We are excited to announce a much more functional and useful offering page for you to use as a tool in your pursuit of the finest coffees on the planet.
-Simplified Location Tabs
-Real Time Search Functionality By Keyword or Flavor Note
-"Whats Hot" scrolling section so you can see the coffees we are freaking out about now
-Sort by Any Column
-Robust "Help and Instructions" Page
Please see some of the new features we are introducing! Play with the page and let us know what you think!
In July, Joe, Piero, Andy, and I had the pleasure of leading the annual Cafe Imports Barista Origin Trip, a prize given to each of the U.S. regional barista champions, the U.S. national champion, and the world champion. These champions might be laid back (or not) and act like hipsters (or not), but behind whatever image they've chosen as their own are fierce, dedicated professionals who has sacrificed significant portions of their professional and personal time on the altar of coffee. When we plan the Barista Origin Trips, our goal is to give them the keys to the kingdom in whatever coffee country we're going to. We want them to feel like kid's at Disneyland, to see things that surprise and awe them, and to leave with a renewed passion for coffee and this industry that we love.
As it turns out, Ecuador pretty much blows you away all on its own so our jobs in this case were to hang on and capture as much of it as possible in the time we had.
Our adventure started in Quito in northern Ecuador. Quito is the capital city and, at more than 9,000 feet above sea level, is the highest capital city in the world. Quito is surrounded by 'cloud forests,' which meant that we woke up on our first morning in Ecuador to this view:
After a quick breakfast at our hotel, some friendly commiserating about altitude sickness, and justifiably dubious forays into the hotel's coffee, we loaded into the small bus that would be our second home for the next four days and hit the road to go visit some farms. It took several hours to reach our first destination, during which I happily absorbed the interesting mix of impassioned, professional discussion on brewing methods and competition rules, life stories, and 'that's what she said'-esque jokes that were flowing thickly between the baristas and our crew.
Our first visit of the day was to producer Fabian Lomas' farm. The Cafe Imports crew was especially excited to explore this particular farm. This May we cupped a new variety that they've been growing, named Sidra, that blew us all away. It broke the 95 point barrier and had us waxing poetically about tropical fruits, wild floral sweetness, and freshly pressed cider. Joe actually roasted some and brought it with us on the trip so after a morning of exploring the farm, we all retreated to brew up some of the coffee that had come from those very trees. Most of the baristas were trying Sidra for the first time and it was exciting to watch them experience the same awe and joy of discovery that we had.
On a personal note, this was my first trip to origin and standing in the sunshine biting into a coffee cherry that I'd just picked off the tree is an experience that will stay with me a long time. I wasn't alone in that experience and I could not have handpicked a more eclectic and dedicated band of coffee travelers to experience that with.
After we explored the farm itself, we toured the beds where the coffee is dried and the machines used to process it. Because the volume of coffee is relatively small from this particular farm, the machinery involved in processing was much smaller in scale and more labor-intensive in operation. This was my first glimpse into the amazing ingenuity that producers use to achieve their processing objectives. A variety of tools and machines had been repurposed and combined. The ingenuity and attention to detail reminded me of visiting a craft artisan in the U.S. and seeing lovingly refurbished original machinery.
After saying our grateful farewells to our hosts, we climbed back into the bus and headed for another nearby farm, Finca Maputo. Finca Maputo is owned by a doctor and his wife. It was fascinating to hear his perspective on the spread and treatment of rust. At one point when we were marveling at the quick, robust recovery of his trees from what would normally have been a devastating brush with rust, he simply said 'I'm a doctor. I know how to apply medicine.'
Finca Maputo is a relatively large farm and its processing facilities reflected that in both scale and automation. It also had a large nursery where they're experimenting with different ways to grow trees that are healthy enough to withstand rust.
After a lovely lunch with our hosts at their home, we headed to a private ecological reserve where we spent the evening relaxing and getting to know one another more.
The next day we headed to a dry mill owned and run by Ena Galletti and her husband Don. Ena is a larger than life personality and the number of coffee-related activities she has her hand in is truly astounding. She and her family do everything from growing to milling to roasting, not just for themselves but for a wide range of farmers in the sprawling northern region.
Ena walked us through the mechanics of her dry mill and coffee roastery and also treated us to a blind cupping. The Sidra once again peeked through as the favorite among the group, but there were definitely some other promising coffees on the tables. We also got a chance to meet some local baristas, who stopped by to say hi but had to hurry off because they were preparing for a barista jam that we'd be attending later that evening.
We spend the afternoon taking a tour of Quito, which is full of interesting colonial history. That evening, after a very full day already, we pulled up outside of a gorgeous white converted church where the barista jam would be held. Because the local producers and baristas had arranged this event, we weren't sure exactly what to expect. It didn't really matter because even if someone had told us how epic the event would be, we wouldn't have believed them. Baristas from around the city were there. Producers were there. And tons of the city's coffee fans were there. By the time things got rolling, it was literally standing room only.
