These five woman are selling salt in an open air market.
I rounded a bend along a quiet stretch of road and there
it was, a meadow with a thousand sellers and half as many buyers.
These five woman were having a hell of a good time just sitting there
telling each other who knows what. But they looked familiar. Each face
reminded me of someone I know now or knew in my life. It reminded me
of when, after having left New York City a decade earlier, I returned
to my native city for a brief visit and, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I
went to a baseball game at the fabled Yankee Stadium. I am a Boston
Red Sox fan but I love Yankee Stadium as an icon of my youth, growing
up less then a mile from center field. But I digress.
That lazy Sunday afternoon at Yankee Stadium I noticed something
I could not have noticed before. I had been gone from The City for
about ten years, having participated in the Great Hippie Migration of
the early ’70’s. I landed in Northern California where I met Joan
(President of Thanksgiving Coffee Company) and began a “life after New
York City”. So I had a good ten years of meeting people and
establishing new relationships. Back at Yankee Stadium that afternoon
I noticed so many familiar faces, faces that reminded me of my
California friends. It was as if I had discovered a secret. There are
only so many types of faces, individual all, but somehow falling
into types that could remind you of people you know elsewhere. When I
got back to Northern California I wrote a piece for Mendocino
Grapevine, our weekly Alternative newspaper at the time. I called it,
“I Saw Your Face at Yankee Stadium”. Look at these Rwandan woman
closely. Beautiful and oh so familiar looking. I did not purchase
any salt, but I did stop to take a deep look …at five woman I knew
I never wanted to forget.
Aranjuez, Nicaragua 1992
There were five of us under the forest canopy and each of us knew our search was over. Let me explain. Jan Eno (blue shirt on left), and I (behind the camera), were looking for the fabled great Nicaraguan coffee that had been denied U.S. coffee roasters due to the Reagan Embargo (1985-1991). Jan was Thanksgiving Coffee’s Roastmaster at the time. On the far right in the black T shirt was Roberto Vargas, a Nicaraguan who had fought in the Sandinista Revolution, came to the United States and lived in the Mission District of San Francisco, and was the creative force behind the creation of The Mission Cultural Center. I don’t exactly remember how we met, but it was he who brought me and Jan face to face with Byron Corrales and his father Arnolfo. This photo was taken on their farm. We had just completed an agreement. Byron and family would sell Thanksgiving Coffee 37,500 lbs of their family’s certified organic coffee and a similar amount of the Cooperative’s non-organic coffee. Thanksgiving Coffee would pay 50 cents over the then current world price. It was a historic moment. It would be the first Nicaraguan coffee directly imported into the United States since 1979 when the Sandinistas gained control from the Dictator Somoza. This was the picture I wanted to mark the moment.
The picture has many details that I would like to point out; we are kneeling in filtered sunlight, under coffee trees shaded by an over story of banana trees (the broad, bright green leaves behind Byron). The coffee cherries are full size but still green. It is still two months to harvest so this is September. Some of the coffee tree leaves have white spots on them, an indication of a kind of rust or mold that will need attention. Byron’s hat clearly shows the icon of the cooperative movement and in fact, at the time this photo was taken, Byron was Vice President of his cooperative, Solidaridad.
Where are these people now? Jan works as Roastmaster for the Urth Cafes of Southern California of which there are four. They are our largest “account”. Jan still lives on the Mendocino Coast and operates out of our cupping lab here in Ft Bragg. We see him every day and he is an integral part of our quality mission. Byron is a full time coffee farmer on his family farm but has become Nicaragua’s premier biodynamic and organic coffee farmer and now also heads up the Nicaraguan Government’s Organic Farming Extension Service for small and medium size farms. His father Arnolfo is still on the family farm, working as he has done for 8 decades. Roberto Vargas lives in San Antonio, Texas and is The Director of Venezuela President Hugo Chaves’ ” Heating Oil for the Poor” project. He is also one of Nicaragua’s honored poets, and I? , Well, I’m a historian waiting for the next great moment in coffee to be a part of.
