The naturals debate

You could say this debate is old news, but somehow it still seems to be rumbling on.

In the english speaking online coffee community it often seems a bit like Intelligentsia Vs. Naturals-Lovers, and Geoff Watts great post on the Intelli website kicked off the debate again recently. 1  To quote the relevant part:

Things I hope become historical footnotes:

The near-fanatical obsession with dry-processed coffees. Increased risk for the farmer + significant loss of varietal/terroir nuance in the cup + likelihood of current trend reversing at some point = probably not the kind of coffee we want to promote.

Now – we probably shouldn’t read too much into this, but each point probably does merit discussion.

– Increased risk for the farmer.

Not one to be underestimated.  For a long time I fell into the trap of believing that the choice of processing for most coffee was to do with the desired flavour at the end of it.  It isn’t – it is to do with preparing your harvest for sale.  Wet process is the most desirable process, not because of the acidity or cup profile, because it is the least likely to result in defective coffee.

Natural processing was either a last resort in areas where water supply was insufficient, or for coffee whose quality didn’t really matter – unripes for example.

Geoff is someone who has more experience dealing with farmers face to face than I will ever have making him very hard to argue with here, and I think encouraging them to jeopardise their livelihood based on a curiousity is perhaps a touch cavalier of the western coffee consumer/roaster/barista/etc.  I have to agree with him here – we have to be careful what we ask for, and how willing are we (as an industry) to pick up the pieces if it goes wrong?  Probably not very….

– significant loss of varietal/terroir nuance in the cup

There can be no doubt that the natural process comes with a particular flavour, in a way that pulped naturals or washed coffees don’t. (But wet hulled coffees probably do).  I don’t believe that it completely masks the character of the coffee – the naturals I’ve tasted over the last 12 months have definitely shown suitable individual characteristics.  However, I think it is a rare part of the coffee chain post harvest where we can add flavour.  I still believe that creation of quality ends the moment you pick a coffee, and that every single step afterwards is about preservation and transparency.  Except for the natural process.

– likelihood of current trend reversing at some point

An interesting point, and one I should avoid being to certain about.  I’ve been drinking coffee since 2004.  The scope of my understanding of trends within coffee consumption (beyond what I’ve read) is very limited.  I can see it being possible, speciality coffee is more susceptible to faddism than the wider industry.  I agree that it could be a concern, though the other half of me feels it is an academic idea rather than a likelihood.

So I agree with Geoff. But I still enjoy natural process coffees.  Not all of them, by a long shot, but when they are done with great care and attention then I think they have value.

This is what it boils down to for me – I think they have value.  I think they have a place.  Most of the issues Geoff raises could be applied to the Geisha variety.  It was suddenly everywhere, farmers tearing out trees to plant it in the hope of the huge returns that the Petersons had seen, even though the original trials of Geisha showed that it generally performed badly.  (Increased risk to the farmer).  It’s cup profile also somewhat smothered the terroir with the character of the variety. (significant loss of varietal/terroir nuance in the cup).  I think the tide has pretty much turned on Geisha too – it still remains popular and interesting but I don’t think it is prized the way it was.  (likelihood of current trend reversing at some point).

This isn’t just some cheap semantic trick (I hope).  Geishas have a place, and a value within speciality coffee.  No one is suggesting we stop drinking them, or growing them.  Nor is anyone suggesting that all coffee grown should be Geisha.  Both naturals and Geisha coffees are extremely useful in demonstrating the broad and fascinating range of flavour within coffee – and I could imagine equally appalled and enthralled consumers of each.

There is, I believe, room to explore within the natural process.  The Aricha and Beloya lots of 2008 were, I thought, a necessary and interesting exploration.  Their novelty briefly captivated a large part of our industry – and part of me is curious how the momentum behind them would have influenced the next years lots had it not been for the changes around the ECX.

We probably shouldn’t be demanding that every producer starts doing naturals – but I think anyone who tried Aida Batlle’s naturals this year would agree that writing them off could be a terrible shame.  I’ll end with the one unexamined sentence, from a single point of a much wider (and excellent) piece.

– Things I hope become historical footnotes: The near-fanatical obsession with dry-processed coffees.

If we choose to polarise ourselves over this we probably won’t get anywhere fast.  Be it the fanatical obsession or hatred – if our opinion becomes a point of pride then the conversation never moves forward.  So once again, with that caveat in place, I completely agree with Geoff.

  1. I kind of hope that a few people at Intelli secretly have a stash at home, of illicit dry process coffee – hidden from the world in shame.  ↩︎

88 Comments

  1. things I hope become historical footnotes: the near-fanatical obsession with ____________ (fill in the blank).

  2. I find Intelli’s standpoint myopic, and not reflective of the quality of the very best natural processed coffees. I can’t understand the reasoning of someone who finds no value in these coffees. It doesn’t tally with my experiences, or with those of many others. The tone of much of the dialogue is also wearily patronising to those that find these coffees meritorious.

  3. I have tasted some profoundly horrible naturals and some fantastic ones from very reputable companies and have had at least one mind-tweakingly outstanding natty from a no-name farm that may have just gotten lucky. Personally I am as much a fan of well handled naturals as I am of well handled pulp nattys and washed coffees. Over the years, I have had more washed coffees in the 86+ range than any other processing style and I agree with you that has to do with the superiority of the washed process to remove defects. While reading through the many many 2010 industry predictions, I was surprised to see so little about upcoming advances in processing techniques at origin. I hope that those with the means to do so will continue to do the experiments in processing that have produced some clearly superior lots in the past two seasons – Aida being one of them to be sure. As limited as my exposure to the processing of coffee has been, I can’t help but believe that there are great leaps to be made in its techniques that will put out on the market amazing and consistent naturals that do not endanger the livelihood of the farmer and that will outlive the faddism that our lovely industry is so prone towards. Fingers crossed.

  4. This whole debate is stupid. I agree with David Walsh that comments from Intelli are at times rather condescending. This whole idea that naturals are worthless is nonsensical on many levels. Its like comparing a Syrah from North Rhone with an Australian Shiraz and saying the Shiraz is worthless because its more fruit forward and spicey! Or perhaps saying Belgians beers are shit because tend to be very heavy and hoppy when compared to cleaner, Czech Pilsners!

    Some amazing coffee come from regions that employ natural and semi-washed coffees by tradition (obvi… but seems like I have to bring it up somehow) and are prized because of that! Think of those funky Sumatrans! So amazing!

    Naturals work amazing as espresso, washed make amazing drip. So I’m thinking this movement against naturals is going hand in hand with that other nonsensical idea I hear getting thrown around lately (just read the comments on cleanhotdry.com when they did a “espresso vs drip” survey)… that some how espresso is rubbish!

  5. Geoff’s post, taken in context, is not unleashing anti-dry-processed furor. His statement only refers to the implications on the varietal diversity and the farmer. This isn’t a statement about the quality of the product.

    I thought the post engaged the subject well. Everybody calm down.

  6. I also think that the post is all about the implications on the varietal diversity and the farmer. I think this should not be taken into context. Thanks for your very informative blog as I have been always a fan of your blog, especially all your infos about espresso coffee

  7. no one has yet mentioned the huge economical and environmental factor of dry processed coffees … when done right, naturals and honeys can help many small farmers get into specialty market and receive much higher prices without making huge investments into wet-mills … after working for a few months with a big proponent of dry-processed coffees, I clearly see (and taste) the advantages of this process …

  8. Great post, James.

    I really have no right to enter this debate (but since when did that stop anyone on the blogosphere?!) so you’ll have to excuse my lack of specialty-coffee-pedigree.

    I was looking through some of Tom’s cupping notes on the Sweet Maria’s site and noticed several comments to the effect of “ok, so this [natural] coffee was never going to score well, but…”. It struck me as a fairly blatant apology for most cupping regimens.

    What value is a cupping sheet if it does not reflect one’s actual tastes? Are the categories of “clean cup” and “brightness” arbitrary? If not, where do they come from? Why aren’t categories like “fruity” or “spicy” in there?

    I see a lack of objectivity when it comes to the way we address issues such as washed vs. natural or brewed vs. espresso. Yesterday’s priorities are today’s “near fanatical obsessions”. As much as I adore every word that Geoff Watts says, I think his prediction (or is it hope?) that naturals will just slide off the specialty coffee radar as an example of this lack of objectivity.

    However, GW raised some excellent points, including saying that the industry needs more scientific research into things like brewing/extraction methods – not to mention processing! Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think we can map the “genome” of enjoying great coffee, but the more we discover, the more we’ll learn how much we don’t know yet (and the less we’ll have a leg to stand on when we denounce certain methods!).

    Cheers,
    Stuart.

    Disclaimer: natural Ethiopians have been some of my favourite coffees. Sorry Geoff.

  9. Naturals sell well when done right, both in terms of green coffee to a roaster, and at the retail level. Customers often find them more approachable, and their uniqueness easier to identify than many (not all) great washed coffees. These coffees are ones that at tastings get customers excited because fruit, spice, and creamy body are so forward as to make then easily identifiable.

    Another aspect of this that Im not sure what to do with is my staff, and the staff of hundreds of other quality focused stores love, and look forward to these coffees. I finally had to offer a single origin espresso version of our current special prep Sidamo because my staff was so crazy about it as an espresso even profiled for our pour over bar. When my staff are excited about a coffee, it sells well, and they do a fabulous job of education the consumer about it. This in turn helps me, the farmer, and everyone else in the loop.

    New advances in sorting from farms like Daterra have made these coffees much more sucessfull and this style can be done with less risk.

    Lets not forget the demand factor when looking at where we should go as quality minded coffee retailers and roasters. Doing so could hurt us all.

  10. I should make clear that while I don’t completely agree with some of what Geoff says – I do think he has a very valid point.

    This post wasn’t about bashing Intelligentsia – it was about trying to find a middle ground in which we can have a bit more of a discussion.

    Naturals offer great possibilities but the more I think about it, the more we probably underestimate the risk of doing them.

    Perhaps the natural process smothers some negative flavours out of some coffees, that would be evident had the coffee been washed. For a truly stellar natural you still need very carefully grown, well picked coffee – a coffee that has a higher chance of a higher price by being washed rather than dry processed.

    I see all the dangers that are there – but I still like how they taste, and what they can do. I don’t mean to rehash the post above as a comment. I had hoped to hear from a few more people who were on the other side of the debate from the pro-natural group (though that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the comments above – I do!) – they have some very valid points which I want to discuss more.

  11. James, Terruno Nayarita in Mexico does a unique natural processed coffee that I have been supporting for a few years. This coffee is totally unique to Mexico and as such is an experiment more than a commitment to the process. The Nayarita may be an example of the risk associated with this foreign process. While the new crops have sparkling dried cherry fruit tones and the effervescence I associate with the best of the Ethiopians the process may have some casualties that don’t make the cut. And while the coffee has many “natural” attributes, there are uniquenesses that may be considered flaws, just as with most other naturals. If the risk is not worth the cost for this particular coffee I would consider it a loss leader because it brings the entire Terruno Nayarita system into the spotlight as an example of sourcing quality and paying a premium that is traceable through bar coded tags on the bags which identify the exact farm and plot the coffee originated from. If farmers livelihood is destroyed attempting to create this unique and exciting flavor profile, then we need to know. Neither Geoff or any of the comments posted point to any specific farms risking and losing to produce naturals.

  12. Another thing to consider is that more experienced/seasoned cuppers/buyers have been conditioned to read “fruity” and “spicy” as “Defect.” One’s reactions to those flavors then becomes automatic: “defect, move on” rather than “interesting, let’s investigate.” It’s probably very difficult to change years of conditioning a certain reaction for certain flavors…

    I’ll weigh in on the side of the washed coffees (if reinforcements are needed), but my reasons are based on personal taste. Excuse the cliche, but it really fits: apples and oranges.

    The most valuable insight, though, is the first comment to this post.

  13. I think that part of the point Geoff was trying to make is being glossed over here. The most important part of his post was the “near-fanatical”, which James touched on in his Geisha comparison. The market, in most cases, makes decisions for farmers. When farmers see Aricha and Beloya and a lot of other natural processed coffees fetching very high prices from buyers, there is a track of thought that leads to “if I natural process my coffee it will fetch a higher price from buyers.”

    The risks of natural processing are inherent. There’s a reason that it is referred to interchangeably as dry process. While there is objection in the industry to Colombia’s “washed process only” national policy, imagine what might have happened this past year if natural coffees were being produced there with the heavy rainfall they experienced. The slim amount of good coffee that came out of Colombia would be even slimmer.

  14. I work in a cafe that serves a different feature coffee from a different roaster each day. Both the Ethiopian Aricha and Beloya (natural processed) were received extremely well by our customers. Infact, they have been the most popular so far.

    I think they both served to illustrate how a coffee could taste quite different to anything they had previously experienced. They are great examples of coffee being both fun and delicious.

    Not the best analogy but there are plenty of people who would rather listen to Bob Dylan then Celin Dion. Perhaps because we can make deep connections with things that exhibit great character rather then technical perfection and natural processed coffees may be one such thing.

  15. Firstly, I should say that I’m in no real position to comment, since I’m only involved as an end consumer. From that limited point of view, I agree with both the original article, with Jame’s article and with Jonathan and others above – I’m in favour of variety, and don’t want either type to get pushed disproportionatly. In that sense I thought the Geisha analogy made a lot of sense.

    One question though –
    “There can be no doubt that the natural process comes with a particular flavour, in a way that pulped naturals or washed coffees don’t”
    From my (very limited) experience, I would have said that all three of those methods of processing produce distinctly different flavours. In that sense, it would seem more appropriate to me to talk about each method bringing out different aspects of the coffees – or of each method changing the relative balance of flavours.

    The extension of that is that I’m not sure why washed (and pulped naturals?) are semantically presented as retaining the original flavour, whilst naturals change it?
    Certainly the difference between Natural and Pulped Natural/Washed is greater than between Washed and Pulped Natural (in my very very limited experience), but the implication that Natural adds a flavour when the other two preserve original flavours seems to add an implicit bias against Natural?

    Either way, I agree with the basic point and thanks for yet another interesting article.

  16. Good post, James.

    When I told you I think some coffees are more transparent to varietal/terroir nuances when naturally processed, this is what I meant: In general we want to add sweetness and body to any coffee through a process. This can be done through a) roasting darker or b) dry processing the cherries.

    A lightly roasted natural can work really well, and instead of getting roasting aromas (chocolate, caramel etc) you get coffee cherry ones (strawberry, rosehip, etc.). And if the coffee has enough structure to survive that strawberryness, with a strong enzymatic flavour profile, I believe that a light roasted natural version of that coffee is more transparent than a dark roasted washed version(Especially as an espresso brew).

    It’s hardly more than a theory, though. Tasting the Kilimanjaro x3 was probably the first time I’ve had different processing methods of the same coffee on the same table.