The jam was held in a relatively large chapel and the juxtaposition of religious iconography, espresso machines and siphons, disco lights, and pumping local music should have been strange but somehow worked. The baristas answered questions from the crowd, gave demonstrations on how to pour latte art, and had a latte art throwdown. And took lots and lots of pictures with grinning fans.
After another night in Quito, we all piled into the bus for a 5 hour drive (aka extreme group bonding time) out to Hacienda Primavera, a 'wilderness ecolodge' owned by Ena's family. Hacienda Primavera is easily one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen and after a couple days of intense traveling, it was a sweet relief to arrive somewhere that virtually demanded that you relax.
The baristas spent the afternoon horseback riding (many for the very first time) and then we headed out to see the wet mill Ena's organization runs. They were having some water issues because a line had been cut so while the producers waited for the water tank to fill up, Ena took us on a short hike down to a nearby river. At which point pretty much everyone stripped down to various undergarments and jumped in.
By the time they'd gotten the water situation straightened out and fired up the wet mill, it was dark out. We spent a long time watching the producers dump bags of perfectly ripe cherries into the tank, reaching down and tasting the different varieties and comparing notes with one another, listening as Ena and Joe took turns explaining the exact mechanics of the machine we were watching, holding out our hands to catch the mucilage-free beans as they came out of the chute, and examining the green coffee for size and insect damage. More importantly, we were all sorting through what we were seeing and experiencing and tying it back to our own roles in the coffee supply chain.
Ena is a larger than life personality and it should have come as no surprise that the evening was not over after our wet mill experience. We went back to Hacienda Primavera and ended up dancing late into the night to an Afro-music band that had driven out from who-knows-where to come play for just our small band of merry travelers. I didn't take an official headcount, but the band may have had more members in it than were in our party.
The next day after a quick stop at the equator to test all of the equator 'myths' Joe had been telling us about (which all turned out to be true), we were off to Guayaquil in the south, where we'd spend the final two days of our whirlwind tour of Ecuador.
Our first day in Guayaquil started with a trip to a large, low elevation robusta farm. The differences between the small, mountainous arabica farms we'd seen in the north and the sprawling, flat, orderly robusta farm were striking. With it's underground drip irrigation systems, droves of seasonal workers, and neat uniform rows of short, easy-to-pick trees, the robusta farm could have been any small scale agricultural operation in the States.
After showing us the robusta side of his operation, which is a relatively new endeavor, the manager of Hacienda Victoria showed us his real passion--and something we'd been looking forward to all week--his cacao farm. The parallels between cacao and coffee were surprising. Both grow in pods on a tree, have to be removed from their outer fruit, and are set out to dry. The texture and flavor of cacao straight out of the pod, still covered in its spongy white fruit is almost impossible to describe, like a combination of honey, tropical fruit, and rich cream. It reminded me of good oysters, fleshy and sweet.
After thoroughly interrogating their resident processing expert about the different drying systems they're experimenting with and whether any of the techniques they're trying would translate to coffee, we retired to an airy pavillion on a hill overlooking the farm for a chocolate tasting and lunch.
After lunch we got to hang out on the farm. Hide found a zip line that went out to an island in a small lake and the baristas took turns trying to make it across without ending up in the lake. There was a full scale ring for bull-fighting, complete with fake practice bull (essentially horns attached to a large trike), which we also made good use of.
On our final day in Guayaquil, we had a free day. All you really need to know about that day can be summed up in this picture:
As we slowly parted ways on our various flights, two things struck me. First, that we were extremely lucky to have shared this experience with such a fantastic group of people. The hugs as we all parted were real. Second, that our objective--of breathing new life into each of our passion's for coffee--had been more than achieved, thanks to the naturally intoxicating beauty of Ecuador and the warm dedication of its coffee community.
for a full photo album from the trip, Click Here
The modern story of Faribault Woolen Mills is one that defines a current revolution among millenials: the desire and movement to get back to the roots of our nation and honor the craftsmen that literally helped build this country (maybe one of the few silver linings of the most recent recession). Call it what you will, heritage goods, Made in America products, craft goods; their growth in popularity is indicative of an increasing demand for products made by the sweat and love of individual hands in places with a legacy of American craftwork.
Faribault Woolen Mills has been manufacturing products since 1865, and still holds many of the military and state contracts they have had for generations. When I asked, "Do you carry a 'commercial' line and a 'heritage' line'?", I was told, "Look around you at all these old machines and these people; we can't produce something that isnt 'heritage'." Faribault makes products well, because it's all they know. Their success in recent years reaching a more discerning and younger audience proves that they are the real deal.
Driving to Faribault to meet with the people behind this rejuvenated company that operates the oldest wool mill in the country, I couldn't help but draw a direct parallel between the heritage product movement and the explosion of high end specialty coffee. Both industries rely on a customer base of people that truly value having a connection to the products in their lives. People pay more for heritage goods knowing that their purchase is supporting a greater good and directly impacting real American families, while also providing them with something that will stand the test of time.