(Side note: Byron grows one of the best coffees in the world. Try his exceptional Maracaturra varietal for yourself)
Antigua, Guatemala 1990 ; I awoke early that morning, anxious to get out into the city before the bustle of the marketplace made me have to use my meagre Spanish vocabulary. I wanted to see the city wake up. You know, cities do have a way of waking up that is all their own. It is a time when the smells are fresh and the aromas fragrant. Sound has not yet become noise. Light is stark, light shadows dance the soundless sound of shadows flicking light. Here, a mother, her child with his school books under arm, walk together. What are they talking about?
Late last week we had a chance to cup the first roast of the recently arrived “Sidama Natural”, our fruit-laden wildly characteristic single-origin Ethiopian. This is the last of our new crop coffees to arrive, and it’s been the most difficult. Yes, it is late, for starters. But it’s actually one of the first Ethiopian coffees to arrive in the US. When I look a lot of the green brokers offering sheets I see that they don’t have a single Ethiopian container scheduled to land for at least another two weeks. This is a testament to the hard work of Menno Simmons, our exporter, and partner with the Sidama Farmers Cooperative Union (SFCU), the producer of this fine coffee.
Also, everything in Ethiopia is a little up in the air this year. The government let out a lot of line in the past five years, and allowed for a good deal of liberalization in the coffee market. The opening this created made way for a lot of exciting coffees. This year, the government reeled it back in. It seems as if we are watching the growing pains of a 30-year marxist-inspired regime coming to terms with reality. The bummer is that a lot of great coffees are lost, and those that we can get out are held back by a lot of the strong-arm tactics of the government. The Misty Valley, for example, that turned a lot of heads last year is simply not available. The legendary Bagresh family that produced it is along with all other coffee producers and exporters mandated to sell their coffee into a new government run auction. There, coffees will be graded (by region, and then by quality) and 70 bag lots will be created by blending coffees graded by the same region and quality. It’s kind of like California telling Anderson Valley that they can’t grow grapes and then make wine out of them. You can grow grapes, but then you’ve got to sell them into the state-wide auction. Pinot Noir will be graded by quality by a government taster, and then lots will be created by blending the grapes with Pinot from around the state. The winery can then buy grapes out of the auction and make wine. Bummer if you’re Navarro or Lazy Creek or Goldeneye (a few of our many great local wineries). All that work you did to produce those distinctive grapes with exactly that character you’re looking for is all for naught….
Also, because there is no way to trace a bag of coffee through the auction, there is no way to keep the trail that’s required for organic or fair trade certification. Bummer again.
Luckily for us, there are three cooperatives who were able to get a “second window” exception that allows them to export directly what they produce. And even more luckily, Hache, the producer of our “Sidama Natural” is one of them. So though it’s been a roller coaster of a ride, we were able to maintain one of the few channels available for the procurement of Organic and Fair Trade coffee.
By now you’re probably ready for a cup of coffee, so I’ll get straight to it.
I was hopeful when I first cupped the pre-shipment sample in April. Though the coffee might have suffered at the hands of the many obstacles lining its way to us, it was still shining. Lots of honey, sweet pithy citrus, and hints of fruit—not as intensely strawberry-toned as before, but more filled out in other ways. The shots I pulled really registered—while they weren’t winey like last year’s Hache, but they were really, really sweet and caramelly, with really good depth, dimension, and crema. Not precisely a repeat performance but an impressive performance nonetheless. Then I made a decision that is probably fairly rare in the coffee world. Instead of looking at a coffee that had changed, and pushing aside in search of something more like the previous year’s, I booked another container of coffee from the farmers of the Hache cooperative.
After considering the options I decided that this was a time for us to stick with the farmers. Their coffee had showed us its potential, and though I was hoping for even better than last year, it’s still really good. If this is what an off year looks like, then this is a good place to be. If I’ve learned anything from watching Paul and tasting coffee alongside him it’s that when it comes to coffee, you’ve got to focus on people and the long term—when you find potential and invest in it, and keep your commitments, the good that comes later on down the road is well worth the wait.
All that said, I’m looking forward to sharing this coffee with you. We’re up and running in production, and if you order a package right now you’ll probably have it by the end of the week. At the end of the day, the Ethiopian government can do whatever it wants and we’ll keep coming back. The small-scale farmers of Ethiopia grow the world’s most unique coffees. This year is bright, deeply sweet, and full of nuance and character ranging from grapefruit to honeycomb. It’s heavy bodied, round, and smooth. Their coffee is simply too good to live without.
