I know this isn’t a video

August 28th, 2009

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.  ↩︎

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