The same is true for specialty coffee; our customers in specialty coffee pay more for a product that they can be connected to and, quite frankly, is more delicious than the less expensive options. "More delicious" in coffee and "well built" in heritage products are the same concept - things brought to market with intention and purpose, representing a revolution in how we spend our money, increasing the perceived value per dollar significantly.
So this is why we at Cafe Imports enjoy highlighting craftsmen from all industries. We all are riding our bikes in the same direction, and often times share the same customer base.
Cafe Imports has teamed up with Faribault Woolen Mills to produce a one of a kind wool throw whose design is inspired by coffee. All of the proceeds from the sale of this throw will benefit the wonderful charity organization, Coffee Kids. We are excited for you to see this design. We don't want to let the cat out of the bag yet on it, but suffice it to say, you are going to love it.
There will be a VERY limited supply of these, so we suggest emailing email@example.com to pre-reserve your throw before they drop to the general public. The throws are 50"x70" and will retail for $159.
Here is to giving a damn about where the products in our life come from, and doing our best to honor the hard work involved from tree to cup and sheep to loom across the world.
On our most recent trip to Colombia, there were a select group of producers who's coffee made a huge statement at our cupping tables. We had the opportunity to visit a number of these producers to get a behind the scenes tour and ask them what makes their coffee and processing so excellent. More to come as coffees arrive, but here are a few of the microlots from Huila and Cauca that you can expect to see in our offerings this fall!
As Cafe Imports' Media-Pro, my mission is to tell the story of where exactly our coffee comes from by creating a visual narrative. Traveling to origin with an objective to properly document and authentically depict the people and places behind the scenes creates a coffee profile above and beyond geo-tags and altitude measurements. For every farm/mill/or washing station that we visit, I will be making a media package comprised of a compelling photo album, an informative video/interview, and inspired graphic design.
What's even better is that whenever we complete said media package, we send the digital content to the producer for them to use at their own liberty to market their coffee. We also aim to provide the content through our beanologies to anyone else who wishes to use it in marketing the coffees - in the name of celebrating origin coffee producers, and all of the efforts they have made to provide us with supreme, high quality coffee.
With that said, there are plenty of adventures ahead to jump start, dare I say, an ambitious, long-term project ;)
In early June, we took a coffee field trip to Burundi and Rwanda with a skeleton Cafe Imports' crew - myself, Jason, and a new CI green buyer, Luis. At our finest moments, it felt like we were the three best friends that anyone could have - a triple threat of "Snap, Crackle, and Pop" proportions, to put it in relative terms.
From the camera's perspective, Burundi and Rwanda were on a visual landscape unlike I've ever seen before. From the lush, abundant agricultural climate, to the inherently vibrant lifestyle; the amiable spirit found within the communities were complemented by the beautiful, bright colors that highlight life in the market places. There was so much daytime activity, that by the afternoon, my eyes would be strained from trying to keep up with the amount of mind-blowing roadside commotion.
After several 3+ hour car rides, it seemed near impossible to go more than 50 meters without seeing a dozen people walking roadside, all of whom appear to have accomplished ten-fold what I could have in the short daylight hours, usually carrying their entire days work on their head or on the back of a bike, taking it somewhere very important, and probably far away. It was incredible and inspiring - I thought I was something special biking home with two grocery bags hanging off my handle bars...
One of our trips in particular we ran into some construction traffic at the beginning of a long developing road outside of Lake Kivu...Our guide/driver shrugged his shoulder and exclaimed: "the Chinese". After asking for an explanation, it became clear to me: In the US, we often outsource jobs to China...the difference is that in China, they outsource their labor. As it turns out China has worked out some deals with Rwanda to help in it's development, I am not sure of all the details, but it is a pretty amazing operation to witness. The road we embarked on is currently under construction, and when I say under construction, I mean its been 3 years in the making, physically carving the road out of a hillside, and there is probably just as much time until it is finished.
Ive always wanted to sit in one of those cool bus seat/safari style landrover/land cruisers, and on this trip I was living out that dream - however, after an incredibly bumpy 4 hour ride on unpaved developing roads in sideways bus seating with nothing to hold on to but my fragile media gadgets, lets just say that dream is now somewhat jaded. Besides the crippling terrain, the road project on Lake Kivu is an incredible site, hundreds of workers and scores of trucks, you couldn't help but be in awe of the dedication and determination of the communities surrounding the developing roads, and how exciting it will be when they are fully finished and paved.
okay enough about roads, geez!
We visited 4 washing stations in Burundi, as well as the Sivca Dry Mill. In Rwanda we cupped with COOPAC and visited 7 Stations. At every washing station there was often an open, communal feel as surrounding residents would come and observe us visiting in a genuinely enthusiastic welcoming manner. Workers at the various stations were very excited about our visits and in some instances voluntarily jumped in front of the camera in order to properly document the fruits of their labor.