I’ll be working hard to get back to the quality of last year, maybe even surpass it. For now, we’ve got something really nice. I was talking with a friend yesterday who’s a winemaker in the Anderson Valley and she was lamenting the smoke damage caused by last summer’s wildfires. I asked her how this would affect her sales. She told me simply that the she would do everything she could do make the best wine possible. And that she expected that her customers would understand. She said that the real thrill is in riding out the hard times, making the best wine possible, and making it to those magical years when everything comes together, and each sip is almost magical. I nodded, and told her that I understood.
Thanks for reading, for supporting our search for the great coffees of the world, and for supporting us and our commitments to the farmers far away in the mountains of the coffeelands.
A few weeks back we had the lucky chance to meet Aloys Twungubumwe, a Rwandan man living in Fort Bragg. Aloys is a filmmaker, and had approached us with an idea: make a film about the story of coffee, but not the story of farming and cooperatives, no, the story of a roasting company, its community, and customers. Aloys’ idea was to make a film to share with the farmers, to give them a sense of where there coffee goes. Just like we spend endeavor to tell the story of coffee’s genesis to our customers, Aloys wanted to tell the other side of the coffee story, to the farmers.
Almost before we knew it, camera’s were set up. Light meter readings carefully checked, and microphones tested. In a matter of weeks, Aloys had produced, filmed, and edited a short documentary. He even worked on the weekends—I know it because last weekend as I was heading out for a long Sunday surf with my brother, I saw Aloys lugging around big 50-lb sand bags to brace his tripod for a perfect shot.
Aloys will be travelling to Rwanda later this year, and thanks to his connections at the Rwanda Cinema Center, he’s going to arrange for a screening of this film for the farmers on a giant inflatable movie screen. It’s going to be a sweet sight: hundreds, maybe even thousands of farmers gathered to watch a movie about their coffee. Who knows, maybe we can even talk Aloys into making a film about the farmers themselves. Then we’ll really come full circle.
You can watch the film on Aloys’ website, at the link below. Please leave him a comment if you’re so moved. This year’s Rwandan coffee just arrived from the farmers of the Dukunde Kawa Cooperative, and it’s better than ever. Get it while it’s hot!
Watch Gorilla Fund Coffee
Exciting news from Uganda this morning: after nearly 2 years of project development, The Peace Kawomera Cooperative is about to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the US Agency for International Development (the development wing of the State Department) for a $250,000 infrastructure development project.
Just writing those words is a little surreal. It’s been a long time coming, three trips to Uganda, countless hours meeting, emailing, listening to each other on scratchy internet and cell phones. Most of all, it’s been a tireless effort led by JJ Keki and Muhammed Kakaire Hatibu, Peace Kawomera’s Chairman and Secretary Manager, respectively.
The project will finance the construction of a world-class coffee processing and storage facility, which will avail the farmers with the best tools of the coffee trade. Now, for the first time in the history of coffee cultivation in Uganda, farmers will be able to bring out the full potential of their heirloom Bugisu Arabica varietals. The Cooperative will collect freshly picked, ripe cherries, and then control the process of depulping, fermenting, washing, and drying in a centralized facility. Based on the development of similar processing techniques in neighboring Kenya and Rwanda (where PKC recently visited our partner cooperative there to study the operation of a central washing station, read more), we expect the washing station to dramatically improve the quality of the farmers’ coffee. And we’re looking forward to paying more for each pound of coffee we buy.
None of this would be possible if it were not for the support of our loyal customers, who not only lined up to build a market for this young cooperative’s coffee, but also enlisted the power of their coffee buying dollars, through our profit sharing partnership, and over the past 5 years, raised over $100,000 which bought the land and building materials that gave USAID the confidence they needed to invest further in this remarkable endeavor.