  17. It’s complicated. While I am fanatically obsessed with washed coffees, I can certainly empathize with natural lovers. I won’t attempt to speak for producers (Geoff is way more warranted than I am), but for consumers, some naturals are ~easy~. The signature strawberry and blueberry aromas of some naturals can be smelled from many feet away. With ease. Sorry if the word “ease” offends any poetry felt.
    It’s true that Geoff can smell way more than mere strawberry. He’s experienced; not just regarding persistant time spent, but also regarding substantive lessons. He picks up on “defect” aromas. I might also argue that he has profound hedonistic tendencies. He’s perfect for being analytical without compromising a pure drive towards great flavor or quality. He is not trained to reject defective coffees like some robot. Not to mention, I think he’s largely self-trained.
    Washed coffees. Realize that even in the most technically perfect coffees, every single bean is unique. Taste them. My point will not be found in this comment. It’s in the flavor. Then I’d argue you’re (people in general, not JimSeven) on the road to understanding Intelligentsia’s drive towards washed coffees, at least from a flavor point-of-view. Did I mention that it’s complicated?
    (Regarding comprehensive economic/financial treatments of the subject… not sure they exist yet.)
    … See-ya :D

  18. Something useful that can be done from almost any country in the world, would be to gather all the available temporal data on humidity, rains, temperature and insolation for micro-regions in Yirga Cheffe, Sidama, Cerrado, Carmo de Minas or wherever else naturals will be experimented with. I would love to have a look at that.

  19. This is a particularly fascinating idea to me – but it does bring us to a tricky place where we have to decide exactly what flavours are intrinsic to the coffee, and which we add through – in your example – roasting.

    I like the idea of being able to roast a coffee lighter, in order to get more if its original flavours – though you could argue that by stopping the roast relatively early you are simply presenting an alternative set of flavours rather than a better/truer range.

  20. Naturals are my “gateway drug” to get people more interested in good (profile roasted) single origin coffees. Once a customer has had some experience with a natural sidamo and can identify it by smell on their own they start to feel like they’ve moved to the next level in their coffee consumerism. It is at this point that I pull out a nice washed Costa and say “ok, time to move up another level.” If I start them out with that same Costa Rican (which is rather expensive,) I find I get a “what’s the big deal,” reaction.

  21. In general, I love Geoff’s list, but I think he is a bit myopic about naturals.

    First off, however, I agree that a near-fanatical obsession with naturals would be dangerous, and certainly some are guilty of that, but the vast majority of people enjoy naturals for what they are: the simplest, most traditional, most natural process there is. Everyone knows that a great natural produces flavors impossible to find in washed coffees, and that’s a good thing.

    Let’s get some historical perspective here: the washed process was invented in the 19th century and popularized in the 20th, and wasn’t introduced to places like Ethiopia until the late 1950s. Therefore, washing coffee is itself a new thing in the long, delicious history of coffee preparation and consumption. Newness doesn’t equal badness or goodness, but I think that the opinion that washing is the “right” way to process coffees ignores tradition and culture. I have met Ethiopians who consider washing to be an example of imposing European culture on Ethiopian tradition (the first washing stations in Ethiopia were established by the French). Is that a good thing? Or do we need a little balance here?

    But let’s take Geoff’s stated reasons on for a sec. He claims that naturals deliver “significant loss of terroir/varietal nuance in the cup.” I’m surprised he feels this way, since I am confident he has tasted naturals which clearly display their pedigree on the cupping table. Take Bagersh’s Idido natural- with it’s strawberry-lemon characteristic, vs. Beloya, a much deeper, darker, syrupy coffee. This character distinction has repeated itself for years. Bagersh’s trademark perfect-pick dry processing is the same in both cases, and the varietal, climactic, and environmental differences shine through. Anyone who has tasted Aida Batlle’s natural Kilimanjaro vs. Mauritania must also realize that the vast, consistent differences in flavor are related to variety or terroir, or both. And what about the fruitless, nutty flavor of Brazil naturals? This idea that there is a “natural” flavor that imposes itself on every coffee processed in this way ignores the diversity of flavors natural-process coffees possess.

    Often, folks claim that naturals somehow impress “process” flavors over more intrinsic,”pure” coffee flavors of washed coffees. This is false: since great naturals are undisturbed during the drying process, the only flavors present in the finished coffee are intrinsic to the coffee itself. All of that fruit flavor comes from the coffee fruit. Removing that piece, through the violent process of depulping and washing, is actually removing natural flavor, not adding it. Also, washing adds flavors unique to the process, including yeast-activity related flavors we read as “acidity”. Often, zealous washed-process fanatics claim that the winy zing of washed Yirgacheffe and Nyeri coffees come from something intrinsic to the coffee- in fact they are in large part fermentation byproducts.

    Geoff’s next claim: that naturals present increased risks to the farmer. I’m not sure what he is basing this on, since those who do a great job with naturals are just as consistent as those who produce great washed coffees. The truth is, it is difficult to process great coffee using any method, and in both cases, greatness requires risk. One commenter correctly pointed out that, in the age when water scarcity is the #1 issue facing coffee farmers, it is a little bizarre to claim that water-intensive coffee processes are less risky than low-water using methods. True, it’s more difficult to dry whole cherries than washed seeds, and there is an increased risk of mold. For this reason, it’s important for everyone to understand that naturals are best produced in areas with distinct dry seasons or access to dry microclimates. These same areas, coincidentally, are the same ones with the most sever water-security issues. Production of naturals in these places is, ummm, “natural”, and is a great idea- in fact they reduce the total risk to the farmer and provide enhanced income along with decreased water use, a win-win for farmers in these places.

    Last, as for Geoff’s position that naturals are somehow a “fad” that is likely to go away in the future. Taken historically, it is much more likely that washed coffees are a fad, given that they have been widely consumed for only about 100 years while naturals have been consumed by Ethiopians, Arabs, Europeans, EVERYONE for hundreds. I myself believe that a delicious, fruity-chocolaty natural is intrinsically appealing to anyone who loves coffee, fruit, wine, and chocolate, just as the clean, coffee-with-subtle-nuances flavor of washed coffee is universally appealing as well. And herein lies the main point: diversity is a good thing. Just as white wines, red wines, ripassi, etc are good for the wine world, and sourdough breads and bakers-yeast breads are good for lovers of bread, and there is room for lagers, stouts, wheat beers, and lambics…. you get the picture. Eagerly anticipating the demise of naturals is akin to wishing for the loss of other traditional food processes- and celebrating the “pure” techniques that bring us white bread, white wine, white rice… you get the picture. The world of food and drink is so wonderfully diverse, why single out any tradition- particularly the most authentic coffee tradition there is- for scorn?

    As for me, I will continue to enjoy and celebrate great naturals, along with transcendent crystal-clean washed coffees, long-fermented, floral Yirgacheffes and Kenyans, chocolaty pulped naturals, Giling Basahs and all the wonderful variety there is in this great world of coffee.

  22. When there is not enough sunshine, the Naturals die.
    I think drying both parchment and cherry are as finicky as roasting and extracting espresso.

  23. What is happening with Bagersh’s naturals this year?

  24. I should say “Mr. Bagersh”, since he’s my senior and I haven’t met him yet. Anyways…

  25. Peter-

    When I was in Ethiopia in October, and last I heard, Mr. Bagersh was not planning on producing naturals this year. He’s been occupied leading the exporters through the changes in the Ethiopian coffee system, and helping support the development of the Direct Specialty Trade platform. Naturals are traditionally prepared at the end of harvest, however, and the harvest ain’t through yet, so there is still hope. Tim Hill plans on visiting the Bagersh stations next week, and he’ll post his trip report on our website, I’ll make sure you get a copy.

    pg

  26. wow, great commentary here. Can’t wait to get involved in the conversation! But I will indeed wait, because I just saw the blog now and it’s 5 am here in Kenya…I’ve got to get some sleep. I’m at the EAFCA conference in Mombasa, which has been pretty decent. We finished off the weekend with a takeover of the lame disco here at the hotel (many props to Stephen Vick, who convinced the DJ to let him plug in his Ipod and replace the crap music they were playing with some stuff worth dancing to…)
    Anyone seen Rockers? If not, and if you happen to like roots reggae, you must see the film. Great shit. Our takeover wasn’t quite as dramatic, but equally effective.

    I’ve got quite a bit I’d like to add to the debate…and will join in shortly, hopefully tomorrow once I get to Addis. Really looking forward to getting further into this dialogue…

    geoff

  27. Naturals are the new fixies. Seriously guys, arguing along the lines of tradition is naive and hurtful to the coffee industry. I would certainly expect more from an east coast coffee mogul, but then again, CC’s coffee is far worse than most, so the proprietor betrays his product. Zing! I mean, PG’s comment is akin to Pat Robertson chiming in just late enough on every natural disaster to say something like “God is punishing the Haitians for being sinners.” Out of touch and unnecessary, not to mention inflammatory.

  28. Thanks Peter G. If it will be posted on your site, I won’t miss it either way.

  29. Don’t know where to begin; there have been quite a lot of different arguments brought up in this thread. I’ll do my best to include most of them.

    Let’s have a look first at this whole idea of risk vs. reward, as that’s really the most essential basis for my opinions regarding the decision of any producer to dry their coffees in the skin rather than pulping and washing. James wrote something very relevant and really hit it on the head:

    “For a long time I fell into the trap of believing that the choice of processing for most coffee was to do with the desired flavour at the end of it. It isn’t – it is to do with preparing your harvest for sale. Wet process is the most desirable process, not because of the acidity or cup profile, because it is the least likely to result in defective coffee.
    Natural processing was either a last resort in areas where water supply was insufficient, or for coffee whose quality didn’t really matter – unripes for example.”
    This really hits at the heart of the matter—coffee producers, whenever possible, will (and should? I do think so) choose to process the coffees they grow in whatever manner affords them the best and most reliable opportunity to sell their coffees for maximum value. That should not be surprising—it is completely practical. Removing the mucilage from the parchment has inarguable advantages when it comes to managing risk—the sugars and the moisture in the pulp pave the way for bacteria growth and provide a great environment for yeast and mold to thrive. By removing the mucilage farmers dramatically lessen the likelihood that the coffee will spoil or develop tastes that make it undesirable. (We could enter into an aside here about the prominent role that mold plays in the typical Sumatran cup profile, and whether that is something to be encouraged or modified, but that is a subject that probably deserves its own thread, and I’ll leave it for another time).

    It is a fact that full naturals are considered in most countries (Brazil, Yemen and Ethiopia being the prominent exceptions) to be profoundly inferior to their washed counterparts. Colombia, Kenya, Tanzania, Guatemala…you name it. Local cuppers do not usually reward these coffees. The international market very clearly values washed coffees over naturals—of this there cannot be any doubt. Of course there are instances where dry-processed coffees do have a clear market; Yemeni coffees and naturals from Eastern Ethiopia (Harar) have carved out a significant niche for themselves and have been historically well embraced by the consuming world. And there is certainly a good reason behind this—both of those areas have near desert-like climate conditions, and washing coffees has really never been a viable option.

    But by and large producers worldwide who have access to water choose to pulp their coffees, for the simple reason that doing so profoundly reduces the risk of taint. It is a practical decision, and a good one. The risks involved in growing coffee are many (understatement of the century, for sure) and whatever can be done by way of process control to lessen the likelihood of the coffee developing unattractive tastes is of huge benefit to the farmer.

    Here’s the thing—it is really, really, really difficult to produce batches of natural coffee that don’t come laden with the nasty sorts of tastes that result from decomposing fruit and all of the related biological processes. Far more often than not naturals have these tastes…the vinegar/ethanol related flavors that are sometimes (euphemistically, IMHO) described by cuppers as “winey”, also often referred to as ‘rot’.

    We are all familiar with some of the notable exceptions. The Idido “Misty Valley” coffee produced by Abdullah Bagersh is an example of what these coffees can taste like when everything works just right. When I first tasted that coffee many years ago in his lab I was stunned by the cup, and had a hard time believing it was a natural. It was immaculate—super sweet (but not cloyingly so) and bursting with red fruit and berry tastes that coexisted beautifully with a vibrant acidity and some underlying jasmine and citric flavors that are the hallmarks of coffees from Yirgacheffe. That was a powerful experience…and an undeniably pleasurable one. I loved that stuff, and I went on to buy a few lots in the following years. Despite my general lack of affection for naturals, I thought that coffee was *#$%@ delicious. I was a huge supporter of that coffee…and contrary to popular belief I still enjoy it from time to time. (Although one cup is more than enough…one of the things I find difficult about these coffees is that it is hard to drink much of them, in much the same way most people don’t like to drink a lot of Lambics in succession. They tend to overwhelm the palate…and that is something worth considering when we think about how we are selling them. It is quite possible that consumers who fixate on these coffees may end up drinking less, even though they enjoyed that first cup, because a second cup just seems a bit too much…something to think about anyway)

    What is critical to understand that those notable lots are very much anomalies. They are outliers in every sense of the word. It took Abdullah many years of trial and tons (literally) of error to get that cup. It is a credit to his vision and experimental nature that he persisted despite some big-time failures, and was willing to sacrifice a lot of crop in order to perfect his technique. He learned that he could only do the naturals with any consistency at the tail end of the crop, when there was a lower chance of rain and relatively reliable sun. Doing it earlier turned out to be a bad idea—the humidity was just too high and a lot of the coffee got messed up because of it. To get good results you really do need the right climate—abundant sunshine and very little precipitation. And even in those conditions things can easily go wrong. Most roasters have only seen the successes…but for every nice batch there were several that weren’t so pristine, and had lots of unappealing tastes. It’s one of the reasons those coffees (and their successors—the Beloyas, Arichas, etc) are so costly; there is always some lost crop, which ends up getting sold into the local market at considerably lower prices. It is fortunate (and really one of the key reasons it was workable for him) that Ethiopia happens to be one of the only producing countries that consumes nearly as much as it produces…which means that there is a decent market for the stuff that doesn’t qualify for export.

    Abdullah Bagersh is most definitely one of the most talented producers I know (and when I say producer I mean that, despite the fact that until recently he has not been a farmer—the role of post-harvest process control in bringing out the best in coffees is vastly underappreciated!) He worked on his system for years before he got consistent results, and did so with the meticulous attention to detail of an engineer and the inspiration of an artist. It finally paid off for him—his sun-dried coffees have become world-famous and sparked the incredible interest in naturals that has proliferated like crazy over the last few years. But even today (well, not so much today, as the ECX has changed the game completely, but let’s step back two years and think about 2008) there is plenty of sun-dried coffee from Idido, Beloya, etc that does not turn out very good. There is always loss, despite his best efforts.