Carrying a fancy camera brought me lots of attention; at any point I could turn around and discover that I had a school of children following behind me as if I was the Pied-Piper of intrigued African youth.
Cupping at Coopac was a beautiful experience. The attention to detail in their cupping lab was immaculate. The environment was one that demanded nothing short of excellence. After cupping, the on-site roasters had plenty of questions to pick Jason and Luis' brains with. They were incredibly grateful for any feedback on how they could improve the quality of the coffees.
On an exciting nerdy media note, this trip marked the inaugural use of the DJI Phantom Quadcopter in our origin coverage. It's essentially a remote controlled hobby flying device that you can attach a go pro camera to - similar to a "drone" as many have called it....I prefer to refer to it as an "Aerial Camera Robot". Regardless I somehow made it through international Customs with only a few raised eyebrows, and was able to film some obscenely amazing footage at various washing stations throughout Burundi and Rwanda.
Almost more exciting than the footage, was the reaction to the Phantom/go-pro from the washing station workers and surrounding towns. While filming at the Kinyovu washing station, about 200 people showed up laughing and cheering as I pretended to know what I was doing, staring into direct sunlight and hoping not to steer it into deep African forest, never to be seen again. After landing the spectacular flying camera robot, we packed up and hopped in the car to go to our next location. As we vacated the scene, we were surrounded as if we were Justin Bieber and posse leaving an arena concert in a stretch Hummer limo or whatever that kid boots around town in.
see the first take off below:
Our visits to the washing stations were a little later than ideal, meaning we did not get to see much cherry, or processing, and only about 15% of the drying beds were in use, rounding out the final pickings of this years crop. However, One advantage of this was catching the workers and managers at a "mission accomplished" stage of the harvest season: Jutes full of coffee stacked to the ceiling ready to ship, and a sense of accomplishment in the air.
We were able to interview all of the station managers that we visited, and a great sense of pride was communicated through enthusiastic French, often going in depth about how meticulous their processing methods are as well as how important the coffee crop is for their economy. Be on the look out for some great interviews, as well as some special featured farmer profiles this fall.
A major highlight of the trip was visiting the washing stations on Lake Kivu with COOPAC in Rwanda. After arriving by boat to our first Lake Kivu washing station, we found a makeshift stage set up adjacent to the drying beds, quickly discovering that there were plans for a performance as locals started to congregate and form an audience. I had seen traditional Rwandan dance before, but nothing out of a middle school gymnasium in Wisconsin, so I had a feeling that this was going to be a little more "authentic". After about 45 minutes of an incredibly captivating, powerful performance, I sat down and placed my camera equipment on the ground; I heard a large gasp from the surrounding audience, and realized it was directed towards me. I turned to Emmanuel, the owner of Coopac, wondering if I had done something wrong, and he just laughed. I found out later that sitting down was a way of expressing that you are impressed - I guess i'm glad I played hard to get.
After the performance we visited a washing station located on a small island in Lake Kivu called Gishamwana. I spoke to Emmanuel about how I was excited to supply artwork for COOPAC's coffees - I mean a washing station where the coffee is grown, washed, and dried all on the same island? - that's a Cafe Imports media pro's dream!
Overall an incredible trip, and now I get to relive it while I dig through about 120 GB of media. I'll save the rest of the storytelling for the videos, they tend to paint a better picture then me anyways - From aerial camera robot footage, to incredible ground level "slice of life" encounters on the road, I feel highly equipped to compliment these amazing coffees from Burundi and Rwanda with some awesome artwork this fall.
Cascara (Coffee Cherry Tea) is one of those quirky products that most people outside of the barista bubble may not be familiar with. Simply put, it is the coffee cherry skin with the slightest bit of fruit dried and clinging to it. There seems to be a revival of this product being used in all kinds of new coffee shop beverages. This is exciting! We have some amazing Cascara in stock now (ID6423)
Typically, a coffee cherry will simply go through a pulping machine, popping the seeds out of the skin and the skin and its sweet-tart fruit are then discarded to the compost heap. This has not always been the case, and in some of the oldest coffee producing countries in the world, is still not the case. There is a long history of using this product as an ingredient all to itself. After all, we all know that ancient myth of our cherry chewing goat-herd friend. In Yemen there is a tea called Qisher that is made from the dried cherry skin. When coffee is dry processed, when the skin, or husk, is removed the fruity pulp is more tightly adhered to it, and can then be reconstituted in water. Qisher is made in this way. The husks are ground, much like coffee, into a powder, and many times other spices are added.
The process for this particular lot from our good friends at Las Lajas is very similar; with a few key exceptions. If you are not familiar with Las Lajas, it is time to get acquainted. Extreme attention to every detail in growing, harvesting and especially processing coffee is paid. It is rare to find coffee processed by drying the full cherry in a more meticulous way then the Las Lajas approach. These coffees come to us full of deep fruit flavors, rich sweetness, and crisp acidity intact, blowing us away year after year. Their top shelf naturals are called "Perla Negra", and this cascara is the outer layers of skin and fruit from that top quality selection. Suffice it to say, you will be hard pressed to find better cascara than this.