Recently, we made some big changes in our project, and transitioned into a new phase of our partnership with the farmers. Instead of $1.00 per pound or package sold going back to Uganda, we dropped the rebate to $.25. At the same time, we increased the price to the farmers by $.20/lb. We hope to completely phase out the profit-sharing overtime, and replace it with ever increasing prices to the farmers. Please also note that we expect volumes to increase (because of clear price incentives and actual investment in increasing yields through better organic farming practices, pruning, and planting techniques). Instead of creating a continuing subsidy, we created a kind of front-loaded capital fund. This money sustained the rapid growth of a young cooperative, and got them to solid ground. Now they are up and running, and ready to grow.
It’s almost too sweet to believeâ€¦but then it gets even better. Two days ago, arrival samples from our two incoming containers (75,000 lbs) arrived. I roasted them immediately, and cupped them yesterday. They are great. Sweeter than ever before, with more clarity and complexity, and a fuller expression of their unique character. All of this was made possible by better management of coffee buying, which the cooperative initiated themselves. And this was using their old machinery and processing methodsâ€¦if the coffee is already improving this much, imagine how it will taste next year!
Many thanks to Laura Wetzler and Kulanu.org for their tireless work and for forging the initial connection with the Uganda-based USAID office. As with everything we’ve been able to do in Uganda, none of this would be possible without your contribution.
You+coffee you love+farmers who love their coffee+a roasting company who loves farmers+4 years of hard work=
Good coffee getting better+Farmers working smarter not harder+Incomes increasing+An interfaith peace-making initiative moving forward.
That’s an equation we’re really proud of. Not just a cup, but a just cup.
I mostly enjoy the thrill of an uphill battle, especially when it’s for a good cause. But I have to tell you, it’s nice to have it be easy every once in awhile.
I’m just back from Brazil, after a week-long trip to firm-up our relationship with an amazing group of farmers producing (against all odds and my many preconceived notions) fantastically distinctive and organically grown Brazilian coffee. A little background: I studied the coffee trade pretty intensely as an undergrad, and the many different market-regulating schemes that were developed over the years. Brazil always featured prominently in these experiments with the gas, clutch and break pedals of the coffee economy, and I’d read a lot about the Brazilian market. Fast forward 8 years and here I am at the front line representing one of the most demanding and well-respected coffee roasting companies in the country, and I’m packing my bags for a trip toâ€¦of all places, Brazil? Really?
It started a long time ago, in early 1993, when Luis Adauto de la Oliviera and his neighbors formed an association of small scale family farmers in the hills and valleys above the town of Poço Fundo (Deep Spring) in the southern part of Minas Gerais, some 300 km north of Sao Paulo. The association, a loose alliance of farmers, was formed with an eye towards better prices for its members, and hope for an environmentally sustainable future.
Aduato and the view from his farm. Across the valley is the house where he was born, now home to his brother Jose.
8 years later, the farmers formed a cooperative, and began to push for a viable transition to organically grown coffee. They saw immediately that this meant quality, and breaking down a lot of the prejudices that kept specialty buyers away from Brazil. The list of challenges was familiar to me, they are pervasive in the literature and culture of the coffee trade: Brazil is a commodity producer, their coffee trades at a negative differential off the futures market, they produce for volume and don’t care about quality, farmers don’t have any incentive to take care of their land or their trees, and worst of allâ€¦the coffee is no good.
Well, a few years ago, I tasted a coffee that was strikingly different. It was lush, velvety, and sweet. It had body, it had flavor, and best of all it had character. Sweet dark chocolate, tangerine, and a sweet floral perfume and flavor that reminded me of our local blackberry blossom honey. This is Brazilian coffee? It’s from small-scale farmers? It’s organic? It’s from a Fair Trade Cooperative? What is going on here?
So we started buying it, and bringing it little by little into our espresso blends. And it was good. Really good.
So, fast forward to this year’s SCAA show in Atlanta, and my chance to meet Luis Adauto in person, finally. Happily, we discovered that he understood my Spanish, and I understood his Portuguese. A few months of planning by email, some logistical juggling, a 20-hour plane ride, and voila, I’m walking down the streets of Poço Fundo to meet Luis Adauto, learn more about his cooperative’s operation, visit farms, and yes, taste some coffee.
