Making Sense of Good Coffee

by Daniel Humphries

Coffee_2On May 29, at around 6:30 pm Eastern time, the program that runs the Best of Panama auction website stopped functioning unexpectedly. The bid price for this year’s top Panamanian coffee was stuck on $99.99 per pound. The program had not been designed to progress beyond that mark. Fifty dollars a pound was by far the most that had ever been paid for a pound of green coffee — and that price had been achieved or approached just a handful of times. Hacienda la Esmeralda, the prize-winning farm, had been producing astounding coffee for years, using meticulous and innovative growing, harvesting and processing techniques. Their famed gesha varietal, an heirloom plant from Ethiopia, created mind-blowing coffee, incredibly smooth and complex with the sweetness and citrus of an orange right off the tree. I tried the Esmeralda crop in 2005 and again in 2006. I remember remarking in ’05 that not only was it the best coffee I had ever tasted, it might have been the best anything I had ever tasted. Back in May, when the auction finally got up and running again after a three hour delay, the price went all the way to $130 a pound.

Does that sound absurd?

Anyone who tells you they fully understand the coffee trade is lying. Coffee, one of the most ubiquitous products of the modern world, comes from a thousand different places, and ends up in ten thousand more. People drink it as turkish coffee, cowboy coffee, or café crème. There are as many different ways to drink coffee as there are distinct cultures on Earth. This is well known.

What surprises many people is that there is also an incredible variety of different flavors and aromas possible in the bean itself, not just the mode of preparation. The blackened, over-roasted stuff, crying out for cream and sugar, that most people in the West have access to doesn’t suggest that coffee is a delicate agricultural product, sensitive to time and place. But it is, and resoundingly so.

I grew up in a rainy, northern town. The muscle tissue of every good citizen was saturated with coffee, usually from a can, prepared using a plastic-body “Mr. Coffee” (or similar) elecric drip machine. When the Millstone and Seattle’s Best brand coffee bins, with their whole beans bearing exotic names and their grind-on-the-spot machines, began appearing in the local grocery stores, it seemed like a glorious new age of consumer choice. It was a nagging question as to why some of the coffee had European designation (“French” roast, “Vienna” roast) and some Indonesian (“Java,” “Sumatra”), and others were even more inscrutable (“Midnight Blend,” anyone?). What were these designations meant to tell us? Where the coffee was grown, or roasted? Or perhaps something else entirely? These questions one shoved to the back of one’s mind, though.

My family’s choice was “French” roast. We thought it very unique at the time, our own little clan-defining consumer choice. Actually, dark or “French” roasts are exceedingly popular in the United States. There is a reason for this. And that one little fact speaks surprising volumes about the state of the global coffee trade.

In dollar terms, coffee is the second most-actively traded commodity in the world, after petroleum. This tells us it’s hugely popular, obviously. But it also tells us something else: coffee is a commodity. That is, it is traded —bought and sold on the international market— just as if it were gold, or crude oil. On Wall Street, no distinction is made between coffee grown in Honduras and coffee grown in India.

A staggering amount of coffee (and coffee abstracted in the form of capital) is changing hands, but much of it is controlled by just four companies (the “Big Four”: Nestle, Kraft, Sara Lee, and Procter & Gamble). Traditional, mountainside farmers in Kenya or Guatemala are forced to compete with huge conglomerate plantations in Brazil. In the 1990s, the global free trade regime convinced the government of Vietnam to replace enormous stretches of rice paddies with large-scale coffee plantations. Cheap, low-quality coffee flooded the market, driving already dismal prices into a tailspin, literally starving small farmers into switching crops (often to cocaine or khat).

Unfortunately, the process of Fair Trade certification is not the answer. The Fair Trade system quite admirably seeks to raise the prices that farmers get. It is certainly a step above the commodities market and I do not wish to denigrate the work done by TransFair USA. But ironically it ultimately traps farmers into the same system: coffee is treated as an undifferentiated commodity to be exported, like aluminum or diamonds, only with a slightly fairer price. Organic certification is also problematic as an indicator of an ethical product, though again I respect the work done by organic farmers and certifiers. Most people now understand that “organic“ does not necessarily mean small-scale or higher-quality or even fairer labor practices. It would be easier (though less fun and less personally enriching) to simply buy beans with the proper stickers slapped on it. But it takes a bit more thought, and in the end that is a good thing.

It does not have to be like this. The taste of a given coffee is enormously sensitive to how it was grown, when and how selectively it was harvested, how it was washed and processed, how it was stored, how it was shipped. If you want to preserve the incredible beauty of a unique coffee, every step along the way must be undertaken with great care and diligence. For instance, a naturally sweet cup of coffee (no sugar needed) is the hallmark of beans that were harvested selectively, only when each individual cherry was ripe. It’s a mind-changing experience to drink, but until recently, very few people have had the opportunity to try it.

