moka Stag roasted by DoubleShot is my biggest seller for drip coffee. I’d say consumers know what they like.

    Al

  18. Right on, James. I share the same sentiment regarding Indonesian coffees quite regularly with new cuppers, really driving home the point that many of our customers love (and buy massive amounts) of our Sumatran coffees – they are also great ways to bridge the gap between dark-roasted blends and origin offerings.

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