    Now consider for a minute that Abdullah has some considerable advantages that most producers do not:
    –Great market access (via long-standing relationships with importers and roasters all over the world) that allows him to work closely with the buyers who will pay prices that justify the risks, although I suspect that even in his case the real income from his well-regarded micro-lots doesn’t have a very significant economic impact. I could be wrong here, but that’s my educated guess. Yet surely there is benefit from getting his name out there through these highly publicized coffees.
    –Very good resources (his family has been in coffee a long time, and he has smartly diversified his business interests over the years)
    –Ethiopia just happens to be the most exciting coffee origin on the planet, due to an abundance of varietals that are out-of-this-world and do not exist anywhere else.
    –He produces coffee in one of the only countries in the world that consumes a huge chunk of what is grown there.

    What this adds up to is that Bagersh can pull it off, despite the built in challenges, and is in the perfect situation to take the risk inherent with naturals and still come out ahead. Those naturals he has put out have also been powerful spearheads into the marketplace that have presumably helped him generate interest in his other coffees as well.

    Aida Battle has been mentioned in this post, in reference to her Mauritania dry-processed coffees that Counter Culture has built a following for in the US. She’s done some tremendous things with her farms…and is another farmer with a profound desire to experiment and innovate. I give her loads of props. But again we are talking about a massive exception—she is in the very fortunate position of having long-standing relationships with some of the most progressive roasters around the world (in the US, Europe, and Japan) and has been selling her coffees for many years at very attractive prices due to the tremendous demand. She’s also a very serious farmer, one of the most proactive I know. She is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to control quality and can bear the cost because she has a guaranteed market and sufficient resources to finance her experiments.

    The point I’m trying to make here is that most farmers cannot bear the sorts of risks inherent in the natural process. James said it better than I in his early post:

    encouraging [farmers] to jeopardise their livelihood based on a curiousity is perhaps a touch cavalier of the western coffee consumer/roaster/barista/etc. I have to agree with him here – we have to be careful what we ask for, and how willing are we (as an industry) to pick up the pieces if it goes wrong?

    The answer should be pretty obvious: Not very willing. Most Specialty Roasters I know will not buy coffees that are seriously tainted. And the probably shouldn’t. So what happens to those coffees? What happens to the inevitable triage that occurs? Those coffees lose value, and the farmer loses the ability to sell the coffees for a good price. The coffee gets dumped in the local market or sold at basement prices into the commercial market.

    Let me be clear here: I’m not arguing that producers in places like Harar and Yemen that have always done things this way and have built their ‘brand’ around the massively fruit-forward naturals should just drop it and start washing. They really couldn’t if they wanted to. But for the majority that do have the ability to wash I feel that it is pretty irresponsible of the roasting community to advocate for more naturals given all the very serious potential drawbacks. I can remember about ten years ago when there was a big cigar boom in the US, with celebrities and models showing up on the cover of Cigar Aficionado. It led a lot of producers in extremely poor countries like Nicaragua to invest heavily in producing stogies, but the excitement was short-lived. Only a few years later the trend reversed, consumer fashion changed directions, and what had seemed at the time to be a great investment turned out to be a pretty devastating mistake. When I talk about the faddish quality of naturals I do so as a caution…I very much believe they will settle into a tiny niche in the not so distant future and many farmers who’ve switched their systems to accommodate a perceived demand will find themselves wishing they had just stuck to the original plan.

    Jonathan Aldrich made a nice comment along these lines earlier in the thread:

    “I think that part of the point Geoff was trying to make is being glossed over here. The most important part of his post was the “near-fanatical”, which James touched on in his Geisha comparison. The market, in most cases, makes decisions for farmers. When farmers see Aricha and Beloya and a lot of other natural processed coffees fetching very high prices from buyers, there is a track of thought that leads to “if I natural process my coffee it will fetch a higher price from buyers.”

    The risks of natural processing are inherent. There’s a reason that it is referred to interchangeably as dry process. While there is objection in the industry to Colombia’s “washed process only” national policy, imagine what might have happened this past year if natural coffees were being produced there with the heavy rainfall they experienced. The slim amount of good coffee that came out of Colombia would be even slimmer.”

    My own experience with naturals has followed a very distinct curve—about 12 years ago I used to purchase some Brazilian coffees that were full naturals, dried on the tree. The notes I often used to describe them were things like ‘tobacco, leather, dark chocolate, smoked nuts, etc…’ . I liked the coffee, and paid a big premium for it given the high cost of production. But as I continued to develop broader experience in coffee tasting, and increased my exposure to a wider range of coffees, I found that my feelings toward that coffee changed. Things I had found ‘interesting’ I began to find distracting. My tolerance for bitterness in coffee decreased in proportion with my attraction to sweetness. I would not buy those coffees today, even though I once did. The Brazilian farmer who used to sell me those coffees was hurt and bummed out about it, and I don’t blame him. But it was not a coffee I could any longer recommend to my customers in good conscience.
    With East African/Arabian naturals it has been a similar story…I used to buy coffees from Yemen, but over time found that I preferred cleaner cups and with more clarity. I feel pretty sure that others will follow a similar progression in their own continuing exploration of quality in coffee. The negative traits that appear in some degree in most naturals will likely become less tolerable as people get past the initial joy of discovery and begin to analyze these coffees with a higher level of scrutiny. That could mean that they become inclined to raise their expectations, redraw the ‘tolerance line’ the divides pleasant fruitiness from undesirable ferment, and become less willing to purchase coffees that lack uniformity. That could have very bad repercussions for the farmers who’ve made decisions based on current expectations, only to find a few years down the road that expectations have changed to the point where buyers require a much increased level of consistency in the coffees they are willing to pay big bucks for. That scenario describes the dangers inherent in making production decisions based on flavor-of-the-month sorts of trends that have a tendency to be very fickle.

  30. Part Two: To my good friend Mr. Karate:

    Now Peter, you know I love you but I really don’t buy what you are selling here. When I talk about risk to the farmer I’m not speculating…I’m basing that opinion on quite a bit of direct observation, both in the field and on the cupping table. Your assertion that “those who do a great job with naturals are just as consistent as those who produce great washed coffees” is just not supported empirically. Not even close. Consistency and Naturals go together about as well as laxatives and sleeping pills. It surprises me greatly that you would say something like this.

    Regarding the issue of water scarcity, I am in complete and profound agreement that this is a massive concern and something we all need to get very serious about. But there are solutions. Good soil management, shading, mulching, and other husbandry techniques are critical and have a big-time impact on maintaining water in the ecosystem. Water conservation at the wet mills is a must, and farmers are quickly learning how to recycle water and cut their usage to levels that are easily sustained. I’m a huge proponent of Eco-pulpers (demucilaging machines) that can reduce water needs to almost negligible amounts (by 40 times in many cases!). Those machines are getting better and cheaper and are absolutely going to become a standard in the future, I’m quite sure of this. And they offer further advantage…the process is so well controlled that risk is diminished even further beyond the risk-management benefits of traditional washing. You manipulate the argument and present an unfair logical leap when you equate my opinions about naturals with an endorsement of water intensive processing— “it is a little bizarre to claim that water-intensive coffee processes are less risky than low-water using methods.”—You completely misconstrue the point I have made, and derail the dialogue with an inappropriate misdirect. I have long been convinced that we must do everything we can to reduce the water usage in coffee processing, and there are many ways in which this is already being accomplished, all over Latin America and East Africa. Lots of work remains of course, but we are on the right track. Every washing station TechnoServe has built in Rwanda over the last couple of years has eco-pulpers that effectively minimize the need for water.
    And anyway, if you want to go in this direction and talk about global or localized water issues…well the logical argument will be one where we are led to question whether coffee should be grown at all in most places where it is currently planted. It is, after all, not a food crop and offers no real nutritional value. There are other things that could be grown in most producing countries that would make more sense in the long run, and there are plenty of countries currently growing coffee in areas where it was probably not meant to be. Maybe we ought not grow coffee in the desert at all, given the issues of food security that affect those regions. I would also contend that the bigger ecological problem at the moment is not coffee washing, but full-sun coffee production. I imagine that most environmental activist groups who study these issues from an agronomic perspective would agree. So I call that one a cheap shot, my friend.

    Your comments about ‘tradition’ are also very hard to swallow. Local tradition is one thing: if Ethiopian and Arab consumers love their naturals and have interest in preserving their customary preferences, that’s great. I’m all for it. But to take this to mean that everyone else on the planet should follow their lead is nonsensical, another logical leap. What about our traditions? Consumers in the rest of the world have been drinking washed coffees since the 1800’s, shortly after their introduction to the New World. I would speculate that one could probably draw some significant correlations between the innovation of coffee washing and the rapid rise in worldwide consumption. So when it comes to “historical perspective” I don’t think it makes sense to marginalize it as you have in your post.
    But more importantly, do you really believe that because something is ‘traditional’ it is thus ‘good’, or is somehow inherently worth proliferating? I adore the Ethiopian coffee culture and its incredible traditions. I find them fascinating and admirable. But the argument that because coffees were traditionally dried in the cherry in Ethiopia they ought to continue to be handled so, or done so that way in other places, doesn’t really resonate with me. Ethiopians have always roasted coffees in a pan over burning wood, and ground them in a bowl with a stick. They brew the same ground coffee three separate times to execute the traditional coffee ceremony, and simmer over an open flame. Should we take from this that these methodologies are somehow better than our modern processes of roasting, grinding, and extraction, for the simple reason that they have been done for longer? We are quickly moving towards a global culture, and I can certainly envision a future where the most relevant and sensible traditions, methods, and approaches to doing things will persevere, and those that don’t make a lot of sense in the context we live in will be reformed or abandoned, or preserved in pockets as a reminder of our past.

    Does the ‘tradition’ argument extend to drying coffee on the ground? It is certainly the way it used to be done. It is certainly cheaper, requires no infrastructure, and adds a bit of ‘earthy’ taste to the coffee.

    What about pruning? Should we not prune, because the original coffee growers didn’t do it and would instead just let the trees run wild. Still do that in many places, actually, but I can’t think of any reason that they should.

    Or how about when we think of wine and liquor? The way it is made is much different today than it was 500 years ago. I seriously doubt that many of us would want to drink the alcohols our ancient ancestors made. The advancements in brewing chemistry, fermentation and distillation (process control!) in modern times has lead to what have got to be much more palatable beverages that are consistent and far less likely to leave us with pounding headaches in the mornings. (It would not surprise me in the least to learn that toxins in natural coffees make them less healthful than washed coffees, but this is just wild speculation, I’ve not seen any science on this…)

    You go on in the post to say something about being surprised about my claim that ‘naturals deliver significant loss of terroir/varietal nuance in the cup”. Well, I stand by that. Would be happy to prove it, if someone wanted to pull together the resources to make it happen. Read my sentence again and realize that I’m by no means saying all naturals are indistinguishable regardless of where they where grown or what cultivar they are. But I do contend that they are much more similar to one another in cup profile than the equivalent washed coffees, because acidic nuance and complexity is suppressed or muffled by the byproducts of the natural fermentation. Terroir can and does poke through, but not with the clarity and articulation that it displays when the coffees are washed. You’ve got to root around in the funk a little bit to find it.

    Anyway, I’m not trying to be a contrarian here, and you know I respect your opinions. But I did feel compelled to address what seem to be illogical criticisms of my own comments.

    One more thing I’ll discuss here (and then I’ll shut up, I promise, at least until someone else takes a swipe at me ;) is the talk about the role of naturals in the specialty industry and the part they play, for better or for worse, in helping us cultivate a more educated/sophisticated coffee consumer. I’ve never said , as “S” (who are you, Mr. S?) implied, that “naturals are worthless”. Nor did anything in my post indicate that I feel people shouldn’t ever drink them or that they are somehow ‘wrong’ in their willingness to enjoy them. My thanks to Bobby for pointing this out:
    Geoff’s post, taken in context, is not unleashing anti-dry-processed furor. His statement only refers to the implications on the varietal diversity and the farmer. This isn’t a statement about the quality of the product.

    I’m sure that people who know me do understand that my personal taste preferences land quite squarely on the side of washed coffees, and that I have a conscious tendency to promote them in a way I usually do not promote naturals. I won’t make any apology for that. But that is my right as a buyer and as an operator of a coffee company. I don’t begrudge anyone their cup of natural, nor would I belittle their liking of them, any more than I would hate on someone for liking the music of Britney Spears, even though I don’t personally find it at all impressive. We are all entitled to our preferences. I was in Australia recently and saw a great sign posted in one of the Di Bella coffee shops in Brisbane that said “We are here to educate, not dictate”. Couldn’t agree more. So I really do hope that people don’t misconstrue my words, and if there are people (apparently there are, I saw it in the blogs) that feel I’ve been patronizing or condescending in my efforts to discuss relevant issues in Specialty Coffee then I hope you will take me at my word when I say that I am most definitely not that guy. I am not arrogant enough to think that I’ve got all the answers.

    There are some very legit reasons, however, why I choose to foster a little skepticism here and there regarding specific issues within the coffee community. I do believe that there is tremendous value in presenting a more-or-less united front in our collective efforts to educate consumers and help to build a market that appreciates and understands coffee quality. This doesn’t mean that I think we ought to be dogmatic, nor that there shouldn’t be opposing views. But we need to think about the responsibility we have as the carriers of the Specialty Coffee torch and the people best positioned to help develop a more informed consumer base in our respective markets. We bear a responsibility to the farming communities around the world as their partners in helping people rediscover coffee and learn to recognize and demand quality in the cup.