Here at Café Imports, we are flavor nerds. Not only do we enjoy the Sensory Analysis side of flavor finding in coffee, but we love to investigate new flavors, eat together, and celebrate the successful relationships we have with our producing partners through flavors; generally eat and drink together any chance we get. Getting our hands on this cascara has given us an opportunity to dive into some fun flavor experiences. We would love to share with you what we have found works well with cascara!
*steep mulling spices in hot water to make
Iced Cascara and Citrus Cider:
Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker, add large ice cubes, and shake rigorously for about 10 seconds. This drink can be served over ice or in a chilled glass. To simplify, add ingredients to a pint glass, stir to incorporate the simple, add ice.
*Other citrus juice can be subbed.
Chilled Cascara and Ginger:
Combine in pint glass. Stir ingredients. Add Ice to the rim. Top the drink with soda water an gently stir.
Cascara and Juniper Mocktail:
Muddle the juniper berries in a cocktail shaker*. Combine remaining ingredients, and stir before adding ice. Fill shaker with large ice cubes. Shake rigorously for 10-15 seconds. Serve over ice.
Non-Linear Coffee Loops
I recently re-read a book on nonlinear dynamics as applied to Euro history over roughly the last thousand years. Basic to this approach is that evolutionary changes are not given as necessary, much less as inevitable, much-much less as advancement, improvement or progress. Evolution as change is affirmed, and radically so. What is denied is any purposiveness or teleology to that change. The various forces or flows that make up these systems change by gravitating around patterns that emerge within the flows themselves, whether via the introduction of a catalyst or the developing of interactions between the already present flows. The focus is on the internal morphogenetic capabilities of matter-energy, with matter-energy being a universally inclusive category. The emergence of a small pattern acts on the existing flows of matter and energy via turbulence, accumulation, restriction, rerouting, digestion, etc. Formed in a certain way, these small patterns continue to accumulate and build, changing the flows that they pull from (and the interactions of those flows) while simultaneously being changed themselves as they grow. At a certain point a stable state may occur. When this happens, energy and matter flows normalize and change decelerates. History generally focuses on the stable states, which are easier to see for being slower and more simply organized. From this point of view, privileging change as progress is just the winner's tale, while romanticising the past (regardless of political bent) is the poetry of 20 year olds. Neither has much basis (apart from the catalytic or social accumulatory functions that either may perform) in reality.
Ten years ago Sumatran coffee tasted like moldy carpet and forest floor (it was supposed to). More recently, cleaner, higher acid and sugar content coffees (*defects do not reduce cup quality only by the addition of defective qualities; because of regular dosing they also count as subtractions of non-defective qualities: if you begin with a 20g dose of quaker free coffee and then add 2g of quaker, practically speaking, you don't end up with 22g because with respect to dosing you must remove 2g of the original clean lot. Tasted coffee is always dosed coffee and in our example the addition of quaker requires the displacement of clean in order to maintain uniform dosing. From the other side, the removal of defects assumes replacement with defect free beans) have been offered up by Sumatra- very much to mixed review. Is this an advance? It is a change. The relatively tepid response (it doesn't taste like a Sumatra) argues for the non-inevitability of change as progress-or progress as change. That was ten years ago. Ten days ago Sumatran coffee tasted like moldy carpet and forest floor... and it tasted like roasted veg, grapefruit, citrus, savory-floral, butter, raisin, fig, goji, and acai. It is only in the most hierarchical and anti-market (7-8-9-10) systems that an emergent stable state replaces its predecessor. More commonly successive or bifurcated stable states exist beside one another, interacting and further influencing each other's evolution, engaged in some level of meshwork dynamic. If one fades from the world stage by the other's influence, it is not without having exerted a defining force on the one that remains- itself no longer absolutely identifiable with its emergent state.
More on this as we continue.
Importing Sumatran coffee, we see clearly that the drive for ever bourgier cups (ever bigger, ever fruit forwarder, ever easier, ever more similar) does not by necessity eliminate the appreciation of less consistent, rougher, more rustic and even more defective profiles. We see further that the assessment of les nouveaux bourgies Sumis is fully dependent on the more classic profiles for structure and definition. If I tasted a wet-hulled Sumatran coffee that was so "clean" that I couldn't tell it from an El Sal, at least as our current standards rate, this would be a limiting factor on the score of that cup. Even the cleanest Sumatran coffee needs to maintain a certain level of process and origin integrity. It should not defy the process, the origin, but should exemplify it. As suggested, these newer cups are also exerting some influence on the classic profiles. If the bar is changing on the upper ends, the process typical profile- in our case the Tiger- is responding. We're not interested in moldy carpet. We're looking for clean earth, forest floor/autumnal leaves, fresh compost and freshly cut cedar, and we're finding it.
