Monday, August 30, 2010

Coffee Update 8-30-10


On the cupping table this week we tasted the shipment sample for the Sulawesi Toraja White Eagle and approved it for shipping. Now our 50 bags will be loaded onto the next available container and shipped out of Indonesia to Hayward, California, home of The Annex, one of the West Coast's many coffee warehouses. Once it arrives it will have to go through Customs Inspection and so long as everything goes well we will be able to start trucking bags into Denver. We might be a little later than our original hope of having the coffee in during the month of September, I would guess that it is more like six weeks out before we see the coffee here.

We still have had no word about the Sumatra Washed Gayo coffee and quite frankly have little hope of seeing the coffee this year. Over the years we have become rather spoiled with this coffee and the fact that it is the only wet processed Sumatra coffee leaves us few options, none that we are aware of in Sumatra, anyway. Last month we brought in a few bags of a semi-wet processed Papua New Guinea. It was well received so it will most likely take the place of the Gayo Mountain coffee this year. While not a full wet-processed coffee like what we could get from the Gayo Mountain mill, but it is not the dirty tasting dry-processed that is de rigueur for Sumatra.

Perhaps here would be a good place to speak about the differing types of processing for coffee cherries. Generally when one reads about how coffee is grown and processed two types of processing are described: the wet method, sometimes called washed; and the dry method, sometimes called natural. In the specialty trade the former is more prized than the latter. With the dry method the just picked cherries are laid out to dry in the sun. The surface the cherries are on vary, sometimes concrete, sometimes rattan mats, sometimes on bare earth. Once the cherry fruit has dried the cherries are milled, either in a hand operated husker or, if available, larger motorized ones. Typically these coffees are coming from rudimentary areas and as a result the quality varies significantly. So much so that in most cases this coffee is not seen fit for the specialty coffee trade. With a couple of exceptions, principally Ethiopia, Yemen, and Sumatra. Since each of these countries are some of the earliest areas where coffee was propagated they have obtained a certain status.

On the other end of the scale is the wet processed coffees. These coffees come from areas where water is abundant and there have been infrastructure developments within the area. In some places the wet-mill is owned by the farm or cooperative themselves, in other places it may be a separate operation buying coffee from around the area. Cherries arrive shortly after picking, ideally the same day, and are placed into large vats of water. Once the cherries have soaked they are then sent via water through a pulping device that separates the fruit and seeds. From there the depulped seeds sit in a tank for a period of time that allows naturally occurring enzymes to break down a layer of skin around the seeds. From there the seeds are then sent through a series of troughs to separate under and over ripened seeds and then to the drying beds. Almost always these beds will be made of concrete. The whole process can take place in as little as 24 hours. The net result is a clean, uniform product.

Some in the trade argue that the coffee coming from wet mills robs coffee of its natural flavor. We disagree (more or less respectively).

There is, however, a third process that sits in-between these two. It is called semi-wet. This coffee comes from areas that are water abundant but infrastructure deficient. The cherries will be pulped with water but then immediately set out to dry on varying surfaces (earth, mats, concrete). This method can be seen as something of the best of both worlds. While it lacks the sorting ability of a full wet method, most often the cherries are coming from small family run farms where better care in picking is employed. This gives us access to a lot of old heirloom coffees grown in very bio-diverse areas.

The majority of our organic cooperative coffee is processed this way, including our best selling varietals from Peru, Bolivia and Rwanda. It is this method that the Papua New Guinea coffee we have brought in is processed. To me, this is a better alternative than trying to find a not so dirty dry-processed coffee from Sumatra. Even when we find one that seems not so offending, it always seems to have a unpleasant rough aftertaste. One of the hallmarks of our coffee has always been the attribute of it tasting just as good cold as it did hot. Dry-processed coffees lack this characteristic and so really don't belong here.