    As you’d probably agree, the world of specialty coffee is still a very confusing place for consumers. There are few reliable guides that can lead people to make good decisions that support the continued production of high value/high quality coffees. The thing that got me a little irritated about naturals in recent years was that there are a lot of roasters/cuppers/buyers who have gotten a little reckless or overeager in their excitement about naturals, in a way that has all the hallmarks of fad. I understand why people love to showcase them—they do indeed serve very well when used as examples to enlighten consumers about how very different coffees can be from one another. I get that…you put a Harar on the table next to a bunch of washed coffees from Central America and it sticks out—way out—and provides a bit of an Ah-Ha moment for many people that have grown up on bland, stale coffees. That’s great. My objections only arise when I see coffees being put out in the front window, showcased as the star attraction, despite some pretty serious inconsistencies cup-to-cup. I’ll give you an example: when I was in Melbourne last year I went one morning to visit a very highly regarded specialty coffeehouse, excited to see it and thirsty for some delicious coffee. I got there and there was only one coffee on offer: a natural Ethiopian that also happened to be (relatively speaking of course) very expensive. I ordered a cup, took a sip, and almost spit it out. It was just gross. Baby-diaper, ethanol, rot…you name it and this cup had it. I couldn’t even drink it despite my very palpable desire for more caffeine. Now I’m not trying to pick on anyone, and I’ve had other coffees from this roaster that were quite nice. But man was I bummed. And this isn’t an isolated experience—I’ve had similar experiences at other shops.
    In recent years naturals have been all the rage at the SCAA Coffee pavilion (the competition that uses brewed coffees, not the cupping competition…naturals do not, as Tom pointed out, do very well in competitions where cupping is the protocol). I believe Ethiopian naturals have taken first place in consecutive years. Philip said it well in his post:
    “Customers often find them more approachable, and their uniqueness easier to identify than many (not all) great washed coffees. These coffees are ones that at tastings get customers excited because fruit, spice, and creamy body are so forward as to make then easily identifiable.”
    Consumers do indeed gravitate towards them, largely because they are different and stand out so vividly from the other coffees they are being compared with. They are easy to latch on to. Does that make them good? Not necessarily. Nor does it make them bad. Many coffee lovers developed their first interest in Specialty coffee through Sumatran coffees, which stand out in many of the same ways that naturals do. I include myself in that group—the first coffees I really began to appreciate were wet-hulled Sumatrans, followed by natural Harars (RIP Mr. Ogsadey, your work will always be remembered!) and although my taste preferences have since evolved in a different direction I still remember the days when they were my favorite coffees we carried. Many of the cuppers I know and respect have similar stories, and have followed a very similar path with regards to their development as tasters and coffee professionals. I relate this only to explain that I do understand very well the ‘gateway’ theory and can appreciate the effectiveness of loud, in-your-face coffees in providing a powerful introduction to Specialty. And actually there are many people I work with at Intelligentsia who love naturals, and that doesn’t bother me in the least. We are a no-discrimination employer ;)

    I’m rambling now, but my point is simply this: I do think we need to be responsible in thinking about what it is we are encouraging people new to Specialty to appreciate, and it is important to think about what sorts of messages we are sending. Given the things I’ve explained about risk as it relates to farmer strategy, it does seem warranted that we think through all of the implications when we decide how we want to lead people into the amazing world of Specialty coffees. James made my point well for me when he brought up the Geisha example…there are a lot of farmers out there planting Geisha right now all over Latin America, but not all of them will have the success that the Peterson family have enjoyed. A good percentage of these farmers will probably not find the benefit they were hoping for, because the coffees won’t perform as well in their farms as they do at Esmeralda. It is a very low-yielding variety, and not a very sturdy one. So if the flavor profile doesn’t reach the same glorious heights that the Esmeralda Geisha does, these farmers will have less coffee to sell and will have gambled and lost, possibly with devastating consequences.

    Anyway, it is extremely unlikely that you will ever find me carrying the flag for naturals, about as unlikely as running into me at a Celine Dion concert. I’m not a big fan, I think that much at least is clear. But I’m not gonna hate on you for liking them. I might tease you from time to time. But don’t let that discourage you…

    Stuart: “Disclaimer: natural Ethiopians have been some of my favourite coffees. Sorry Geoff”

    No need to apologize Stuart!

    Much love,

    geoff

  31. Thanks Peter G and Geoff! Obviously something about the “naturals debate” greatly intrigues people, and thus the debate reappears every few years, again with Geoff and Peter G giving rich, colorful and evolved elaborations on thoughts and experiences. I can’t wait to read them when we are all ready to move into deeper topics; you make me infinitely optimistic that the day will indeed come.

    What a week to be in Addis, Geoff! Good luck! Much love.

    (I typed a longer reply with a bit of actual content and then lost it, three times; I’ll blame the cold virus I have. Now I have to run!)

  32. Great discussion. There is a lot going on and I am enjoying all of it.

    I think the key point here (for me) is that if we ‘over hype’ naturals, then there will be farmers who could be wrecking a potentially awesome coffee. This could be detrimental to their whole operation. Encouraging the farms to produce the best possible product, for the lowest effort and cost (for them), is what will help make a sustainable business model. Farming is a business, not a charity. They need to realize the limitations their operations have, and not blindly jump on the ‘Dry Process Train’. Granted, this does not mean that everyone who has done something a specific way, for long periods of time, should always continue to do so – of course not! But that point has been made already.

    I can also appreciate what Ms. Tucek has said about the potential profit. Every day across the globe there are people risking everything in hopes of making a better life for themselves. It can be noble and commendable to ‘risk it all’. However, it would not be wise for me to risk everything to be a rock star guitarist without having played one in years. Same thing goes for coffee. A whole lot of what makes up ‘greatness’, is in the preparation for years beforehand. The things nobody has seen, and perhaps never will. I think Mr. Watts brings this point out nicely in his reference to Mr. Bagersh.

    I agree with Kurt: Fanatical Obsession with ____ (fill in the blank) is probably not healthy.

  33. Well! An enjoyable debate. I agree, Peter L., that we should do this kind of thing more often, and not always on the identical subject!

    As usual in these debates, we find ourselves agreeing on many of the big issues. James’ final commentary at the beginning is spot-on and important to remember- that polarizing ourselves (naturals are bad, naturals are great, washed coffees are boring, washed coffees are sublime) is the danger here and that moderation is key to happiness. A number of folks here have recognized the tendency of some fringes in our industry to get hyped up, lionizing or demonizing something or other: fair trade or catimor or tamping or no tamping…. but the reality of course is that very rarely is it that the world appears in black or white, and the joy is in distinguishing both shades of grey and the varied colors of our world.

    So, you’ll notice that there is much agreement here: all seem to stipulate that a blind obsession with naturals is indeed unhealthy (which was Geoff’s point originally), and that the kind of naturals produced by artisans like Bagersh and Batlle are indeed glorious and worth celebrating.

    All that agreement out of the way, let’s get back to the debating. A few of my points seem to have caused some controversy, and I’d love to clear some things up:

    On Tradition: My reference to tradition seems to have raised some hackles. (Pat Robertson? Really?) The reason I brought up tradition at all was that some of the commentators seem to regard natural-process coffees as a kind of fad- the words “trend” and “novelty” have been used often in these debates. My point is that getting excited about extraordinary naturals is not at all new- the cups of coffee that inspired tributes from Bach and Voltaire were naturals. There is nothing new about well-crafted dry-process coffee; there is no fad here. Take Bagersh’s coffees- which have received so much attention. His goal when creating these coffees was not to do something new, it was to rediscover the coffee-production techniques and delicious flavors of his grandparent’s generation, which had been extinguished in Yirgacheffe by the advent, popularity, and enforcement of washing stations. Do we really think this has the hallmarks of a fad? (the new fixies? jeez.) Neither newness or oldness equal goodness or badness, as we all agree: traditions can be terrible or wonderful. I just don’t think it’s a good idea to try to marginalize naturals by calling them a fad.

    On Risk: The tried-and-true argument against naturals is that they are inherently more risky for the farmer. James is indeed correct that most coffee farmers regard coffee preparation as an expedient; an entirely practical matter. It strikes me, however, that when we’re talking about the coffees that people are getting really excited about- the Idido/Aricha and the Beloya and the Mauritania Pasa and the like- that these are coffees crafted by producers who understand the flavor implications and are embracing them. These farmers understand that rot is a risk and have taken simple steps to mitigate those risks- drying tables, watching the weather, covered drying. Now, I would agree that great naturals require attention- but great washed coffees require attention too. There is a notion in some quarters that natural-processing is a kind of russian roulette, and that a simple twist of fate can turn an entire crop of naturals to shit. I think this fear is slightly overblown. Natural-processing, when done according to good practices, is reproducible and, yes, consistent, particularly in places (and there are a number of them) with clearly-defined wet and dry seasons. Anyway, risk is a funny thing: it’s difficult to assess, and the dynamics of risk and reward are the very fuel of economics, which people devote their whole careers to studying. You could make a very effective argument (and farmers have) that waiting for cherries to ripen fully introduces risk: a rainstorm might arrive, splitting the cherries; a neighbor might steal the ripe cherries before they’re picked; the extra labor cost required to pick ripe-only introduces financial risk. Nobody here would argue, however, against taking this risk.

    So, Geoff makes a very effective point, telling the stories of Abdullah and Aida and explaining that they were uniquely positioned to go out on a limb to produce naturals. Geoff and James both point out a very important point- that asking farmers, particularly poor ones, to assume the risks of satisfying our curiosity is not appropriate. Perhaps I am missing something here, but I just don’t see farmers taking their 88-scoring washed coffees and converting to natural process, producing baby diapers, and losing it all. What I see is millers experimenting with a variety of processes, exploring market and flavor diversity. I see that as mitigating risk, not exacerbating it. I don’t see a craze of natural-process coffees leading farmers to risk it all and lose out, I see delicious coffees being introduced and embraced for what they are- a legitimate exploration of style and craft.

    On Flavor: Ultimately, I think a lot of this whole argument comes down to preference, and de gustibus non disputatum est, after all. Geoff and I may just have to disagree whether natural processing highlights terroir and variety or hides it, I suppose it comes down to what one thinks coffee flavor is supposed to be.

    Now, I sympathize with Geoff’s experience, ordering an expensive and celebrated natural and finding it disgusting. Unfortunately, we all have this experience way too often, and not just with naturals. Ashy, fishy dark roasts; past croppish Nicaraguans, weak, overextracted coffees are all too common all over the place. However, in these cases, we understand that bad roasting, bad storage, and bad brewing are to blame; we don’t blame roasting, storage, or brewing themselves for the problem. In this vein, I say that indeed bad naturals are a problem. But it is badness that is the problem, not the process itself.

    Last, it’s entirely defensible to say “I don’t like the flavor of naturals, good or bad.” We all make choices about what we choose to drink or choose to roast, and those choices reflect our personality and values. That’s a wonderful thing, and as we passionately defend our own preferences, we must at the end recognize that they are indeed our preferences. We should be careful, however, about defending our preferences with logic, since preferences aren’t about logic- they are about heart. As much as I would like to, I can’t find any logical way to prove that Celine Dion’s music is terrible. I may disagree with Geoff’s assertions about risk, and varietal/terroir transparency, and trendiness, but I respect his opinion as a taste professional and I admire the stand he chooses to take on the matter.

    With respect and affection,

    Peter G

  34. Three or four have more or less agreed to the first comment: “things I hope become historical footnotes: the near-fanatical obsession with ____________ (fill in the blank).”

    As I’m fanatically obsessed with washed coffees, I will disagree. I won’t use coffee as my example, but will try to avoid repeating this for a century ;)

    If society attempted to purge itself of fanatical obsessors (new word), then we might see some Beethovens and Charles Nashs of the world become homeless. Isaac Newton might have eaten the apple before he dropped it. Maybe Gandhi would have gone on to become India’s most prestigious lawyer.

    Perhaps there are simply a couple lines obsessors should try not to cross: being a danger to themselves or others, and unsound thinking (Natural coffees are the best coffees to promote, simply because the cup I had yesterday smelled like strawberry chocolate).

    I’d agree that friends and family should try to round-off an obsessor’s tendencies early on. But short of human genetic modifications and living in a strange utopia… some tolerance would be nice. Probably everyone here is nice in real-life, but I can’t be sure… people be crazy.

  35. This debate is excellent because:
    1. Participants are thick skinned enough to hang in there and make their points, which is rare. Lesser folks would have said “take a leap,” and nothing would have been accomplished. We are fortunate to be in such good company.
    2. It is illustrative of many aspects of our industry. Should people be encouraged by “near fanatical obsession” to spend $12,000 on an espresso machine, or $100,000 on a roaster, or $500,000 on a cafe build-out just because the rare few in selected markets have had success with them?
    3. The fact that there is such lively discussion is why we are in this business to begin with. If everything was all figured out and presumed, what fun would that be? If I wanted static product, ideas, methods, I would go work for a Fortune 500 company. Better pay but where’s the fun in that?
    4. This debate will be around for the next 50 years. Its a big world.

    Great posts. Stimulating. Controversial. Educational. Exciting. We want more!!!

  36. Geoff,
    Appreciate the clarification on your position vis a vis naturals. The Harars, Yemenis, Nayarits, et. al. do indeed serve a purpose in consumer education as a first rung, especially for shops like ours that serve a lot of un/underdeveloped palates where customers are often just starting their journey into origins and learning that “it’s not just coffee”. Peter L might disagree with that (as noted above) and we’re open to other suggestions, but we’ve had success in using naturals to get people to move up the ladder to 85+ washed, especially if they’ve historically been french roast drinkers.

    I think most here would agree that like you, the coffees they first fell in love with are distant memories, replaced by a new sweetheart (and another, and another with each new harvest). It’s bound to happen as we get more experienced and our tastes develop. We’re privileged to be way ahead of most of our customers on that journey and you are about a light year ahead of us. We appreciate that you recall your own experiences in threads like this as it helps us chart and validate our own course towards greater appreciation and development – and to understand that for us and our customers, that doesn’t happen overnight.

  37. FWIW, I meant John Nash… not Charles Nash

  38. Dang-it, Peter G, I had written a nice little “black and white vs. full-color” paragraph too! :-P
    Identifying myself still primarily as a barista-retailer, but now working with Trish to build a new roasting company, I’m very torn. In fact, this issue came up just a couple weeks ago after a long day of cupping for purchase.
    There was a nice Sidamo that was clearly great quality. As a representative of the origin, it was stellar. That’s something we’d want to highlight by presenting it, right? A stellar representative of an origin, in this case, Sidamo? Trish and I both stood there staring at each other, not knowing what to do.

    In my mind, a flood of memories and thoughts flew by: The time I tasted Counter Culture’s first I.M.V. roast, when I immediately called Peter G and flipped out about the perfect balance of natural fruitiness and Yirgacheffe character (Peter quickly credited Tim Hill for working so hard at roasting for that balance). Trish telling me a story years ago about cupping a couple tables of natural Sidamos and Harrars and literally wanting to vomit from all the fruity funk. Baristas whom I absolutely love and adore, waxing poetic about their love for fruit-bomb naturals, and the unsettled dismay on their faces when I’ve told them that I was personally “over them.” Daniel Remheden of Sweden, rockin’ an Aricha at the WBC in Copenhagen.

    But as I’m trying to do more these days, I started focusing on my experiences around actual consumers. I’m not talking about the coffee enthusiasts out there, I’m talking about the “average” consumer who can recognize quality but doesn’t care about debates. These are the folks who I’ve thought of as our core customers.

    In my experience, these folks don’t really care for tooty-fruity coffees (whether on rooty or not).

    They “get” the greatness of El Salvador Finca Mauritania. They “get” how awesome Guatemala Finca La Soledad is. Badass Yirgacheffes? They’re ALL OVER that.

    But serve them a fruity Harrar, or a super-tomatoey Kenya Mamuto (which I LOVED), or a freaky La Esmeralda Special (which I LOVED)… they tend to be gracious in their initial feedback, but it’s been fairly clear to me that these edgy coffees are perhaps too edgy and that they’re as alienating as they are interesting.

    Education is great. Making customers happy is great too… maybe greater.

    Still don’t know about that Harrar. Anyway, just my two cents.