A couple of notes are in order here discussing the types of language used to describe Sumatran coffees (and non-washed process coffees generally). As I've written elsewhere, when we created our process specific standards we made a central focus of not being washed-centric in the scaling. There are two big traps of discourse that I would like to point out with this in mind: apologetics and cloaking. Apologetics is a type of discourse systematically defending a position, generally against charges of irrationality. Of course, irrationality is therefore often implied by the presence of apologetics. It is here that apologetics slips into the subtle and unintended treachery known as blaming with faint praise. Along these lines, cloaking is a type of discourse systematically obscuring a position against charges generally. Of course, all variety of charges are implied by the use of cloaking. It is here that cloaking can slip into one of those increasingly complex regresses also known as a webs of lies.
There are thick layers of both apologetics and cloaking draped around Sumatran coffee. It's built into the brand. Bluntly, "Sumatran Coffee" built a brand of being defective. Kudos. Like going to a restaurant where the service is bad on purpose, or buying farm and fleet wardrobes from boutiques, Sumatran coffee really should hold a stronger appeal to the irony addled and misused taste-couture of our contemporary culture. I know. Apologies. It's just that, similar to Neil DG Tyson, whether or not you believe that standard Sumatran coffees are defective does not in any way impact whether or not they are actually riddled with defects.
We can take "earthy" as an example. Earthy is far more general than descriptive, as different plots of earth have very different aromatics (and if you're a gardener or mudpie maker, very different flavors). In washed coffees "earthy" carries sufficient resolution as a descriptor of something undesirable. In wet hulled coffees, where that resolution has rarely been refined, a wide variety of coffee flavor profiles have been lost to "earthy".
Earthy can serve as both cloak- for defects, and as apology- for discomfort with a non-washed profile. But what if you use it at face value? What if you dig in, as it were? Earthy can then serve as a gateway to expanding the palate and its fluency with a diverse group of flavors. The importance is this: Some of the coffees that we're now seeing emerge within this same Sumatran brand are dropping the defects- but not the character.
So where are we going here? I've written a few times before, on this blog and elsewhere. If you're familiar with all that, you'll recognize that it takes the patience of a Barista or Roast Magazine editor to rein these things in. Rest assured, there's no editor here.
Jason and I took a trip to Sumatra last November. The goal was to see something of how things operated on the ground in Sumatran coffee. The stories surrounding how Sumatran coffee is produced and how its profiles are achieved are varied to say the least. We had great success with a cherry selected micro-lot last year, and so knew something of what could be done. Our questions: Can we do more of that? Is it be possible to raise the bar also on our Tigers and FTOs? What exactly would that take? What would it even look (and taste) like?
Speaking to the micro-lots, at breakfast in a small Aceh hotel one morning I ran into a buyer from Japan that I'd met a couple times through Cup of Excellence competitions. He asked me what I was doing in Aceh (a fair question, given the ends of the earth feel that this particular town had, and C.I.'s predilection for the sort of coffee one might not expect to find there), "looking for micro-lots?" Shrugging, I said "Good question." We both laughed and I went to join Jason for a breakfast of spicy rice and fried eggs.
The process of acquiring Sumatran coffee is convoluted in large part by the presence of collectors. Collectors are people who buy coffee at various stages of process from farmers (generally cherry or pulped full moisture), continue that processing to some extent, and then deliver the coffee to Coops or exporters, who finish the processing and export the coffee. When you visit with a Coop, as you would anywhere, you can speak with farmers and visit farms, you can learn about Coop organization, varieties, yields, pests, and etc. Still, the absence of the collector at these meetings severely limits their usefulness. This is because without the collector, the Coop has no say over what gets delivered, and on the other side, the farmer has no say over with what or to whom their coffee is delivered.
We needed to talk to some collectors, but I'm ahead of myself.
One of the challenges and reasons for our trip goes like this: when we visit other coffee producing countries, we know what we want. We don't really know what we want from Sumatran coffee. Do we want coffees in the style of clean, washed centrals, because that's the right way to process? Of sun dried Ethiopians or pulp natural Brazils? Wet hulling is flat wrong in so many ways. I can explain. Emphasis added.
In Sumatra, coffee is:
Harvested. So far so good, excepting the many levels of non-selectivity.
Mechanically pulped. This is mostly just the skin. Mucilage is largely left on. Coffee is stored for up to a day, frequently in sacks, and then washed. This "storing" is essentially a loosely controlled dry ferment that allows the mucilage to be washed off.
After washing it's dried to approximately 30-35% moisture. I've read, and we were told, 30-40%. This is generally the point at which coffee is sold to a collector.
Dry milled. Parchment is mechanically removed while the coffee is still at 25-35% moisture. The blue-green color of many Sumatran coffees is attributed to this early hulling. Also attributable to this method are the frequently crushed, broken and subsequently infected beans present in Sumatran coffees. Green coffee fresh on the patio is soft enough to be bent between thumb and forefinger.
