Thoughts after a public cupping


I’ve really enjoyed the discussion going on after this post.   One comment that stuck in my mind was Aldo’s Fazenda Kaquend COE Vs Maxwell House experiment. It definitely affected some decisions I made when I was choosing coffees to take with me to a public cupping I did in East London as part of a charity fund raiser.

I knew I would have two separate groups, of between 10 and 20 people each time.  I had agreed to do a cupping, rather than a tasting of brewed coffee (which I would prefer to do with the general public usually), because they were paying for a bit more of an experience.

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Thoughts on the last Esmeralda auction

According to the owner of the stoneworks auction website, I was one of up to 3000 users watching or participating in the latest auction. It went on for 9 hours and you had to feel very, very sorry for the Japanese who would have started bidding at 10pm and finished around 7am. (though you suspect they probably had access to sufficient caffeine)

I am not going to go through who won what (it is there on the website still) but there are a couple of things about this auction process, about the success of this farm, that I want to write a little about and get some feedback on from the community.

First of all I was quite surprised that the Petersons decided to auction off so many small individual lots. The high prices achieved in the past were a function (in my mind) of both quality and scarcity. I don’t debate the mesmerising cup this coffee is capable of producing, but I don’t think that it would have reached $130/lb last year if there had been 10 times the volume available. Granted, the small individually processed batches have drive the price up on the top lots to similar heights but this then leaves the issue of how to communicate the difference between Stumptown and Sweet Maria’s $105.25 lot and a $6 lot. What key areas would the consumer respond to and be willing to massively increase their spend for?

The variation in price also implies a variation in quality. This is not a criticism of the farm – no farmer in the world is going to claim they produce nothing but exceptional coffee. I do worry, however, that there is potential to damage the brand. (and I have no doubt that it is a brand now) I have seen more extreme examples of this in other super-farms such as Daterra. Daterra is a cutting edge farm, capable of producing stellar coffee, and the research they are involved in is invaluable. I know they did a great deal of work on tracing aroma in the cup back to the crop with Illy and I hope eventually some of that research will see the light of day. What surprises me is that they have not distinguished very strongly between their best lots (like the reserve) and then other lots which don’t taste as good. I have seen several roasters proudly claiming the Daterra component of their blend without specifying which one it was and the coffee not tasting great. I thought the idea of the Esmeralda Especial worked well, but was still being muddied by some people so if anything I would have thought they would have distinguished lots even more aggressively.

I feel very strongly that for us to really move forward in speciality coffee we must consistently deliver on our promises to the consumer. Asking them to pay a high price for a cup promises that it will be worth it, and making proud boasts about the coffees we use promises that they will taste something that will be starkly different, discoverable and satisfying. Will every single roast of the Esmeralda be great this year from all the different companies? Does a new, but interested consumer, tasting an average cup of Esmeralda leave them very confused about the prices of the higher lots? Do we risk looking exclusive rather than inclusive to those teetering on the edge of becoming interested and excited about great coffee?

My other thought on the success of the farm has been the double edged sword of the visibility of the Geisha varietal used. I travelled a little bit in Costa Rica last year and every farm I visited had at least a little Geisha planted. Some were more cautious than others in the space they were giving over to the gamble. In three or four years will we see a sudden flood of Geisha on the market (which will immediately drop its desirability) and will it be any good. A while ago I dug through my coffee text books to see if I could find any references to the varietal. I found very little except for a small study carried out abotu 40 years ago in Costa Rica comparing the success of various varietals of which Geisha was won. It lost out primarily because of its lack of yield – less of a problem if you have quality and scarcity on your side, but with lots of people suddenly producing lower yields from their farms scarcity becomes void. No notes are made in the study about increased cup quality, but that study could still easily be dismissed as techniques have moved on and you could also argue that Costa Rica’s quest for yield held it back as an origin producing distinct and amazing coffees until the more recent micro-mill revolution that we are seeing signs of. (if people want me to dig up the study I can do)

On this subject I am very happy to concede I might be wrong. I haven’t spent enough time at origin to feel completely confidant in the above statements, and if Peter or Geoff or anyone else who has spent a lot of time at origin are reading and want to correct me I would be very grateful. I really just want to learn more, and hope that we aren’t all debated-out on this issue which covers just about all of the coffee industry.

Off to Costa Rica

Writing this from Miami airport (not a likeable airport at all, but that could be jetlag/travel cynicism kicking in). About to catch my flight down to San Jose and then I am there for a week doing various bits and pieces. The video camera is packed, the camera too so I shall try and record bits and pieces that might be of interest.

More coming soon……..

Colombia 2007 – Armenia

Occasionally being jetlagged can be a good thing.

Anette and I arrived into Bogota on Sunday evening, and collected by our host – Luis Velez – and dropped at our lovely hotel with the worrying news that in order to catch the 6.15 flight to Armenia we would need to be up at 4.30am. Thankfully we slept
straight away and the as we were still 5 hours ahead internally it wasn’t too painful to wake up then.

Four of us travelled to Armenia – Anette and I, Martin Velez (Luis’s son) and the Mexican barista champion Salvador Benitez. The flight across is surprisingly short, possibly the shortest I’ve ever had – you only just get up to cruising altitude before you plummet back to earth. In Armenia we were hosted by Jaime Raul from Agrado. Agrado is an extremely interesting place. It is the focal point for the coffees in that region – Quindio – and the local FNC organisation have decided that for Quindio the only way to go is towards quality. So at Agrado – a medium sized farm – they have set up an impressive cupping lab and research facility. I’ve never seen anything like it. Talking with Jaime Raul gives you a very different perspective towards coffee. He dislikes the idea of a coffee chain, a very linear path for coffee to take. He would rather that the ends of the chain met to create a circle through which knowledge is traded and coffee improved. It was great to wander amongst the trees on the farm and taste the cherries at different stages of ripeness (the difference is amazing!) It was important for me to better understand the raw materials and the growing and picking.