  39. Great comments all around. Thanks to all. I’m learning lots.

    I just wanted to take issue with Geoff’s suggestion that mature cuppers will gradually outgrow their fascination with naturals (I’m taking liberties here). It will prolly come as no surprise to find out that I’m only three years into the coffee game, but I think this sounds a bit . . . well, prissy. It’s like saying Herman Melville is a gateway writer, but good readers will inevitably come to bow at the altar of Henry James. Preposterous! Sure, Moby Dick has actual mistakes in it (stage directions? really?), and the chapters on cetology are a bit monotonous, but the bottom line is that the book rocks. I like to read Henry James sometimes, too–the subtlety, the astute psychological portraiture, the technical virtuosity. He’s really good. But sometimes Ijust think that James is an an elitist pussy, you know? Not a super parallel, as I understand that the physiological aspects of cupping make it quite a bit different than other forms of “taste,” but you get my drift. You like aged gouda, I like stilton. You like French Bordeaux, I like South African Pinotage. Or Sauternes! Talk about the risks and rewards of rot.

    Actually, I probably just should have stuck to Geoff’s own artistic references. Peter Tosh or Celine Dion–who is the washed, and who is the natural? God, Celine is a tart and citric Yirg if there ever was one, lol!

  40. Everything about this discussion is why i love this industry. Thank you gentlemen for your thoughts, your carefully chosen words and sharing your knowledge and passion with everyone.

  41. Happy to contribute.

    Matt, please don’t ever compare Yirgacheffe coffees to Celine Dion again. That is just so unfair to the Yirgs, they deserve better than that :)

    And do I agree with you that drawing parallels between physiological sensory experience and psychological experience is somewhat tricky. Things like smell and taste tend to activate the more primitive parts of our brain, and register in much different ways than, say, the impressions we take from reading a book. Although surely there is some overlap, all this stuff seems to be connected.

    Anyway, I’ve never read Melville or James. Do kinda like Philip Dick just as much as I like Neal Stephenson though.

    And though I don’t really care, I will point out that saying things like ‘prissy’ and ‘elitist pussy’ is exactly the kind of bullshit that people who take these dialogues seriously and prefer to deal with one another in an extremely civil manner tend to dismiss. If you want your opinions to be considered I would recommend trying to be more polite, otherwise you may find people unwilling to engage with you.

    I’m just sayin…

    g

  42. I tend to think that what you, Mr. Cho, are speaking about does have some merit.

    In my experience this is true. I will qualify, however, that it tends to be be true with customers who have been drinking there coffee black for many years. Newcomers to coffee in general; Or those who have always had to drink their coffee with cream and sugar (etc.), are the ones who gravitate towards the naturals.

    Anyone else have experience with that?

  43. Geoff–

    Sorry. Didn’t mean to offend. I prolly shouldn’t use such terminology, but if you were to read James, you might come to the same conclusion–so and so doesn’t invite X to dinner because his lapels aren’t buttoned, etc. Sometimes it just comes off as overly precious. And I hoped I made it clear that the analogy was about coffee, not coffee tasters (i.e. you): Melville is to naturals as James is to washed.

    The “prissy” comment was directed to your own reactions to naturals, though–mea culpa. I just find curious the assumption that the evolution of one’s buds leads to washed coffees. Even though I KNOW why people like James–I can identify most of what makes him great–I still often reach for Melville, warts and all. I could be wrong–lord knows my tastes in lots have things have evolved over the years–and I guess I wouldn’t be surprised if I become more sensitive to “taint”–whatever that means–myself as my skills improve (I’ve certainly had gross naturals), but there’s something about your suggested trajectory of taste that I’m not sure computes, and wouldn’t seem to translate to other “specialty” realms. Scotch pros often prize islay malts for their oily texture and wierd, “natural/defect”-like, over-the-top notes of salty peat and iodine. They may not be everyone’s cuppa, but there would never be a suggestion that the more floral and delicate highland malts are the better expression, or that a good taster might start with Lagavulin but will inevitably end up at Glenmorangie. If anything, it works the other way–newbie whisky sippers have trouble getting a handle on the iodine. But, of course, coffee is coffee, and not booze.

    And I do understand your stuff about risk, though, which is prolly the most important thing. I do think we all need to be more mindful of how our own preferences and interests influence and affect the chain, making sure that folks at origin don’t somehow end up getting screwed because of our infatuation with berry bombs.

    Thanks for indulging me. Cheers.

  44. I think the words “washed” and “clean” are misleading. They have long been cultivating logical leaps about flavor and quality. Perhaps the same could be said for the word “natural”; which I believe is the better word strictly from a marketing viewpoint.

    Suppose you just want something that tastes good, and someone whom you really want to trust offers you the choice between an opaque container of “washed strawberries” and “natural strawberries”, which would you pick? “Washed music” or “Natural music”? “Washed literature” or “Natural literature”? The sheer idea of good coffee perhaps strikes some of the more “rugged” sentimentalities in Americans.

    Is that a problem? Is there a solution?

    Regarding “gateway coffees”.
    Let’s pretend that an old-timer Marylander enters my hypothetical (and perfect, tee hee) shop and asks if we have a Colombian French Roast that isn’t too expensive. “I’m sorry. Colombians are out of season, like crabs and the Skins.”

    “Well, what do you have? Nothing fancy.”

    No fear! Fore, I’m secretly a brutal coffee discriminator. I know every bean that my roaster(s) offers, inside and out. I know them so well that I can brew them weaker backwards and still have it taste awesome. I just so happen to have a microlot right now that is so “clean” and with such great terroir that it’s like rugged sex. Not to mention the smooth Coca-Cola base flavor. Who dislikes Coca-Cola and sex? I also know this coffee’s specific story and agronomy, in case he shows interest. He has no idea about the fancy treat he’s in for. He’ll probably enjoy it either way.

    “Ethiopian,” as I pourover. “If you drink it black, it often gets even better as it cools. I think this is way better than _____ down the street.”

    I can’t wait to tell him and his family more about this exciting washed coffee. Each customer is different.

  45. I want to open by noting how proud I am to be a member of a community where thoughtful dialog is so preferred over diatribe. As has been noted in other posts it is a testament to the quality of the players that they have largely focused on the issues, kept things in context and avoided the ad hominem attacks (except for poor Celine and Ms. Spears).

    In any event, this discourse sparks for me a larger question surrounding our ideas about quality. The meta question, is there such a thing as intrinsic quality, is one worth debating and one which can provide fodder for bloggers and coffee lovers everywhere. The more pragmatic question for me involves discovering the means by which we seem to be able to arrive at identifying quality in a variety of subjective, largely aesthetic arenas and embrace those concepts. For example, we have the music issue. Dion and Spears fans aside, most who appreciate music (of whatever genre) will have a list of archetypes of excellence that will be widely accepted. A passionate Beethoven fan may not appreciate Charlie Parker but can still acknowledge his unique achievements in jazz. Poetry Jam fans can embrace the timeless artistry of Yeats and the modern sensibilities of William Carlos Williams. In all cases, people with the inclination to seek out “best of class” exemplars in any aesthetic arena somehow manage to build catalogs of greatness that are largely embraced.

    How does this happen? How do we take clearly subjective judgments such as these and have the best rise to the top? In our little coffee world there may be some disagreement over the relative merits of naturals, but surely there are far more coffees where we all tend to agree than disagree. How many times have we seen scenarios like Cup of Excellence where the great coffees rise to the top for a broad cross section of tasters over and over again. Why?

    Would love to hear your thoughts (especially over a great glass of Bordeaux or Burgundy, I have some favorites) on this and how it relates to our appreciation of great coffee.

    Ric

  46. The seemingly common experience of “progressing” from one flavour profile to another and so on over time (“naturals as gateway coffee”) is something that I think is really interesting.

    I don’t know if it’s universal – but in my experience it’s consistent across everyone I’ve ever worked with / known.In many ways it seems to follow a path that could be described as “low acid” to “high acid” or from “funk” to “clean” (or along many other axises) but there definitely seems to be a pattern here.

    I think it would behoove us to try and understand this change in taste.
    Is it universal? If not, why and how?
    How does taste change – and what causes the changes in taste?
    What timelines are we talking about?
    Most importantly… is it something that is identical for coffee professionals AND coffee consumers?

    I think if we could understand how tastes change – and why they change – it would really help us better educate each other. More than that, if this applies to consumers, it could help us better serve our customers.

    And if it doesn’t apply to consumers – we may need to reconsider the coffees we buy; how we roast coffees; how we taste coffees; and how we interact with customers.

  47. I have found this debate a fantastic read. The fact that this has been such a civilized back and forth is a breath of fresh air. It makes for an environment that is non-hostile, if people are not careful someone may learn something! Rare air for sure. Nice.

    Over the past year and a half I have fortunate enough to be involved in a lot of cupping and trainings throughout East Africa but mostly in Rwanda where I am based. I have learned to step back from the table whenever naturals have been introduced, for fear of being spat on or worse. These have usually been trainings focused on specialty coffee from around the globe in countries that focus on washed, so of course naturals are introduced. Time and time again the cupping ends with a lengthy discussion on processing and a simpler version of the debate that is going on here. Which is great, for both me and the people involved.

    It is fascinating to witness the reactions of these cuppers who have never cupped Specialty Coffee from Ethiopia, Brazil, Indonesia, or well…..anywhere other than the country they live. Many have never cupped coffee from even their closest neighbors. The thing is though, that they can wrap their mind around most of the coffees and understand their desirability to people in the world. As long as they are washed that is. They slam the naturals for being fermented, moldy, and all around inconsistent from cup to cup. They punish the coffee beyond reason and are shocked to hear that these coffees sell for high prices and that consumers enjoy them, much less go out of their way to seek them out. They are amazed that these coffees are considered Specialty. These of course are people who have been trained to look for the cleanest, brightest and most lush and reward them for such. So, when they get a cup that is as fruit forward as a quality Sidamo or Harrar they knock it for what they have learned to label defective and poorly harvested or processed, in short, ordinary. There is of course a huge difference between a natural done right or wrong, but these cuppers have a hard time differentiating the two. It makes for a great cupping experience for both them and me, after we mop up the coffee that they have spit out across the room and at each other.

    I have spent time explaining to them that the coffees that first reached out and grabbed my attention, my first big crushes in the world of high end coffees, were the very coffees that they were ripping apart on their cupping forms and in their conversations long after the coffees had cooled. They ask me if I still feel this same way about these natural coffees, and I tell them honestly that I don’t, but it’s more complicated than that isn’t it? I mean, I’m glad I’ve had the experience and glad that these cuppers have the chance to taste other coffees than their own. I really believe that it will make them better cuppers and strengthen the quality chain on this end of things. I think it is important for cuppers to experience single origins that are not from a “single” origin or country. A big part of making this happen involves putting coffees on the table that have been processed differently. I have really seen it engage people in whole new ways, and I am glad about it.

    The longer I am involved in coffee, the more a fan of washed coffees I become. I enjoy tasting the best naturals but rarely can I stomach more than one cup. To add my two cents to the musical analogies going on….I am really glad that I have Slayer’s Reign In Blood in my collection, but I am also glad that it is under 30 minutes long. A great natural is like that for me. I can enjoy it for brief moment, get thrashed around a bit by how up front it all is, but I am not gonna slurp on it while I enjoy the entirety of Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians, while I revel in the piece and it’s many subtle shifts and layers. I would never make it. Most of these coffees are just too over the top to enjoy like that.

    I have seen first hand, how wet mills have changed the face (and quality) of coffee in Rwanda, and with the introduction of the eco-pulpers here, things are continuing to progress for the better. There is a long way to go of course, but I think things are moving in the right direction. When I moved here in 2008, I needed some persuading that Rwanda was any kind of contender in the world of Specialty Coffee. Since that time I have become friends with a lot of people who believe in the coffee here and have played their part in developing the market for Rwandan Coffee. I have tasted some stellar coffees, and I have been convinced. A lot of that has to do with the washed process. I know it’s not the same everywhere, and maybe it shouldn’t be, but it’s what I’ve experienced.

    Anyway, I have definitely rambled on for too long. When I started writing I just wanted to mention that I enjoyed the debate/conversation. I am clearly a bigger fan of washed coffees over all and I share the skepticism about the naturals boom, but it’s been good to read both sides here. I would like to thank Mr. Watts and Mr. Giulano both for their insight. There is a lot to think about.

  48. No Geoff and Peter, this debate is not academic. Nor, Ric, a meta question. What you gentlemen are debating is very important to growers and they have been carefully following this for the past few years.

    Growers are always striving to make their coffee desired by the roasters. As apples have survived evolutionarily by being tasty and dogs by being cute and loyal (the Botany of Desire) coffee growers survive by pleasing their customers. If the desire of the buyer is naturals, everyone goes to naturals. If the buyer wants ‘heritage’ coffees on ‘African drying beds’, we all switch to those coffees and that system – whether or not it is appropriate to our climate and culture.

    So, what is being debated here and elsewhere is being closely watched by growers. If you, the buying community, throw us growers a curve by talking natural and then buying washed, growers with limited resources who have just switched around to please your desire are going to be seriously hurt. Having heard the conversation, last year Daniel processed some Esmeralda Special ‘naturally’. Even he had to say “ugh”. Not a good idea.

    In summary, we growers are simple folk, so please keep the message about processing simple. Say what you mean and mean what you say and we will provide.

  49. Some interesting comments, and I can’t help weighing in just one more time.

    Mr. Peterson makes a good point, in that the communication to growers should be crystal-clear. There is a lot of stuff on the internet, and disseminated by agricultural extensionists, and NGOs, and Peace Corps Volunteers, and coffee buyers, who conflict with other coffee buyers…. it can get confusing. The best possible scenario is when there are clear best practices for washing, pulped-natural, natural, wet-hulling, etc.., clear cupping feedback, and clear rewards for those who do a great job. The best way for that to happen, in my opinion, is when a green buyer (roaster or importer) is fully committed and in communication with the farmer, and give that communication clearly and in person. It is no coincidence that the best naturals (and, it seems, the best washed coffees) are often produced by farmers with direct, long-term, supportive relationships with buyers. The buyer and farmer can investigate (doing an experiment on the climate and variety’s suitability to natural process, for example), figure out costs and prices, and make an informed decision. THAT’s the way you eliminate risk- direct communication and long-term stability. A single farm or co-op can produce washed, pulped natural, natural, wet-hulled, whatever from the same farm, which is cool! In Aida’s case, she produces the majority of Finca Mauritania as fully washed coffee (and constantly re-evaluates picking and washing strategies), smaller amounts of natural, pulped natural and tree-dried “pasa” process. All of us buyers who work with her support these experiments, commit to buying the results, and share the results with our customers. Some of these customers love the naturals, some love the washed, etc. The naturals are especially useful adding character to blends, and are a big reason why Aida’s Grand Reserve has been so incredibly spectacular lately.