Patio dried. Road side dried. Tarp on ground dried.
So why not go and get them to stop it? For one, because that misses the point entirely. While the world of wine has embarked happily (successfully) on the road to homogenization, and while portions of the coffee world seem yearning to follow, this may be a point where it's good to be so far behind.
A good question illustrating this: why would you roast anything other than Kenyan and Ethiopian coffee, maybe with a small seasonal high altitude Central or top flight Colombian? Why even look at coffees from anywhere else when you'd be so hard pressed to find anything objectively better by attributes (Sweetness? Nope. Acidity? Nope. Complexity? Nope. Transparency? Nope.) than what these origins can offer? Simply stated: because other coffees are different, unique, interesting. El Salvador can offer cups that Kenya categorically can not offer. There is a 100 point cap on most 100 point scales; there are also other, nonlinear limits. Back to Sumatra.
You may have seen our cherry ripeness cards. These handy little cards depict a gradation of coffee cherries from very green to very purple- from under to over-ripe. Three cherries
are highlighted as ideally ripe, and stamped with a reassuring thumbs up. At the first Coop we visited we pulled out the cards, mostly as a starting point for conversation. They brought us a cherry sample, essentially saying "Yes, we definitely do that":
"All of it." OK. Well, we've been drinking Sumatran coffee for a long time now and as such it's really no more hit and miss than anything else- if you consider that hit and miss is an integral part of the coffee (see how meta I just got). This is at a good Coop, with good coffee. If this selection was the norm, then the card was lacking a certain level of applicability, rather than the other way round. We began by asking if the selection on a particular lot could be refined by maybe just eliminating the greens and yellows. The idea being to try something achievable within the given context and see what changes. If pulling greens and yellows didn't make a noticeable difference in the cup, it wouldn't make sense to push for even finer resolution- it would just make more work and more expense for an unknown and likely small gain. Starting small and working progressively allows us to find out- without undue expectations or stresses on either side.
On to our first farm visits (finally, it took us a couple of days and a 10 hour drive before we were on our first farm). The first thing you notice is that the farms are green. GREEN. Shade plantings are well organized, varied, and numerous. The soil is soft, a rich red-brown. Everything looks healthy. There are touches of rust here and there, but few and far between from what we saw. Everything is dripping. Coffee trees can be in all stages of production- new growth, flowers, green and ripe cherries.
The majority of trees are HdT and Catimor derived, which is to say, the majority of Sumatran coffee is HdT and Catimor. This is important. If you've ever enjoyed a Sumatran coffee, you've probably enjoyed Catimor. Locally, the common names are Tim-Tim and Ateng, respectively. It seems that there are numerous locally adapted Catimor varieties, some of which are claimed to have excellent cup qualities. More on this soon.
One of the things that makes Sumatra so interesting is that mixed in with all the HdT there are very old Typica and Ethiopian plants, as well as some Caturra and Bourbon. The question was begged: "Can you show us some Typica-Ethiopian-Caturra-Bourbon trees?" And off we'd go. Pulling up to a farm, showing us the Typica, et al. meant wading through rows and rows of Ateng. You'd get to a corner of the farm and they'd say, "This is Caturra." Or you'd be walking along and they'd point out here and there, "This is Typica, this is Ethiopian." Ok. "Is it possible to pick just the Typica? Just the Abyssinia?" -hesitation. The thing is, most Sumatran coffee is not picked like that. The varieties are as mixed as the ripeness, and it's all just picked for process. The collectors ask for weight, purchase weight, process and sell weight.
If you've ever enjoyed a Sumatran coffee and thought, "This is Sumatran!?", then brewed another cup and with dashed hopes realized "this is Sumatran [decrescendo].", you've probably hit an Arabica seam in the lot (though not necessarily- more on this).
Anywho, bummer. We gotta talk to some collectors. There's a whole world of random involved here, and it seems to orbit the collectors.
We left our first group of Coop visits with a simple plan in place. We would receive samples representing small lots collected from different communities within the Coop. This would allow us to see if small local differences- whether in processing, HdT%, or terroir would show up in the cup. If not, the coffees could be blended and purchased as per normal with us paying a small premium for the effort. In addition to this, we emphasized the success of the cherry selection lot, and worked out the details to build on that success.
From here we were off to Wahana estate, unique in that they are able to offer single varieties and maintain control from planting to export. We began by cupping in their lab. I can flatly state that this was one of the single most interesting cuppings I've ever participated in. There were washed, wet-hulled and natural processed coffees on the table (all Sumatran). There were standard regional blends and single variety lots- both Atengs and Arabicas.
