Counter Culture Coffee’s ideal long-term system involves teaching the producers what great coffee tastes like. The idea is to give them the tools to evaluate their own quality and have farmers figure out for themselves how to grow great coffee beans. The company refers to this as “closing the feedback loop.” According to Peter Giuliano, Counter Culture wants to deliver strong premiums to those practicing good sustainability and coming up with great coffee, a practice which would help in reaching the viable production of high-quality beans over a period of many years. This brings up the final aspect of sustainable coffee production, and one that’s pushed aside too often: coffee quality.
Consumers who buy their morning java at the train station, or drink the coffee at the office because that’s what’s available, may not be overly-fussy about coffee quality. But for many others, coffee has become the new wine. Coffee enthusiasts will debate the merits of their favorite brews loudly and passionately, growing starry-eyed as they compare a Tanzania Pea Berry to an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe. As a World Cup final is to an ardent soccer fan, so are aroma, flavor, roast profile, and brewing method to the caffeine devotee. You undoubtedly know some of them, if you’re not one yourself; these are your friends and loved ones who consider Starbucks to be the Microsoft of coffee.
What Determines Quality
So, what determines coffee bean quality? Just about everything. The specific variety of bean, the microclimate in which it’s grown, how it’s grown, harvest, processing, drying, storage, and shipping. And that’s just for the unroasted coffee beans! Leaving the art of roasting out of the picture for a moment, think about the practices discussed so far. Organic, Shade Grown/Bird Friendly, Fair Trade, and sustainable. What do they all have in common? None can promise a high-quality coffee bean. Even a combination of these practices is no pledge of a good cup of coffee. If consumers of upscale/gourmet coffee don’t like the quality of their brew, they won’t buy it again. And insufficient consumer demand renders long-term viability impossible for any product. coffee. (Incidentally, roasting, in and of itself, is critical to coffee quality. A good roast can bring out the subtleties in coffee aroma, flavor, and body. A poorly-done roast can make a great coffee undrinkable.)
The next obvious questions, therefore, are what constitutes a good cup of coffee, and whether it isn’t all subjective.
Geoff Watts, the buyer for Intelligentsia, admits there’s a built-in subjectivity with any sort of tasting. Within the coffee industry, however, as well as outside of it, there’s a common set of descriptors. These are used worldwide at different competitions, such as the prestigious Cup of Excellence (probably the best-recognized and most successful of the multinational contests); many coffee-producing nations have their own competitions. A typical coffee competition would begin with the jurors, some of whom who are likely professional tasters, sampling anywhere between 200 and 1,000 coffees.
Mr. Watts, who has been a juror for 12 to 15 of these competitions within the past few years, recognizes that there are descriptors that emphasize points of agreement, as well as those that diverge along individual or national preferences. These descriptors include major categories such as:
“Cleanliness” (which includes the degree of clarity and whether there is any “noise”
Distracting elements (introduced as the result of poor harvesting or post-harvesting practices)
Body (represented by degree of intensity and presence versus non-presence, which Mr. Watts compared to drinking a glass of milk versus drinking a glass of water)
Balance (defined as how well the various elements such as brightness, acidity, etc. work together).
Balance is the “taster’s point” category, apparently, where a coffee’s score can really be adjusted up or down. There are a few “Coffee Flavor Wheels” in existence, with specific adjectives used to pinpoint aromas and tastes. Examples of these terms might be “jasmine,” “tarry” or “tangerine” for aroma, while the tastes seem less pinpointed—“astringent,” “nippy” and “delicate” being three possibilities. See our article on The Aromas & Flavors Of Coffee for common descriptors.
How To Achieve Superior Quality Coffee
There are quite a number of answers to this question, and much depends upon who you ask. A very limited number of importers and roasters have come up with the idea of “small lot” (also called “micro lot”) coffee. Nicole Chettero of TransFair USA reports that some 50% to 75% of coffee growers are small-scale farmers living in isolated areas. As a rule, all of the small-scale growers in one general area would combine their coffee beans to fill a shipping container so the beans could be transported. The beans from various farmers would mix together during this process.
But, as Mr. Guiliano of Counter Culture explains, some farmers do a better job than others. If a buyer could get down to the farmer level and pay more for great coffee beans, even if the total quantity of beans was only a few hundred pounds, not only would that buyer obtain better coffee, but the premium paid for good beans would stimulate positive competition among local farmers, as each tried to grow better-quality beans to get more money for them. More, if the buyer chose to blend the beans, he or she could leave out those of insipid nature or inferior quality, thus making for a better blend (most companies that blend beans do so by adding some that are less-expensive, and of lesser quality, to great-quality beans, in order to end up with something that’s merely good, though Mr. Giuliano is adamant that lesser beans will drag down an entire batch of coffee).
Micro Lot Coffee
Micro lot coffees have a connection with organic coffee, by happy coincidence. Organic certification requires extensive record keeping, so organic coffee farmers are required to note many details about their plantings, harvests, selling beans, and times in between. This same record-keeping allows coffee farmers to separate great lots of beans from those that aren’t quite so good, and more pay for better micro lots allows tracing back to the particular farmers who grew them.
Only a small segment of the coffee industry believes in working with micro lots. This method is fantastically impractical and labor-intensive; to acquire the forty thousand pounds that might last a roaster for just one year, a buyer may have to look through and taste some one hundred to one hundred fifty micro lots. It requires seemingly endless tastings on the part of the buyers and roasters, sometimes 50 or 60 coffees daily (you try it sometime!). But to quote Peter Giuliano, “When you do that much work to source a coffee, you become fiercely protective and proud of it.” Counter Culture, Intelligentsia, and Stumptown Coffee Roasters of Portland, Oregon are all noted for their micro lot coffee.