    Ric, I hope that another discussion gets started somewhere on the idea of “intrinsic” flavor quality; there are a lot of interesting things to say on the matter. Here’s what I think: we human monkeys have evolved tastes to guide us to nutritious, safe food. We evolved an acute sense of acidity and the existence of different acids since all fruits have acids, and we are fruit-eaters. We evolved a sense of sweetness because ripe fruits, with more sugar, have more usable energy. We evolved a sense of umami/savory because umami indicates the presence of amino acids, therefore dietary protein. We evolved our love of sugar-browning and protein-browning when we learned to cook (our species exploded at the same time we invented cooking, read Catching Fire for more on that). We evolved a distaste for bitterness or spoiled tastes to keep us safe from poison fruits or spoiled ones.

    It seems logical, therefore, that any food that maximizes the tastes we have evolved to love (sweetness, fruit acidity, umami/savory, sugar/protein browning) and minimizes the tastes we have evolved to avoid (bitterness, spoiled/rotten, unripe sourness) would be intrinsically better than one that does not. A perfectly ripe peach is better than an unripe or overripe one, and our sense of taste is spot-on when determining perfect ripeness of peaches- amazingly good in fact.

    It gets harder as foods get more complex, and we can find exceptions, but this is the kernel. In coffee, bitterness is a conundrum: we adapt to love the bitterness (presumably because we like the effect of caffeine, which is itself bitter. Aged and fermented foods are another conundrum, they increase fruity and umami/savory characteristics, but may introduce spoiled flavors. This makes them controversial (smelly cheese, natto) and the subject of controversy, and perhaps difficult to place on the good-bad continuum. Molasses is sweet and full of sugar-browning, but has bitterness; wine is full of acidity, umami, and sweetness, has the action of alcohol going for it, but has off-putting flavors in there as well. These foods are therefore controversial or, in our normal parlance, “acquired tastes”.

    It should be no surprise, then, that natural coffees can be controversial. Lots of complexity there to compute. But perfectly ripe, perfectly dried, fresh-tasting naturals appeal to lots of folks- even Mr. Watts has given props to the greatest of them!

    Great coffee is great because it tastes great, and as we focus on our human instrument of taste, and really open ourselves to great flavors even as we sensitize ourselves to bad ones, we discover the true universality of great flavor.

    Peter G

  50. My family grows coffee on the Santa Ana volcano in El Salvador. I have a personal experience with the naturals that I thought might be interesting from a first hand perspective. We started processing and roasting our own coffee about eight years ago. Five years ago we setup a roastery in the US. Once the US roastery was opened I recieved many comments and requests from both customers and employees for a coffee similar to a “fruity African coffee”. Thus began our journey into dry processing our coffee.

    It was upon the request of our US roastery that our micro mill on the farm took the risk of dry processing some coffee. As we did not have any other market for it in El Salvador the decision was made that the only fair way to manage the risk was for the US roastery to agree to buy all the coffee that was requested to be processed naturally no matter what the cup quality ended up being. If the mill took on the responsibility, and the cup ended up bad, then it would end up having to be sold at a potential loss. However the US roastery could blend it and sell it at a profit, although smaller, to its high volume low price segments of it’s business.

    We started out with a few small batches assuming we would make mistakes. So needless to say we have had some mistakes, some bad and some just different. For example, last year we realized the impact of leaving the coffee in pergamino longer made a very big difference on the sugar content and the fruitiness of the coffee. We dry milled some of the naturals only weeks after being harvested and we also dry milled some a few months after it was harvested. The naturals that were left in pergamino for a few months, continued to absorb the sugars and ended up being much fruitier. Although the natural coffees continue to be a small percentage of our total volume, for us it has had a very positive effect. It has greatly helped our roastery with our espresso blends, something difficult as it is a “single estate espresso blend”. We have also been able to amplify our offerings and capture a segment of the market we previously were not. On the green bean side, this past year it finally helped us open the door and start relationships with a number of new roasters in the US. Personally I am not a very big fan of naturals and as drip or french press I think a washed or semi-washed coffee is much better than any natural I have ever had. However I think our espresso has greatly improved with the addition of the natural.

    To me the risk we have taken is at the core of the entrepreneurial spirit; the willingness to risk failure with the hope of a greater return. Mitigated risk can help the industry change and become more prosperous. Irresponsible, unmitigated risk is unproductive and just plain dangerous for those involved. In my experience and understanding, normally the transaction is made between the mill/exporter and the importer/roaster. The risk is not bared by the farmer normally. With that said, my experience is a bit restricted to El Salvador and the other people posting here might feel differently. The reality is a financially successful mill and/or exporter has to be able to manage the risks of the market. You don’t buy until you have a buyer. A mill should not buy coffee that it doesn’t have a buyer for in the same way a roaster should not buy coffee it does not have a customer for. The same rules apply in the financial world of Wall Street as they do in small business. Do not put all your eggs in one basket, diversify, and only take as much risk as your wallet can afford. No mill should ever accept to try something completely new at the request of a customer/roaster if they do not feel the risk justifies the potential benefit. Lastly about risk, as long as the mill, or farmer if that is the case, makes sure they have a guaranteed buyer, processing coffee in different methods has a temporary effect. If it is bad they can chose to not process it that way the following year. To me one of the more damaging effects of the fickle US market on the farmers is the push to have farmers change to new varietals, like Geisha, which can have an impact lasting many years; maybe good or maybe bad but definitely more risky. A least the risk with processing is short term if the current trend reverses at some point.

    JAG III

  51. As it becomes a bit more fleshed out, rather than the original “decree royale,” sans trumpets, I think I understand the naturals comment of GW to reference the experimentation of small farms that produce nice washed coffees, and the desire to experiment with other processes. Right? Because if someone is trying to tell the Yemenis not to produce naturals, 15 minutes in Sana will change your mind on that… It would be a lot easier to read all this if people cited some negative examples, but I guess that is not kosher. GW: did I miss it, or do you say exactly when and where and with whom you have seen this dangerous trend toward naturals? I know you find the scale of Bagersh coffees frightening, right? was that part of it, some idea that many excellent coffees that could be washed are being dried in the skin? Anyway, coffee is an export cash crop produced for us, the buyer and consumer, and be it slightly imperialistic, we determine what kind of product we want. You vote with your money, which way you want things to trend. Of course, my vote means a lot less than some others here, and we all mean less than the big people in coffee, since money talks. It’s not a meritocracy where those more logical or more well-meaning have more say. Our experience is a sliver of the industry as a whole. Two particular cuppings shook me from my little coffea hobbit-hole: cupping for a day the late harvest Harar lots as they came in for auction that day, and a cupping of all the day lots at a coop warehouse in Brazil. In both those cases, I had the chance to look at everything brought to market, all, totally unvetted, and if either of those were my permanent coffee job, I would switch to tea asap. The amount of mold and rot in these coffees was so foul, it makes an indellable impression, or maybe a kind of “taste memory trauma” to be more exact, of how quickly wine and chocolate turn to garbage heap shit pile. But I could have the same experience cupping triage washed coffees, and have come close to those same vomit flavors (but admittedly not as close). I take GW concern in a broader sense. I am scared of coffee farmers being too connected to buyers, or more precisely to the whims of any particular buyer. I hope farmers have an ability to be suspicious of the advice of any single buyer, myself included (in fact, myself in particular!) and to acknowledge the fundamental difference between the retail and producer side of the supply chain. In processing coffee for sale, we deal with a homogenized product in fairly straightforward mechanical processes. They deal with plant material and weather and, yes, machines too. But I can make changes to my roaster daily, to my menu weekly, to my list of offerings, to my line of products, my location …and I can do it on a whim. You can’t move a coffee farm, or change your regional climate, and it takes 5 years to harvest new cultivars, etc. When producers start to have web sites, and they produce multiple products from the same material (nautrals, PNs, Demucilaged, washed….) they are doing some of the things they can do to market and connect with buyers. Each of us decides how we feel about this – GW doesn’t go there, PG does, okay… If you don’t want Panama naturals, don’t buy them. What are we supposed to do, form an action committee and lobby against naturals from traditionally washed areas? I mean, many people have touched in it here, but pick an easier target: wet-hulled coffees. Just go shine a UV light on your wet-hull Sulawesi and you will see what I mean; defective coffee we accept because this market demands variety, because we want coffees to taste different. Oh crap, nevermind.

  52. No single doubt I have too drink more than one cup of good coffee,…… I already drink three; one of washed, one of honey and one of natural, then I’m ready to answer these questions or give my farmers comment at this beautiful debate.
    We had been working with different processing methods the last five years, as an organic farmer our main concern was focus in the environment, also because the unique biodiversity of our farm (proud neighbors of La Esmeralda,) in Boquete with 100has of pristine forest above our coffee plantation. In 2003, all our crop was processed and exported as washed coffee both Los Lajones Estate and Emporium Estate(Doña Berta before), it was one container of specialty coffee, today all our crop is processed as microlots of honey’s and naturals. No more washed coffee……..everybody told me you’re killing your coffee……you’re crazy, naturals are only from Africa and brazil…..honey coffee that’s the same that pulped natural or semi wash……..you’re spoiling the consistency of your Los Lajones washed cup profile, all those people and friends push me, to began to work in a network with a team of well educated farmers in different countries, traveling to Ethiopia, Brazil, Hawaii, Colombia, all Central America and the Caribbean, been in the market visiting you guys, took me five years to take the risk and the challenge to change my mind !!! NO MORE WATER IN MY COFFEE PROCESS.
    Today besides Panama, we consolidated a business alliance with four specialty coffee farms from Panama, (where you’ll find today more than 10 farmers producing Honeys and Naturals) and with 100 small farmers from Chalatenango and 30 well known specialty coffee farms including, the cup of excellence winner from 2009, working in a serious program to produce Honey Coffee and Natural Coffee micro lots in adapted African drying beds. Also three more countries have already non commercial trials going on. Right now half of these coffees are already in storage and half in their processing time. All these coffees had been produce, measuring from the harvesting time, brix grades, cherry color quality controls, temperature, hours from harvest to process; in the pulping and drying process, temperature, % humidity at the beans, relative humidity environment, sun radiation. It’s the first time in the history of the coffee industry, that this amount of farmers are willing to change for a common objective, decrease our processing cost, develop a scientific base (data base) to produce high quality honeys or naturals, and the most important avoid the use of any water in our coffee processing practices or any energy drying the coffee besides sun drying in African beds. All these information will be on the web in two more weeks, we are not selecting good high quality coffees we are developing them!!!!
    I really address all of you, to read this scientific article just publish Jan. 10th, 2010, (fresh) done in Costa Rica, which I consider one of the most technical advance coffee origins, where environment had been an important issue for the coffee industry, there are some scientific good reason for taking a chance to change, this big change in the industry have to be at the origins, from the farmers; Price in many points I’m agree with you and we have to listen the market as a farmer, but the specialty market are the importers and the roasters, that was second wave, then we began to listen the baristas and cupping experts, that was the third wave, but for the benefit of everybody, it is about time that farmers in one extreme of the coffee chain, the importers, roasters, baristas and final customers (coffee drinkers) listen to each other, the four wave already start with some farmers telling the market some real scientific facts, which the only ones taking or developing the real on site choices to make it happens are the coffee farmers at their farms.
    “Measuring and Managing the Environmental Cost of Coffee Production in Latin America”
    Victor Julio Chavez Arce1, Raul Raudales2, Rich Trubey2, David I King3, Richard B Chandler4, Carlin C Chandler4
1 Cooperative Montes de Oro and MDI/Montes de Oro Research and Training Center Mirimar, Costa Rica
2 Mesoamerican Development Institute, Lowell, MA, USA
3 Northern Research Station, USDA Forest Service, Amherst, MA, USA
4 Department of Natural Resources Conservation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA, USA

Correspondence Address:
David I King
Northern Research Station, USDA Forest Service, Amherst, MA 
USA. web publication: Jan. 10 2010.
    “ENERGY IN THE COFFEE PROCESSING
    The majority of coffee in Costa Rica is dried using electricity and firewood (ICAFE 2006). Conventional coffee drying consumes on an average 12.5 kWh of electricity and 0.07 cu. m of firewood, per 100 lbs of green coffee (ICAFE 2006). Assuming a net export of 203,244,004 lbs of green coffee annually (ICAFE 2007) and the rates of electrical energy consumption from [Table 1], coffee drying in Costa Rica consumes on the order of 25,405,000 kWh of electricity (enough to power a community in Costa Rica of some 13,534 people [UNDP 2007]).
    In addition to electrical energy, coffee drying in Costa Rica consumes approximately 142,268 cu. m of wood per year. Based on an extrapolation of the amount of fuel wood consumed for the drying process (ICAFE 2006), we estimate that throughout Mesoamerica, approximately 6,509 hectares of forest are cut to supply the firewood used to dry the coffee harvest each year. This is roughly equivalent to 3 sq. cm of wood per cup of coffee. Thus, reducing the amount of wood used for drying coffee could make a significant contribution to tropical forest conservation.
    USE OF WATER
    Conventional coffee processing uses large quantities of water to remove the outer pulp and mucilage and transport the waste products. On an average, these processes use between 1,000-2,000 liters of water per 100 lbs of green coffee (ICAFE 2006). This differs from the conventional “washed coffee” in which the pulp is removed mechanically and the coffee is fermented in concrete tanks to remove the mucilage. Using the semi-washed process the cooperative at Montes de Oro has reduced its water consumption to about 36 liters of water per 100 lbs of green coffee, an over 90% reduction of water consumption. ”

    My own analysis, If we calculate that 2007 world coffee production was 127 millions bags, base on ICO reports. We could assume really conservative way that 50%(66.5 million bags or 83.82 million bags of 100 pounds of green beans)of that coffee was washed coffee, then we will have that in 2007 the coffee farmers, millers and exporters at the origins polluted or used (conventional washed coffee) approx. 83,820,000,000 liters of water, surprise?… more than 83 billions liters of water a year. But let’s said we use eco-mills, that will means 3.017 billions of use or waste water still from the coffee industry at origins, every year.
    The other main factor is the energy use at the mechanical drying of the coffee ( guardiolas), not only using electrical energy or fossil fuels, even worse using wood, well the numbers are above, you guys could make your own calculations.