Descriptions of the flavors of beans from various parts of the world can raise a few skeptical eyebrows from people accustomed to bad coffee (that is, most people) or elicit snide comments about dainty epicureanism. But once one tastes the coffee in question, especially side-by-side with something radically different, all suspicions are allayed. Did you know that the volcanic soil of El Salvador gives the coffee there the sharp and pleasing tang of iron? Or that the Yirgacheffe region of Ethiopia produces delicate, lemony coffees while the Harrar region is famed for pungent berry flavors? And among those that care about such things, there is a spirited, friendly debate about whether the unmistakeable wet-earth taste of Sumatran coffee, a byproduct of peculiar local processing, is a flaw that masks the beans true taste or a delightful, unique trait to be preserved.

Commodities markets are indifferent to all this. Coffee is coffee, whether it tastes like liquid mold or liquid gold. So the quality of beans that end up in, for example, the United States, is highly variable. This is where dark roasting comes into play. Dark-roasting coffee is like stewing meat. If you have a prime cut of free-range, grass-fed beef, you can pan-sear it for a few minutes and end up with a divine steak dinner. If all you have is gristle and it’s starting to go bad, you can just stew it for hours to make it palatable. Both are technically the same thing (cow meat), but, of course, there’s really no comparison.

Similarly, over-roasting coffee is a way of hiding the flaws in your coffee. If it was carelessly harvested, processed sloppily, and sat in a steamy tropical port city for way too long before being shipped, it’s going to taste bad: sour, musty, and literally like dirt. But if you then roast that coffee black as coal smoke, it will taste sort-of adequate in a smeared-palate way: smoky, bitter and maybe, if you are lucky, a bit caramelly. (I have simplified the case here a bit. A skilled artisan roaster can actually produce a lovely, controlled dark roast using high-quality beans. You may rest assured, however, that this is the exception to the rule.)

The taste of coffee is also highly dependent on how it’s prepared. So even a very fine coffee, properly roasted, can taste terrible if someone pulls a 60-second shot of espresso with it (as opposed to a more skillful 28-second shot, for example). With all these variables, it’s no wonder many people prefer the darkest possible roast then combined with the most possible milk and sugar (or Splenda, or cream, or creamer, or soy, or vanilla syrup, or frappuccino powder or anything to mask the fundamental nastiness of the beans).

The great news is that truly good coffee is eminently accessible to people living in the West today. For the end consumer, it doesn’t cost appreciably more than the low-grade stuff, and it’s often considerably cheaper than the medium-grade stuff passed off as “gourmet” at the chain stores (or in those supermarket bins). Because the phalanx of faceless commodities-market middlemen are cut out of the equation, the farmers receive a much greater portion of the final sale price, and the whole thing, from field to cup, is done on a more human scale.

More and more coffee in this mode — carefully produced, ethically sourced, fresh, and delicious — is reaching our shores every year, and more baristas and roasters are learning how to skillfully prepare it. It can be hard to imagine that this movement will become more than a footnote to the monstrous global coffee trade. Especially as the big companies begin to take notice and start to parrot the language of artisinal coffee without changing what they do, people are understandably very confused about what they are buying. But we have yet to even approach anything like a ceiling for how far we can take it. Perhaps skepticism about how big a difference it makes is rooted more in a failure of the imagination than in the supposedly ironclad laws of capital. And if you pay more attention to taste than to packaging or verbiage or stickers, you are off on the right foot. Ultimately, it is still only a consumer choice, if we choose to treat ourselves to better coffee. I can’t pretend it’s anything else. Of course, it’s also a consumer choice to drink bad, commodity-style coffee, or to remain in the dark about the difference.

La Esmeraldas jaw-dropping $130/pound is clearly an anomaly. Certainly the name cachet (and quite possibly the sheer, giddy lunacy of the moment) drove up the price. I dont think anyone believes it is literally dozens of times more delicious than, for instance, Panamas second-place coffee. But it was a watershed moment for growers around the world: a recognition of the worth of skill and dedication. A price that high is not sustainable, even for the wealthy West. But it is a beacon of what is possible. Coffee farmers deserve far more than they have received in the past, and they are beginning to get it. To continue this promising trend though, people must come to view their coffee in a new light, not as undifferentiated rocket fuel, but as what it is: a unique and ever-changing product of specific places, specific plants, and specific hands that work the soil.

For a good primer on how to find, purchase and prepare great coffee, try this series by tonx on dethroner. People in the New York region may be interested in the New York Coffee Society.

Daniel Humphries is a professional barista trainer and coffee sommelier living in New York City. His homepage is here.