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 is a video of a baby anteater, an evening impromptu concert by a brother and sister, and a huge ancient iga tree waving in the wind on Finca de Eleta coffee farm in Panama.
I always post about the coffee-related things I do in my job, on the road. I thought it would be nice to share some of the little slices of life that happen on the periphery; they are the simple details that make life beautiful.
Since my last post in December I have been traveling a lot, with much more actual coffee-related stuff to post on. Over the next week I hope to go through some of my notes, videos, and pictures and clean them up a bit to share here on the blog.
Here's a video I took this afternoon... a sunny August afternoon in Northern California. This is day two of a three day Advanced Roasting Techniques class I am teaching at Boot Coffee.
There are three groups going here, one on a 1 pound San Franciscan roaster (the red one), one on a 5 kilo Probat from 1948 (the black one), and one on a three barrel Gothot sample roaster (the silver one). Each team has a different task to complete, using green coffee from the stock of dozens of different coffees Boot Coffee has in its lab.
Tomorrow morning we are going to cup the results (27 coffees!) and have each team interpret and defend the results of their experiments.
For many years I read every single word of every single issue of Harper's Magazine. This went on for about 8 or 9 years, until Lewis Lapham retired as editor and I gradually lost interest in the magazine, though I still read it from time to time. For so long I held it in my mind as the epitome of literary and journalistic excellence that even though my ardor has somewhat faded, the name of that august publication still reverberates with deep meaning for me.
How happy then to get an email from an old friend with whom I shared this love (we often traded long-form opinions on this or that Harper's article via snail mail), pointing me to the July 2011 issue where there is a mention of me in a throwaway line at the bottom of page 82.
Amusingly, it's for something that I did, well, many years ago when I still read Harper's religiously. At Coffee Fest in Seattle in the mid-2000's, after competing in my first ever barista competition, I manned the Synesso booth on the show floor. Synesso was a very young company at the time. Up at Victrola Coffee on 15th (the original store) we had the second Synesso Cyncra machine ever built, and the first in any commercial setting. (That machine is still in operation, by the way, right down the street from where I am writing this... I had a shot of espresso off of it just the other day.)
So there weren't that many baristas on Earth that had experience using a Synesso — maybe ten or twelve of us. They asked me, along with my co-worker Kyle, to man the booth over the weekend of Coffee Fest. It was a lot of fun.
A few weeks later, while working a shift at Victrola, I got a call in the back room from someone who wanted private barista lessons. Actually it was the personal assistant of the man who wanted lessons. The man turned out to be Nathan Myhrvold. Apparently I had pulled a shot of coffee (roasted by this guy) for him at Coffee Fest that made him go out an buy his own one-group Synesso (check his wiki page if you are wondering who has the kind of money to buy an $8000 espresso machine based off of one shot). He hadn't been able to reproduce the shot in his home, so I went there and did some private lessons with him. Whether the lessons did the trick, I don't really know.
I forgot about this little episode, except occasionally as an anecdote at coffee parties in Anaheim or Minneaopolis, until last year a fact-checker contacted me to confirm the spelling of my name for a 2,438 page encyclopedia called Modernist Cuisine. This is Myhrvold's magnum opus on cooking. I was pleased and tickled to learn I would get a passing mention in the book, when the subject of coffee was mentioned. I still haven't read the actual book. That's a lot of pages.
Well, in Will Self's article Gastronomia: The beatification of our daily bread (subscription only), he happens to mention my name and the name of Victrola. Again, it's not really much at all. The only reason I'm going into this whole self-indulgent recollection is because it's Harper's, and Harper's was so very dear to my heart for so long.
But here comes the kicker. Self (whose writing I have always enjoyed) singles out Myhrvold's pretentiousness in what is a general take-down of over-indulgent foodie-ism. And I happen to agree with Self that the current, post-modern obsession with food is, well, frankly nauseating.
How bittersweet then, for yours truly, to read what he says:
One expects in life to be talked town to from time to time, but to be patronized by a cookbook? And I could aver that for sheer self-indulgent daffiness, Myhrvold's own account of being pulled a "God shot"—the ultimate and spiritually transfiguring shot of espresso—by Daniel Humphries of Victrola Coffee at a Seattle trade fair, takes the proverbial biscotti.
Well, that's all the daffy self-indulgence I have for you today. Regularly scheduled programming resumes on flurmsday.
Here is some more analysis, in visual form, of the soil and varietal analysis I did of last year's coffee crop in Puerto Rico. I entered each word every time it appeared on a cupping form, and correlated the data with different varietals. I have many of these charts made, but the files are large, so I'm posting just four here to give you an idea of how they look.
Most of these descriptors are aromatics, because the standard cupping forms have numerical scores for acidity, flavor, balance, and other major categories. Still, if a cupper (myself included) made a note of anything specific, no matter what the category, I included it in these diagrams.
The larger the word is, the more often it came up. The colors are included for contrast only — there is no data attached to the word colors. Click on the pictures to see them up close.
Fig. 7: descriptors for BOURBON
Strong positive aromatics, including notable honey, chocolate, toast, and caramel. Strongest presence of the very positive sweet, as well as the positive tangy.
Fig. 4: descriptors for CATIMOR
Dry is the dominant characteristic, indicated a dry, unpleasant mouthfeel or aftertaste. Ordinary nutty aromatics dominate, with malty tendencies. Negative peanutty and astringent notes are common.
Fig. 9: descriptors for TOP NINE COFFEES (all varietals)
In all we find that the very best Puerto Rican coffees tend to be sweet, bright, tangy and smooth or delicate, with high incidence of honey, nutty, lemon, caramel, chocolate, toast, and floral aromatics
Fig. 10: descriptors for BOTTOM NINE COFFEES (all varietals)
Overall, below-average to poor Puerto Rican coffees suffer from musty and peanutty aromatics, and show high incidence of sourness, dryness, and a lack of sweetness.
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.
Over the winter I completed work on an Ethiopian Coffee BuyingGuide. Willem Boot was the driving force behind this and he's got main author credit, and he made the amazing coffee morphology photos it contains. I wrote most of the copy and created the maps and was responsible for the overall form.
Reader Dave Janetta was kind enough to create a smaller version of the document, for ease of downloading. I only have 4 hard copies left, of the hundred or so I took to Houston for the Ethiopian delegation, so if you want a copy,
Download Ethiopian coffee guide sm.