Thanks to my friend Zee Zamorah Perez for sharing these beautiful pictures of Bukidnon province on our trip to the village of Miarayon. This trip was in late May of this year; I spent a month in the Philippines and got to visit Bukidnon towards the end of the month.
Miarayon is on the lands of indigenous people there, on the southern island of Mindanao. We had such a lovely trip. There was even a double-rainbow.
Yes, those are coffee trees overhead, and coffee wildlings underfoot.
Here are some of the results I've compiled of our large project classifying soil types and investigating the influence of soil, climate, and varietal on cup quality in Puerto Rico.
These graphs and comments are part of a much larger report, with databases and maps, which will be released soon. Just a little preview, which I hope you find interesting. The purpose of this project is to help farmers improve quality and prices in Puerto Rico. All the data collected, and all of the analysis, will be published and distributed to farmers (in Spanish and Enlgish), so that they can put our findings into action for their own benefit.
How did I arrive at these data points? The altitude and varietal information was provided by the USDA researchers in Puerto Rico. Each sample was collected individually, and sample collectors made a GPS recording on-site, standing next to the trees from which the cherries were taken. These readings include latitude, longitude, and altitude above sea level. The cupping scores are the result of a week of extensive blind cupping done by a team of Q-graders (myself included) in California, in May. Each sample was cupped multiple times, in random order, and the scores you see here are means taken from all the individual scores recorded.
The portion quoted here refers to other sections of the document which are not publicly available yet. Sorry, you'll just have to wait!
(click on graphs to embiggen)
There is a strong correlation between the quality of the samples and the altitude at which the coffee was grown at. As one would expect, generally speaking, the higher the coffee was grown, the higher it scored on the cupping table. This is one of the strongest relationships we found in all the data.
While not all of the high-grown coffees were in the very upper echelon of cupping scores, most of them were. And the relationship is even stronger at the low end of the spectrum. All of the lowest scoring coffees belonged in the lower altitude categories.
The following graph illustrates the relationship between coffee quality and altitude, across all varietals and soil types:
This graph shows an average gain in quality of just over 2 points from the lowest altitudes to the highest.
Altitude by varietal
One of the most interesting findings in all of the data we collected and analyzed was that improvements due to altitude were much stronger when certain varietals were used. This leads us to the conclusion that producers at higher altitudes would benefit even more by switching to the preferred varietals.
Once again, the average improvement (shown above) for higher altitudes was just over 2 points.
The next graph shows what that improvement looked like when we limit the analysis to just limaní, fronton, and catimor (three low-scoring varietals):
We can observe the same general upward trend that we saw in the comprehensive data set. However, if we read the graph closely, we can observe that the improvement is much less dramatic. In fact, there is barely 1 point of quality improvement in over 2000 feet of altitude increase. Producers who plant these varietals (fronton, limani, and catimor) at high altitude are not receiving the full benefit of their natural altitude advantage.
Let us now contrast this with the data from a different subset, using the high-scoring varietals pacas, bourbon, and caturra.
Once again, we see the expected increase in quality as altitude increases. However, in this case, the increase is far more dramatic. The low-altitude coffees score just above 80 points. But the high-altitude coffees are nearly at 84. That is nearly a 4 point gain in cup quality due to altitude, the kind of quality gains that tend to bring much higher prices in the specialty market.
Producers who are planting pacas, bourbon, and caturra at high altitude are getting a much better return on the natural advantage of high altitude.
Conclusion: As we saw in the first section, all coffee producers can expect an increase in quality by switching to higher-quality varietals. However, this switch is even more crucial for higher altitude producers. The higher the altitude, the more benefit producers can see from using these better varietals. Producers who plant lower quality varietals at higher altitudes are missing out on the huge benefit that altitude can provide.
It's spring in North America, but in Panama the winter is just starting. Although it's pushing 90 degrees in the lowlands, and not much cooler up here in the mountains, the rainy season has begun in full force. And that's what defines the winter here.
I'm here with a group of coffee farmers from Puerto Rico, who are here to learn how things are done in Panama. Here are some pictures that show what coffee country looks like in the down times.
The buying guide I was working on for Ethiopian coffee, under the aegis of the USAID-ATEP project there, is finally finished.
We are printing up about a hundred coffees to take to the SCAA show in Houston at the end of the month. In the meantime, people can get access this document online here. This is a very big file and will take a couple minutes to load, even with a fast connection. Or you can download the pdf file by right-clicking the link.
This is a complete guide to understanding Ethiopian coffee, from production, to processing, to buying and selling. It includes phone numbers and emails of all the major cooperative unions and exporters, logistical information about buying Ethiopian coffee (and coffee in general). It even has an extended section showing the morphology of different coffee beans from different regions of Ethiopia (with astonishing high-resolution pictures).
I'll post some of the most interesting pictures and information here on the blog, but if you want to take a free master class on understanding how coffee really works, I recommend you download a copy for yourself.
I've been keeping busy teaching in Honduras and San Francisco. And right now I'm in New York doing some consulting work. Which is fitting enough because today I was invited to take part in a forum for the New York Times.
The Times published this interesting article about the possibility that climate change is the driving force behind the record-high price of green coffee right now.
The Times also runs a neat feature called "Room for Debate" to encourage discussion on their website. The editor of that feature asked me to weigh in on the notion of "peak coffee."
You can find the main page for the debate here, and my own take here. Enjoy!
I've been composing a rather long guide to buying coffee in Ethiopia. There are still a few more drafts to go through, but I thought it would be nice to post some of the information here on the blog.
The completed guide will be online eventually, and I'll be sure to post the URL when it becomes available. Some of it is quite technical stuff, but for now, here's a little 101 stuff by way of introduction...