Anette amongst the trees

Anette amongst the trees

Jaime Raul also turned my focus onto coffee pickers. The quality of the crop that they pick determines so much, but picking only the ripest cherries is hard work especially when you are paid by weight and there will always be some level of temptation to pick indiscriminately. At Agrado they not only pay a premium for a better quality harvest but try to look after the pickers as much as possible and get them as involved in coffee as possible. I don’t know of anywhere else in the world that provides espresso and cappuccino from a Linea in their lab for free to all the pickers – brewing coffee from the trees they harvest.

La Marzocco Linea at Agrado

La Marzocco Linea at Agrado

We toured the farm a little and then had a beautiful coffee break. They have a large section of bamboo forest and in the middle, down by their water source, they have built a place to sit and have coffee. The lab hosts growers from all over the region – to teach them to cup, to teach more about agronomy and when groups visit they all head down to this patch to drink coffee and talk about what they taste. It is probably the most incredible place I’ve had a cup of coffee.

Coffee break at Agrado farm in Armenia

Coffee break at Agrado farm in Armenia

We spent most of the afternoon cupping – first coffees from other regions, some familiar (like Huila) and some not. We did three flights, and then we played with the espresso machine for a while. One of their staff was practicing as she planned to enter the National Barista Competition this week. After that we cupped more coffees – this time from Quindio and there was some really lovely stuff on the table. I confess it was not a region I knew much about, but I think their drive towards quality is paying off and it is a name that will become well known in the next few years.

Anette and Jaime Raul at Agrado

Anette and Jaime Raul at Agrado

After this the rain came – the huge, torrential rain that we never get in the UK, and we headed back through the washed out roads to our hotel in Armenia. The next morning we went to the local FNC headquarters to talk more with them about driving towards quality in Quindio and to get our reactions to Agrado. From there we headed over to Almacafe to see the parchment coffee being processed. I’d seen something similar in El Salvador but you always learn something new and it is always interesting.

Parchment warehouse at Almacafe

Parchment warehouse at Almacafe

We also cupped in their lab a little too – Anette’s razor sharp tastebuds picking up a little phenol in a couple of cups, though it wasn’t very strong. I wish I was better at defect cuppings! (Something we did a little more of in the afternoon). Having stolen fruit from a tree growing outside the warehouse we headed back to Agrado to cup some more and also see some processing that they do there.

Cherries being weighed and checked at the mill

Cherries being weighed and checked at the mill

I had missed the harvest when I was in El Salvador so this was the first time I had seen processing of coffee cherries up close. As much as you can understand from books and pictures nothing beats seeing unripes float, or watching a pulper squeeze the seeds from the flesh. They do quite a rigorous pulping and selection before the coffee hits the fermentation tanks at Agrado, but the coffee they end up with is great. The are also constantly using their own crop for experiments – be it different drying methods or different shade systems. They log everything with great detail at the cupping table. I find it very exciting and promising for coffee in the future.

Pulping coffee

Pulping coffee

And this was all we had time for – we had to head back to the airport for another bumpy hop across the mountains to Bogota so we could land in more torrential rain! Up next will be a post about the barista competition happening here. I am judging and Salvador and I did some demonstrations but I will post more with pictures soon.

I know I’ve missed a load out but I will try and update when I get the chance!

There are more photos at Flickr or have a browse below:

Off to Colombia tomorrow

Really looking forward to it. Will try and post from there – depending on connection of course. Memory cards emptied, camera batteries charged and a few barista bits and pieces packed.

Hopefully gonna get to a few farms, and I think it is harvest time so lots of delicious cherries for me. (I hope anyway!)

Sorry if I am a little slow on the contact forms/consultancy requests for the next week and a bit.

Independent branding of microlots – Aida Batlle and “Los Luchadores”

I read as much as I can these days to try and keep abreast of what is going on and today I stumbled across something very interesting that Peter Giuliano had written.

When I was with Aida in Salvador in January, we talked about her identifying really awesome coffees she came across as “Aida’s Selections”, and brand them as such. She would be acting like a wine negociant, finding great coffees and snatching them away from the mill before they are processed. We brainstormed on some “mill mark” type names that could cover certain coffees. Her favorite was “Los Luchadores”, a reference to the Lucha Libre wrestlers so popular in Latin America. We thought it would be perfect for a Pacamara.

Now this to me is interesting on a number of levels. With the recent discussions about Ken Davids, reviewing of espressos and other coffees – which is essentially a form of endorsement – this throws up a different possibility. There is a slow growing number of people gaining recognition for their work the other side of the roastery – and while some like Peter Giuliano and Geoff Watts are attached to one particular company there are others with growing profiles like Aida who could effect some sort of influence on to the consumer. To me this also suggests another possible role – the freelance traveller/cupper working through origins and essentially branding high quality lots with their mark that would then likely add a premium to the lot, paid by interested (likely micro-)roasters. Not quite the Man from Del Monte but I am sure you get the general idea. (I will be jealous if anyone does manage to pull this off!)

There is increasing pressure on the Specialty community to find unique, high quality lots and many simply do not have the resources to travel the globe shopping for coffees (certainly the fledgling roasteries). Direct relationships are undeniably desirable/preferable, for the most part anyway, and of course marks or brands like this are not a solution but if we are out to reward quality perhaps they are another weapon in the armoury.

I would be interested in hearing other people’s opinions on this and its potential implications.