    We had been working in coffee processing development for the last 5 years, I’ll give you my real scientific facts to been a changed farmer, a fourth generation wave element. as Geoff and Peter asked and also put their clear honest opinion about how differentiate “farmers test” vrs “research institutions” studies and developments base in all of your comments and opinions, and the respect that I have for friends and teachers as I consider many of you because each time we talked I learned something new. Institutional Research at most of the origin producing countries takes years and a lot of money to be transfer and implemented by the farmers, besides must of the research in coffee now days still base on plant pathology and increasing yields, not exactly in improving the quality as Geoff, Peter, Price, Willem, David, George H., Wendy, Dwayne, and many other coffee friends in all sides of the industry have wanted, including myself here. Those are some of the reasons that farmers we have to develop our own research, together with the roasters and baristas, research that could be implemented in real bases, and make a truth change at the industry, giving the consumer a main real story, the four wave is becoming so big that will need from all of us working together, to develop more coffee science for the specialty market.
    To end this long comment, we begin to develop 5 years ago the first test to produce Honey Coffee, coffee process with out water, pulping without water, (the cherries need to be really ripe), using and modify African drying beds from Ethiopians farmers and millers, to avoid and reduce the cost of energy during the drying process. This system makes you to work with small lots in the beds, easy to control micro lots, perfect for remote areas with out water and no energy. No need of high investment in mills. No need to invest in costly drying patios.
    Difference with Pulped Naturals is that this system was made for volume production (massive picking), designed to produce containers of coffee, pulped and move to the patios with water must of the time. Pre dried in the patios, I ask if any of you had try to manage more than 10 micro lots of coffee in the same patio, it could became a disaster really easy. Must of the time the coffee finish dry stage is in big guardiolas, using a lot of energy. The must important they taste different than the Honeys.
    We became together with one more farm in Costa Rica the first producing and calling Honey Coffee or Honey Process to this new coffee type, it became with a different cup (some winners of cup of excellence in Costa Rica and in the Best of Panama, in the last years had been Honey Processed Coffees), so the quality consistency problem is becoming less a problem. Still many roaster don’t like naturals my own analysis again is that a lot of bad quality naturals are offer in the market, not because the process but mainly because bad harvesting culture, massive picking ( green, unripe, dry and ripe cherries all together), I could said with fear or mistaken that more than 80% of the coffee in the world is harvested in this way, “BAD”. We could find now days, many examples of unique natural specialty coffees from different regions of the world making names in the market, because their unique taste and quality, so it’s possible!
    Graciano

  53. “Water conservation at the wet mills is a must, and farmers are quickly learning how to recycle water and cut their usage to levels that are easily sustained. I’m a huge proponent of Eco-pulpers (demucilaging machines) that can reduce water needs to almost negligible amounts (by 40 times in many cases!). Those machines are getting better and cheaper and are absolutely going to become a standard in the future, I’m quite sure of this.”

    Western white man knows best. Please. How arrogant of us to tell others what they should be drinking and how to process and grow coffee.

    There are two arguments here. Are naturals good coffee to drink and second should they be processed this way at all. Both are moot points because the market has decided. I will continue to buy Naturals for my shop because they sell well and I like them and farmers will continue to process them this way because there is a market for them.

    Anyhow, Peter G has written well reasoned arguments which I whole heartedly agree with and will leave it at that. I am not interested in social engineering and will not dictate to a culture how and why they should grow/process coffee in a particular way to satisfy my conscience. My dollars will vote for me.

    Al

  54. Interesting post, Graciano. Thank you for your perspective.

    Al

  55. “Western white man knows best. Please. How arrogant of us to tell others what they should be drinking and how to process and grow coffee.”

    …..and then somebody walked into the room and made things ugly. No thanks.

    This has been a fantastic debate. A lot of great points have been made. Not everyone agrees here, but until now it has been incredibly respectful.

    “I will continue to buy Naturals for my shop because they sell well and I like them and farmers will continue to process them this way because there is a market for them.”

    I’m not entirely sure that anyone has stated the opinion that farmers should cease processing naturals entirely, only skepticism about encouraging farmers who don’t process naturals to begin doing so purely because of a current trend in the market. Certainly, many farmers will continue to process naturals, pulp-naturals, etc. Many don’t have a choice.

  56. Thanks all for such a civil, thought-provoking and insightful conversation. I can say I understand more about this now, and can see both sides. I am a fan of Naturals. The Beloya was the best coffee I’ve ever had. I got to try a natural Guat last year that tasted like Fruity Pebbles. I see it’s place. I understand everyone doesn’t care for them. But, I can now understand both the implications and value in them, mostly because of this post, so cheers all for healthy debate.

  57. Realize I’m very late to this party (found the blog via the link from Sprudge). Wonderful, high-caliber discussion from some great leaders in the industry.

    Having, unlike most buyers/”roastmasters” in the trade today, apprenticed with seasoned professional tasters who came from large, commercially-oriented firms I can say that the prejudice against naturals is something of a professional necessity when you are a cupper responsible for insuring the quality of hundreds or thousands of containers of coffee passing through your doors and out into the world of consumers. In the commercial, price-constrained coffee world tasting is all about avoiding defects – especially ferment and hardness, that cannot be disguised by roast or blended out.

    In my view – and experience – the preference for ever-more-refined and transparent washed coffee flavors is something that develops naturally over time for cuppers who taste a great deal of coffee professionally. It’s a rarefied conditioning process, but hardly unique. I’ll give an example at quite another end of the spectrum to illustrate what I mean. I remember George Howell coming to visit us at Starbucks around 1990 in conjunction with an SCAA conference. He was poorly received by some of my arrogant superiors at Starbucks but certainly not by me, as I regarded him as a mentor and role model of the highest order. George being George he was both appalled at the darkness of our roasts and respectful enough of our palates and success (and tenaciously inquisitive enough) that he went out and bought a half-pound of every coffee we sold on his way back to Boston and carefully cupped his way through them, tasting only coffees in that roast range for several days in order to habituate his palate to a radically different range of flavors and aromas. This is a long time ago so I don’t remember his exact words, but the gist of his comments was that to his surprise he could in fact readily tell all of the coffees apart once tuned in – though he still much preferred his classic full flavor roast. It should come as no surprise that Jerry Baldwin of Peet’s did much the same thing with Coffee Connection coffees, with great admiration.

    My point here is palate conditioning is a matter of access and habituation, and professional cuppers are a uniquely conditioned lot. In my view, that conditioning does not give us the right to ignore the interests of coffee consumers anymore than it gives us the right to not do right by farmers, and what I see in the coffee offerings of most of the so-called “third wave” roasters is an approach to retailing that at its worst is both solipsistic and narcissistic. A coffee menu that consists of nothing but manicured, costly washed coffees, many of them washed Centrals whose flavor differences are discernible by (and of interest to) primarily or perhaps ONLY professional tasters, to the exclusion of rugged Sumatras, fruity Yemens, aged Indonesians and the like, is the coffee equivalent of a beer menu consisting of nothing but IPA’s, or a wine bar offering only grand cru Alsatian rieslings.

    The fact of the matter is that the entire range of flavors found in coffee is pretty narrow compared to these other beverages, and eliminating naturals and semi-washed coffees from the lineup removes a whole universe of flavors coffee drinkers love. It is no accident that Sumatra (say what you will about mold and defects) has historically been the best-selling single origin coffee at places like Peets and Starbucks, nor is it a fluke that most consumers (not to mention retail employees) when they taste a truly great Ethiopian Harrar or Yemen Mocha, are gaga about the experience and find any other coffee boring and ordinary by comparison (I did a promotion at Starbucks that characterized Harrar as “the cure for the common coffee” – and it certainly can be – the fact that even a whiff of its aroma gives professional tasters, including me, nightmares, notwithstanding).

    It’s interesting to me that Geoff mentions Belgian lambics, because much if not most of the reason Belgium is considered by far the greatest beer producing nation has to do with wild yeasts and risky fermentation. Barnyardy Burgundies, brett yeasts in Beaucastel, the crushed-roses-in-freshly-laid-road-tar classic description of Piedmontese Nebbiolo, Alba white truffles or Porcini mushrooms – all cherished gustatory experiences that have everything in common with excellent natural and semi-washed coffees and reflect primal human appetites. Taking the aforementioned Burgundy and Barolo as cases it point, the reason these are considered by many to be the two finest red wines on the planet is precisely because of the haunting combination of fruit and funk, of refinement and earthiness, that they offer. Yemens and Harrars are exact equivalents, and with the decline of Kenyan quality are in fact the only coffees I would currently describe as being winey or vinous in nature.

    To be clear, it’s not that I think there is more than a tiny educated consumer base for any sort of coffee out there at this point. What there is is a massive base of people conditioned at a subconscious level to associate sophistication and high price if not “quality” with custom-made burnt coffee at the bottom of a half-liter cup of frothy milk, thanks to Starbucks and its many imitators. Having worked at Starbucks long before the installation of the first espresso machine in 1985 I can state with certainty that in Seattle and Portland (and doubtless Berkeley and San Francisco as well) there was a coffee culture of retail (only) consumers built up over the decades by Peets and Starbucks that knew and cared about seasonality and distinctions in the actual flavor of origin coffees – and that that base has basically been obliterated due to the introduction of espresso-based beverages into those stores, which has set back the cause of appreciation of actual coffee flavors (and, by extension, any market for extraordinary single origin coffees) by at least 20 years. It may be ungenerous of me, but I don’t think that trying to foist off $20 half-pounds of Panama Geisha or Salvador Pacamaras onto such consumers while telling them you can’t sell them a decent $12 pound of Sumatra or a $18 pound of coffee from its native lands processed in the most ancient way is much of a service either.

    It seems to me that if a coffee business is going to be driven by the taste buds of its buyer to the exclusion of consumer interest in reasonable prices (COE lots at $20-40 a pound don’t qualify, IMO) or a representative selection of flavors from all key regions they ought to have the courage of their convictions and deep six the espresso machine, which whatever its theoretical purpose is in practice a vehicle for ruining good coffee with milk and syrups, and replace it with a vacuum pot bar, since that brewing method is the only one the teases out all of the nuances of flavor and aroma of the preferred washed arabicas on offer. Ditch the milk and sugar while you’re at it and at last you have a coffee presentation that’s all of a piece. Sure it’ll only be in business for a week or two, but extremism in the pursuit of quality is no vice – right?

    In conclusion, I think roaster-retailers are responsible to all of the stakeholders in the coffee supply and consumption chain. The classic definition of a connoisseur is someone who can say “that’s very, very good – and I don’t like it,” and I think meeting that definition and having it reflected in a coffee lineup that honors coffee in all its forms and remembers that it is the consumer who in the end pays for all of the growing, harvesting, constant (and mostly unnecessary and carbon-footprint foolish) travel and tasting at origin by giving them year-round access to a full range of great coffees at fair prices will be essential if good coffee is to ever be something more than a boutique business in this country.

  58. To Al:

    I just read your comment and am having a lot of trouble connecting the dots here. Perhaps you can help me.
    begin quote:
    “Water conservation at the wet mills is a must, and farmers are quickly learning how to recycle water and cut their usage to levels that are easily sustained. I’m a huge proponent of Eco-pulpers (demucilaging machines) that can reduce water needs to almost negligible amounts (by 40 times in many cases!). Those machines are getting better and cheaper and are absolutely going to become a standard in the future, I’m quite sure of this.”

    Western white man knows best. Please. How arrogant of us to tell others what they should be drinking and how to process and grow coffee.

    :end quote.

    Are you saying that you believe it is arrogant to attempt to address the problem of overly water-intensive coffee processing methods? Do you believe that diminishing water supply is not an issue in most coffee growing areas? Do you not believe that there is a massive struggle going on between balancing needs for food security in these communities with the need to grow cash crops for income and to generate export revenue for the producing country?
    Or are you saying that it is arrogant to recommend use of equipment that reduces risk to the farmer, reduces need for water resources and conserves supply for better use, and cuts processing time in half thereby reducing production cost?
    Perhaps you are saying that in your opinion, coffee producers are generally quite happy doing things the way they always have, and are not interested in learning about different techniques in plant husbandry and understanding different processing methods? That they see this sort of effort as an intrusion or a light-handed paternalism rather than as a collaboration aimed at achieving a more positive outcome?
    Or are you suggesting that these sorts of recommendations are just self-serving, and that they address the needs or concerns of the consuming world at the expense of the farmer without delivering any true benefit? Is yours an ethical objection or an economic one? Or both/neither?

    I’d be thrilled if you’d step forward and explain yourself. Because stepping into a legit discussion among experienced and passionate people who take the time to share because they respect the opinions of their peers and have a genuine interest in debate, and then randomly (and anonymously) lobbing a stink-bomb into the forum that carries no real explanation and makes no real contribution to the discussion….well, besides not being very nice it is also the kind of thing that turns people off from wanting to spend time on these forums.

    There are plenty of other places to go and talk trash where it is welcome and appropriate. Go check out Perez Hilton’s blog if that is what you are into.

    If, on the other hand, you really care about the issues and have something to say….then by all means go ahead and say it, and take responsibility for your words by posting your full name. Most people here will not shit on you for making an effort, even if they think you are wrong.

    My curiosity about your post is genuine…I don’t understand what you are trying to say about the whole Western White Man / arrogance thing. I get the sentiment—I find arrogance to be among the most unattractive character flaws in people. And I’m a student of history…so of course I know quite a lot about the ways in which western culture has been inflicted upon societies in the “developing world” in the name of Jesus, the IMF, or what have you. In fact I see it all the time…paternalism is alive and well in 2010. But once again I’m not sure exactly what lines you are drawing to connect this sort of behavior with anything that has been talked about in this thread. Not even sure if it was aimed at me, but it kinda seems that way.

    So instead of taking pot-shots from behind the bush, why don’t you step out and be a contributor rather than a contrarian?

    If you do decide to identify yourself and forgo the loaded terminology in favor of well-articulated thought I’d be happy to discuss with you…got quite a few thoughts about the idea that ‘the market decides’ which might make for an interesting debate.

    geoff

  59. I’m nearly 100% certain that “arguing the merits natural-processed coffee” just made
    the next edition of Stuff White People Like. Congrats.

  60. I don’t know where the “western white man” thing came from but I first read it as a response to my comment:
    ” … coffee is an export cash crop produced for us, the buyer and consumer, and be it slightly imperialistic, we determine what kind of product we want.”

    I blew it off, because it is poorly stated, but the fact is that buyers in the specialty market must project onto producers the standards for the product. It is not determined by the producers because they grow it for US to buy, for our markets, for our customers, the ones we know. I was stating this in order to acknowledge that yes, this might, in a really superficial analysis, draw some parallels to imperialsm, except that we don’t just look to former colonies to produce coffee for us because we want to exploit labor, raw material and land. We do it because only they can grow coffee for the consuming world, and we try to act in concert to communicate ideas of quality in order that they can get the best return on the product. If you want to sell the coffee that they, by default, consume in producing countries, you will either end up with Nescafe or triage coffee in your cafe. Others in this discussion have put in countless hours to bridge the gap between how the buyer understands quality and how the coffee producer or mill manager or residen cupper understands it. We have done it not to further exploit them, but to increase their chances to produce quality coffee and get the best price for it. Yes, we need to be aware of being paternalistic in these things, but I think those that have engaged in origin countries with sincere concern are conscious of the pitfalls of such things. Clearly from this discussion, it’s a smart group of people.