The most important thing to remember about Ethiopian coffee is that Ethiopia is the Motherland of all arabica coffee. In a certain sense, all arabica coffee is Ethiopian, whether it is grown in Latin America or Indonesia or on a hillside in Sidama.
When coffee was taken to other countries, people had to find ways to adapt it to the local climate. You find that arabica coffee grows best — worldwide — in places that have climates similar to that of Ethiopia: mountainous, tropical, with moderate wet and dry seasons.
Generally, in Ethiopia, no such adaptation is necessary! The coffee has been growing there for literally thousands of years, in the forests of southeastern Ethiopia. It is already perfectly adapted to the climate. This is the immense advantage that Ethiopia has over all other coffee producing countries.
As the “origin of all origins,” Ethiopia has another unique feature: hundreds of heirloom varietals. In many cases, farmers grow their own unique heirloom varietals. The majority of these varietals grow nowhere else in the world, and a great many of them have not even been classified.
In many places — often in Sidama and in Harar, for example — many smallholder farms will pool their coffees at a small local milling station, each contributing his own special coffee. The result is a complex melange of unique flavors, the truest expression of local terroir to be found anywhere on the planet. The rich complexity in a cup of Yirgacheffe, for example, is largely a product of this special combination that occurs nowhere else in the world.
It is difficult to make generalizations about the flavor of Ethiopian coffee, for all the reasons stated above. Furthermore, each coffee growing region is home to unique flavors. These are explained in greater detail in this guide, under the subheadings of each region in Part Two.
If one had to make some broad generalizations about Ethiopian coffee — keeping in mind that there are many exceptions to the rule — one can say the following. Ethiopian coffees tend to be grown at middle-high to very-high altitudes. The result is generally a hard-bean type, with intense flavors and aromatics. Fruit flavors are common in all regions, though the specific fruit character varies from region to region. Berry aromatics are relatively common, as well as citrus and chocolate. Ethiopian coffees can be full-bodied (natural Grade 4 Limu, for instance) or light in body (washed Grade 1 Yirgacheffe, for instance), but in either case the mouthfeel of top quality Ethiopian coffees is generally smooth and pleasing.
Ethiopia grows and exports only arabica coffee, not robusta.
This is for folks who are damn serious about their coffee businesses and their coffee careers. The world's most unique coffee education course, among the coffee farms and cloud forests of Panama. A truly unforgettable learning experience that will launch you into the next level (and possibly several more levels beyond that).
This course is five days of intensive coffee education amid the splendor of coffee farms growing along a nature preserve in the volcanic cloud forests of Panama. It's as beautiful as it sounds.
And by the way, March is absolutely the month you want to be in the mountains of Panama. Warm and sunny without being humid. Cool breezes among the trees and mountainsides... it's paradise. The farm we are staying at is surrounded by nature preserves, and serves as a stopover for dozens of different tropical and migratory birds. In fact, they get annual groups of ornithologists that come and stay in these cabins.
But this is no idle sightseeing trip. We'll be studying intensively the workings of a coffee farm, with a special eye towards how quality is crafted. Course topics include:
• Introduction to Sensory Analysis
• Intensive Tasting Exercises
• Coffee Tasting Training and Triangulation
• Applied Roasting Theory
• Hands-on Roasting Sessions
• The Workings of a Coffee Farm
• Tours of High Altitude Specialty Coffee Farms
• Theory of Growing Coffee
• Coffee Processing Up Close and Personal
• Environmental and Social Sustainability
• Buying Coffee for Your Business
• Developing Relationships with Growers
Finally I should mention too that March is the end of the harvest season in Panama. We will have dozens upon dozens of fresh-crop, unsold specialty coffees on site for roasting and cupping. It would be great to see some of you blog-readers in Panama, but space is very limited, of course.
Hello from Puerto Rico. This is just the way this blog goes sometimes. I go on trips for my work in the coffee industry, and while I'm gone, I have trouble posting. Sometimes there's no internet, sometimes I'm up in the mountains somewhere, sometimes I'm just having too much fun to hole up indoors and work on my computer. Then I get home from a trip, camera fat with pictures and video, and I have lots to say, and the posts come at a faster clip.
Right now I'm in Puerto Rico for a research project investigating the effect of different soil types on coffee plants and coffee flavors. Did you know that Puerto Rico has almost every type of soil in the world represented somewhere on the island? I did not know that before recently. But it does, and this project is going to take advantage of that little fact nicely.
It sounds a little funny to call Puerto Rico "undiscovered," because as far as tropical locales go, this island is as un-exotic as they come, at least for United Statesians. But as far as specialty coffee is concerned, it is indeed undiscovered; it might as well not even exist Puerto Rico has some very, very nice coffees, but you would never know that from inside the insular world of specialty coffee in North America.
Why is that? Why can you find an El Salvador coffee in every single hoity-toity super-specialty tattoo-bedecked-barista-having coffee shop in western Brooklyn, but you can't find a single Puerto Rican coffee? Is this because the coffee in El Salvador is categorically superior to that of Puerto Rico. No, it is because of a whole host of other factors, having to do with development, history, economics, and well shoot...
It's 85 degrees outside, it's Friday afternoon, the sun is starting to go down, I'm two blocks from the beach, and I'm ready for a little relaxation after a week of tramping around the research station and driving the curvy roads in the mountains. Suffice it to say, I've had an extremely interesting time, and I'll have lots more to share when I get back, on the blog, in person in Seattle, and perhaps in New York City, too, the Dear willing.
In the meantimes, enjoy your coffee, wherever you might be.