This cupping isolated a lot of variables we weren't sure we would be able to reliably isolate. A number of these coffees were what I would consider good, standard Sumatrans. The Lintong and the Mandheling regional coffees were both obviously Sumatran, and were both very distinct from one another- the Lintong was buttery, grassy, and vegetal, while the Mandheling was earthy, bell peppery and a little grapefruity/pithy. The natural coffee tasted like a cross between the big (if simpler) blueberry blushed naturals of Central America with the wilder wine and compote of our Yemeni Haraaz.
The top three coffees were a Jantung- this is a Typica; a Longberry- this is thought to be an adapted relative of Ethiopia's Harrar Longberry; and another called Andongsari. The first two are essentially what we came looking for. Both stood out on the table. The surprise was the Andongsari. Selected from a Colombian Catimor (read: highly selected and carefully back-crossed), this is a Catimor-Caturra-HdT cross that was released by the Indonesian Coffee and Cacao Research Institute. In the cup it tasted like what it would taste like if raisins could be raisinated (like if you made cookies, dried and ground them into a flour, and then used that cookie flour to make another batch of cookies). Very saturated (and delicious) to say the least. We're excited to be bringing these coffees in to say even less.
More recently in our lab's PSS cupping, both the Jantung and the Longberry stood out even more. While the Andongsari maintained it's double-take depth, this time the profile was strictly Sumatra: roasted Serrano and Bell peppers, sweet, and very heavy bodied. The Jantung scored high with deep, savory fruit, very tangy acidity, honeydew melon, and lemon curd. The Longberry, while not topping out the Jantung's depth and score, was probably the most interesting on the table with a full range of notes from floral tea, rose water, and citrus, to butter and roasted tomatoes.
We considered cutting our trip short at this point. What else could we see? By way of offering a bit of unsolicited advice: if you're ever visiting a place in which everything you see is different from what you've seen, don't rhetorically ask "what else could we see?". We sort of asked that, but we also went on, if mostly out of respect for having made further appointments. The thing was that we were heading back to Coops- different Coops, but same Coop questions (remember, we'd seen those already, asked those already...). The thing was, and little did we know, that things were just getting warmed up.
We began with a meeting in the Coop office, discussing Coop things, and eating packets of Nasi Goreng- spicy, oily fried rice with fried eggs or chicken. The conversation was fine, and familiar. Then we went to visit with a farmer...who was also a collector. Interesting turn of events. We went up to one of the farms that he collects from. A husband and wife came down to see us, sacks filled with cherry. Sabri- the collector-farmer, pulled out a handful of cherry to show us. It was as indiscriminate as the first bunch that we were shown. I got out one of my handy cherry selection cards and picked through the cherries in his hand, selecting just those that fit with the three thumbs up cherries. Sabri looked at them, picked up one cherry, and said that it was too ripe. My face must have registered some surprise. Sabri smiled, opened up the cherry, and showed me this:
Plain and simple, Sabri's got game. He took us to a couple of farms that he tends. On one he showed us some old Abyssinia plants. On another, Bourbon. When we asked if he could keep those separate, he said maybe, but it would be very difficult. This wasn't nudge-nudge wink-wink. This was an open and honest assessment that maybe he wouldn't be able to do it. Even as the collector for and essentially manager of these farms, the idea of selective picking and lot separation posed challenges to the point where he was hesitant to guarantee that he could. We expressed great interest, saying that if he would try to do it, we wanted to try it and would be happy to buy it. We told him that by starting with a smaller lot or two we would be able to buy it either way, no guarantee required on his part. Jason stressed numerous times that we weren't going to ask for any extra work without paying for it. Sabri said that he would try. This was in November. Fast forward to January. Two samples show up in our lab:
Pretty good :) Now, pre-ships are not arrivals, and this certainly holds true for Sumatra. That said, these were blinded on a table with two other standard cup Sumatrans and the difference was glaring. Because, why not... Fast forward to May. Two lots show up in our warehouse:
Like I said, Sabri's got game. One thing that I'd like to stress here is that these are Wet-Hulled Sumatran Coffees- and this is exactly what is so remarkable about them. They exemplify the character of the origin and the wet hulled process. You don't mistake them for washed coffees just because they're clean. You do reassess your take on wet hulled and Sumatran coffees.
Do we need to improve Sumatran coffees? Advance or help them progress? What does
that even mean? Does it mean destroying Sumatran coffees? While I am a person who
puts things in my mouth professionally and as such am happy to see fewer and fewer defects, I prefer to not throw the bath water out with the baby. The reason I am psychologically able to stay interested and engaged is exactly this dynamic (it's nonlinear!) evolution. Did we go down and ask questions, poke around some, make a request and take a risk, ultimately to find something really amazing? Yes, we did that. Did we change Sumatran coffee for the better? No. Come on, man, Sumatran coffee just changed us for the better. Did we create something new? Nope. If anyone did, it was Sabri and the nonlinear coffee loops. They'd been doing it for a long time, accumulating and organizing for a long time. We may have catalyzed, but Sabri is the attractor in all this, and the nonlinear coffee loops we're seeing emerge aren't done by a long shot.
Very Best Wishes,