    I have had side discussions with many on this thread (another nice offshoot of the discussion here – it creates more discussion), but one thing that comes up for me is that we are painting everyhting with very broad brush strokes – I think we need to speak about concrete instances when producing naturals is, perhaps in the long term, ill-advised. I really don’t think we can address it globally as a topic. I think there are as many issues with bad honey coffees, or people using demucilagers in a bad way, or poor selection of cultivars. (Which is another topic too, a minor point on GW post I have trouble with … should everyone be planting Bourbon? Is catimor bad in all cases? Why is it a bad decision for a 1000 meter farm in Costa Rica to plant a catimor if they will not ever have potential for great quality. Anyway, another topic)

    Water use, a big issue, and forced demucilage coffees have another benefit besides using mere buckets of water a day – they have democratized the wet mill to some degree, made micro-milling possible when all you have is half a cubic meter of water. Before, you had to own water rights to a stream, which you were most likely polluting as well. Now mills can be everywhere and on very small scales, allowing producers to offer a more finished product to the market instead of selling cherry under whatever local market price condition is in effect. But rolling back from water use a bit, water pollution is still a huge problem. One your way to 3-4 amazing, efficient, ecological mills in Acatenango you pass the massive Finca Chalabal where the pulp pile is dumped directly onto the stream, upriver from the other “clean” mills. It just takes one asshole … and who is there to shut him down. Huehue is filled with murky brown algae-bloom rivers. The clean water promise has not been fulfilled, not yet.

    Lastly, It’s really hard to say anything about Graciano’s beautiful post, and his genuine excitement, but some of the experimental process coffees coming out of Panama in particular are really pushing the limit on what is coffee and what is salad dressing. No, there is not going to be a George Howell-led cupping police force out there to decide was is clean and what isn’t, and our industry will not behave in concert to send a clear message to producers on this subject. We’ll decide with what we buy. I for one have been singed by my desire to experiment, like $14k worth of Panama Hartmann Natural that was shipped in sealed mylar bags and cups like moldy strawberry vinegar. We had another blended natural-washed lot from Carmen that worked out very well, because of very favorable conditions in drying. But it’s a crapshoot to dry cherry pods in Panama — hell, it’s a crapshoot to dry washed coffees in Panama lately, and if you don’t ship them out on time the rains come and everything drops a few points. It’s fantastic to have leaders like Graciano who have the wherewithall to experiment of exotic processes in their locale. As far as GWs original post, if I take it to mean, “should everyone do it, will the market reward it, is it a long term strategy” I would agree, no … in Panama, no.

    Okay, another 1/2 hour gone … crap, back to work.

  61. Interesting aside:
    One of my customers (a physician who used to work in the Peace Corp but otherwise has little to no coffee knowledge), just got back from Guatemala last week and he was telling me about an encounter at a coffee farm he visited. “This guy…can’t remember his name right now…who works for some company…ummm…UTZ, yeah, that’s it, UTZ Kapeh, who says they are working to bring the processing back to the farmers…some kind of primitive process because, you see, I guess there’s a lot of workers with no work to do so if they can just get these people involved in this primitive process where they dry it in the sun with the fruit on, and that produces a better cup and fetches a higher profit which can pay for them to be productive and take control back from the big mills and put it back into the hands of the people and it saves water and….”

    Apparently this conversation is happening in a lot more places than on this blog…How do you like them apples?

  62. I’m also late to the party. I found out about this thread via Mike White’s post on coffeed. This debate is fascinating and great thanks to all the wonderful minds that have downloaded their knowledge in their posts.

    The distillery example was raised by Geoff and that got me thinking about other alcoholic beverages like wine. The origin vs. market dynamics is a debate that still rages in the wine business. There are examples all over the world of how changes in production methods have transformed the flavor profiles of an appellation. There are also examples of non-traditional varietals being planted to meet international market demand (like 80 yr. old dry farmed Tempranillo vines being ripped up to plant Cab Sauv in the Duero of Spain…tragic.)

    What some critics say is that many unique and traditional character has been lost from the world of wine. If you’ve seen the documentary “Mondo Vino” you know what I’m talking about. I’m not comparing washed coffees with Michel Roland’s abuse of the “microbule” but does one process fit most/all origins? Of course, there are examples of production methods altering a region’s character for the better. One only has to look at the introduction of the idea that oxidation is bad for white wines to the Portuguese and Spanish industries.

    Here’s my question: Can improvements in consistency happen without losing traditional character? Is there a way to create more consistent naturals with less defects in origins where that’s the traditional method of production?

  63. “Here’s my question: Can improvements in consistency happen without losing traditional character? Is there a way to create more consistent naturals with less defects in origins where that’s the traditional method of production?”

    Yes, absolutely yes, is the answer. To tell people who are producing naturals successfully to change their method is not great advice. To show them a way that they can get higher returns for their coffee by improved cherry selection, thin layers of coffee pods on the drying beds, covering the coffee quickly if rain comes, etc etc is the way to go. The problem is this; how does a Union or Private Mill in Ethiopia find that customer, especially now that the ECX rules are in effect. One way is the DST auction platform. The first DST auction has already happened and the results were fair to middling. I think buyers and producers were testing the waters. Many of the lots were mediocre, and because of the timing of the auction, were most likely NOT produced specifically to put into the auction. Round 2 is coming up and that may show some overall quality improvement. But at this point, the Private Mills have no avenue to market their coffee outside of the ECX, and Privates are the source for some of the best lots of coffee we have ever purchased at Sweet Maria’s. I think others here will have had similar experiences.
    Going back to your point, I took a harvest trip to Sidama/YirgaCheffe in December and it is still shocking to see how bad the cherry selection and processing is at the Union mills. It seems inconceivable they can produce the qualities of coffee that *sometimes* come from their mills. I have some videos on youtube that show really poor processing. There is no program, even within a coop like Yirga Cheffe Coffee Union to have the managers of various mills communicate, share information about best practices. Granted that we can’t assume quality is the only route to success in coffee. It’s always a balance of quality VS volume and you need both. But a mill is basically factory to separate and homogenize quality of the incoming coffee cherry at the best possible levels, to not further damage coffee in the processing, and get the best outcome for each lot, whether it has a high percentage of ripes, a mix of semi-mature and ripe, or is all green under-ripes. The mills are truly failing at this. The staff and managers are under-paid and untrained. Staff at Privates are much better trained, and I imagine they absorb the local talent in coffee processing. I think that along with an avenue for mills to sell coffee direct and tranparently (DST) the ECX really needs to partner with the agronomists to provide technical assistance to mills, or else there just might not be any small lot coffees from the Unions to feed into the DST program. By the way, to read more about this check out the ECX site: http://www.ecx.com.et/DSTIntroduction.aspx

  64. I’m a consumer. I don’t often cup as do the professionals. So my interest in coffee has developed in ways quite similar to my interest in wine. I find that the varieties of coffees challenge my palate all the time. And that this, after all, is agriculture — beans from the same cultivar differ from year to year. I’m glad of it. However, I’m in the minority (as are, I’m quite sure, most anyone who has visited this blog). I will also admit that, as with wine, my tastes have changed over time. No longer a fan of Cabernet Sauvignon from my youth, I now favor other varietals.

    That said, the discussion of dry versus wet process is a bit like sausage making. I’d rather not be troubled by how it’s done but the results. If a grower is good at producing a crop that they feel is best for their business then so be it. I hate when grape growers and wine producers are all chasing after a common and narrow market force (e.g Robert Parker). For coffee, like wine, vive la difference. If the grower works to get the best out of the crop and determines the optimal method for producing a green bean that is suited to his/her target market, then so be it. Consumers will help shape the market over time, and like all markets, differentiation is what helps keep many in business. However, I really wonder sometimes whether the growers, like winemakers, fully appreciate the end result of their hard work (from the moment it leaves their farm, gets to roasters, gets prepared for extraction, and it used at coffee shops or in homes). Scary thought, that.

    For myself, I happen to favor a wide variety of coffees from all over the world (Ethiopian and Kenyan are what I love the most, with Kona and Panama at the other end of the excitement scale). Some, I’m quite certain, have a more narrow or pedestrian palate. They may be quite happy drinking conventional brews. And let’s please not forget the Starbuck”s crowd — those who demand over roasted coffees, designed to stand up to milk/cream/sugar/whatever. They live in an alternate universe of coffee drinkers.

    Hope I’ve not taken the discussion too far astray. My point is that we need to nurture and educate everyone — from the grower to the consumer, and everyone in between, so that the best result for quality and quantity while protecting the environment through a self sustaining agriculture results. Oh yea, and world peace…..

  65. this comment by GW is so important that it deserves to be highlighted. it is valid for the world wide agricultural situation, mono-culture and money-crops at an all to high prize in the long run…
    “…whether coffee should be grown at all in most places where it is currently planted. It is, after all, not a food crop and offers no real nutritional value. There are other things that could be grown in most producing countries that would make more sense in the long run…”
    this deserves its own thread, perhaps in another more general agricultural forum.

  66. It’s just been sticking in my mind since reading it weeks ago … but what does yeast have to do with coffee fermentation? You can have yeast fermentation I suppose but it would take too long to develop to be significant in terms of an influence on the final product. Correct me please if I am wrong but coffee fermentation is an enzymatic reaction, enzymes present already within the coffee mucilage. No foreign agents required for fermentation

  67. As far as I understand what is going on in the fermentation tank – there is a lot of pectin breaking down through hydrolysis. I read about experiments where they added pectinase to speed up the process but that didn’t produce the same results in a shorter period of time.

    Yeast activity (in the little I’ve read) has been pretty minimal, though there is a sharp change in pH around the time a coffee ought to be pulled out of the tank but I can’t remember what caused it. (sorry)

  68. Tom and James:

    I’ve wound up doing a lot of reading on the fermentation process in coffee over the years. I’ve come to believe that the idea that: “fermentation is a pectic reaction unrelated to microbial activity” is wrong. I realize it is the conventional wisdom, but I think it is a myth.

    First, check this paper out (here is the abstract, I will email you two the entire paper when I find it on my hard drive) http://www.asic-cafe.org/pdf/abstract/18_074.pdf. In this paper, Avellone et al show quite conclusively that pectin is unaffected all the way through mucilage detachment. In another experiment, they sterilized coffee mucilage and tried to dissolve it using pectolysis- it took over 3 days. Therefore, there must be another reason the mucilage dissolves.

    Avellone et al have gone on to prove in subsequent research (it’s a pretty large body of work, check it out) that mucilage detachment is related to acidification, not pectolysis. In other words, bacteria (like lactic acid bacteria) and yeasts whose action produces acids are responsible for much of the physical activity of mucilage dissolution. The acids destroy the cell walls in certain cells in the mucilage, causing it to detach and dissolve. It’s pretty clear in the studies that what is taught in the old books- that coffee fermentation is achieved by “soft-rot” enzymes already present in the coffee pulp- is incorrect, and that in fact it is the microorganisms like bacteria and yeasts that actually make the mucilage dissolve.

    Also, there is no question that many yeasts and flavor-producing bacteria (like acetobacter and lactobacillus) are very active in coffee fermentation. There are many studies that list these in detail. Some seem to show that the lactic acid bacteria are the most important both in terms of mucilage removal and flavor. There is no question that there is abundant microbial activity in the fermentation tank, that this activity produces various compounds, and these compounds have flavor.

    best,

    Peter G

  69. Excellent – thanks for the information and I would really like to see the whole document. If the enzymatic breakdown of pectins with the formation of pectic and other acids is not the main factor that transforms the mucilage into a soluble form, it would actually explain much. I read a bit more on this, and I was not aware what a key role micro-organisms play … still I am just a little doubtful on the role of yeasts so would like to read more …
    Tom

  70. For some years we also were interested in whether fermentation or enzymes. Several years ago, to test the notion, we checked temperature change during ‘fermentation’ and there was NO significant change. Next we tried adding a mix of penicillin, streptomycin and other antibiotics during fermentation. This had NO effect. My conclusion was that the so-called fermentation is primarily an enzymatic process using amylases and pectinases contained in the coffee pulp. Further to this point, we recently had reason to analyse coffee pulp which had been sun-dried on a patio. the result was ; “Yeast/mold, total plate count and coliform were all very low.”
    Thus, for us, fermentation is not an issue in normal coffee processing.

    On the other hand, I have seen de-pulped coffee sit in a mound on a patio for a week, unable to be dried due to rain. After 10 days it can be smelled from 50 meters and is clearly rotting. I would guess that that is true fermentation and an awful sight to a coffee grower.

  71. Hey Tom-

    I sent you and James both copies of a couple of papers written on this topic. For the sake of this discussion, though, I would like to point out:

    My point in the initial post was that yeasts and other microorganisms certainly contribute to flavors in the fermentation tank, which transfer into the coffee itself. This is a separate process to the process (also microbiological) that drives mucilage detachment.

    Whether or not specific yeasts are responsible for the mechanical detachment of mucilage (Avallone seems to think that lactic acid bacteria are generally responsible for that) there is no question that yeasts are active in metabolizing sugars into alcohol and carbon dioxide in the fermentation tank during even short fermentations. Yeasts are the most common microorgansm on plant surfaces, and are often the most common microorganism in the air. Any sugar- and moisture- rich plant material (like mucilage) will be instantly inocculated with yeasts. Yeasts turn sugar into alcohol, and acetobacter turn that alcohol into acetic acid; that’s one way we get acetic acid in coffee. At the same time, lactic acid bacteria turn sugar into lactic acid.

    There are lots of yeasts in the world. Let’s take one for example, candida lambica. This is a yeast that has been found in microbial studies of naturally fermenting coffee mucilage (Avallone et al, 2002). It is also present in the Belgian wild yeasts used to make Lambic Beer (hence the name). Anyone who has made a lambic at home will tell you that those yeasts kick in within a few hours, and are really active within 12 hours, metabolizing that sugar into strongly flavored compounds. I have seen fermentation tanks in Ethiopia bubbling away with CO2, clearly showing all the signs of yeast activity.

    The role of yeasts and other microorganisms is really complex, and is probably the source of incredibly interesting research. I hope this kind of research gets done in the future!

    Peter G

  72. a quick question, does drying of naturals occur in big greenhouses, with good ventilation, were temps could be high enough to prevent the “negative” impact? can it be done? i imagine it happening in brazil but have only seen it done on patios, covered and not.

  73. Nayarita is a great example to examine. They produce washed and natural coffees of high caliber. What I found extremely interesting is that when we carried both coffees in our cafes, side by side, our baristas were head-over-heals for the natural. While most of us at the roasting facility favored the washed coffee for its balance and cleanliness, there is something to be said for the accessibility and saturation of taste notes in naturals, even if they are fairly one-dimensional. The barista’s ability to hone in on a flavor and then translate that to the customer’s experience really increased the sales of the natural coffee.

    Maybe (and this is unqualified opinion), we need to teach farmers how to better exploit this demand for natural coffees. If it is more risky, can they raise their price……..or ….will the consumer pay more for a natural version of a beloved coffee?

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