I spent the next three days doing pretty much just that. There was an occasional break for good food, jokes about the American soccer team (we beat Spain, they were totally impressed and pretty surprised) and more than a few small, hot, and very, very sweet Brazilian-style cafezhinos. By the end of the visit, I’d seen some beautiful farms, and met a handful of the cooperative’s members, and begun the process of outlining a contract for a significant amount of Poço Fundo’s coffee, differentiated by altitude, varietal, and processing technique per our needs (mostly for espresso, you don’t want to miss itâ€¦coming to a coffee shop near you—also good brewed strong through a drip-style cone filter, or your French press).
It was a remarkably easy trip, the coffee is already great, the farmers are already committed to organic farming and productively so, and the cooperative is well-managed and resting on strong foundations. Totally amazing, fun, and yes, remarkably easy.
I’m just stoked to have had a chance to meet the farmers in person, and open the door to what I hope is a long and fruitful partnership. Already I know that I can’t wait to share their coffee with you. It’s going to be October before we have the new crop in, so don’t get too excited just yet. I’m also looking forward to deepening our relationship, and pushing for even better quality, rewarding it with better prices, and engaging as partners with the cooperative on a variety of projects ranging from improving quality and organic production to confronting climate change and its looming impacts. I’m thrilled that we are a part of a new beginning for Brazilian coffee, and am looking forward to supporting the growth of a new kind of coffee market, with better quality, more sustainable farming practices, and more benefits to family farmers. So much for all those old books, eh? Stay tuned for more, and if you want to learn a little bit more, visit the cooperative’s website.
Humble thanks to those who came before me, and made this cooperative what it is. It’s an honor and a joy to walk in your footsteps…I hope I get to meet you one day.
I grew up in the Bronx . In the 50’s and 60’s my folks considered it a big outing to hop into our ’48 Buick and take a ride “Downtown” on a Sunday Afternoon . Downtown for us was Manhattan and more specifically, Lindy’s Restaurant on Broadway and 52nd Street . Lindy’s was a favorite hang out for guys with names like Nathan Detroit, Sky Masterson, Liver Lips Louie, Nicely Nicely Johnson and of course, Damon Runyon. In later years it became the haunts of Norman Mailer, Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamel. They were the Broadway husslers in the 40’s and 50’s and the newspaper columnists in the 60’s and 70’s. They were Cheese Cake lovers and Lindy’s Cheese Cake was the best in New York City.
They made many different kinds of cheese cake, varying the taste with a few different fruit toppings piled four inches above the roof of the cheese cake. It is hard to pile fresh fruit that high and then cut perfect slices without the fruit splashing about , but they had it down. It took me until last year to figure out how they did it. (I will tell you how later). I preferred the Strawberry Cheese Cake but my dad loved the Blueberry . Nobody in my family ever tried to make one at home so the cheese cake became a memory that never let up. I grew up, went off to college, and came back to NYC and moved to Manhattan. Greenwich Village to be more precise, Patchen Place to be exact. The year was 1961. (Pre Bob Dylan but right in the middle of Lenny Bruces run at the Village Vanguard on Bleeker Street. On the second day of my Manhattan Adventure I took an uptown 8th Avenue Train to 42nd Street and walked the 8 blocks to Lindy’s . It was night time and the place was filled with “high rollers and late night floozys. Players in the Broadway Hustle . I was 23 years old and the youngest in the place by 30 years. But there were many chees ecake portions in various stages of disappearing visible on the tables. I was happy to see them because I had not been to Lindy’s since I was 16 and didn’t know if they still made them . I was not disappointed.
In 1967 The New York Magazine had a cheese cake recipe contest to determine the best recipe for the New York Classic . I saved the winning recipe and have used it for about 50 years. I think I have made about 150 in that time. You can top it with fruit or not. The ingredients cost about $6.00 (fruit extra). I like to eat cheese cake with coffee that is roasted to a deep brown color. A Vienna Roast from Guatemala cleanses the palate after each bite making each new bite just like the first burst of flavor. http://store.thanksgivingcoffee.com/coffee?browse=singleorigin
Purchase a hand mixer and a 9 inch spring form pan(round)
Purchase a foil baking pan (the kind we cook the turkey in for
Thanksgiving) It can be found in a supermarket for about $2.50. It
should be about 3 inches deep.
Set oven to 375 degrees and start it up before you start to mix
4-8ounce packs cream cheese(note low fat)
16 ounce sour cream
2 tablespoons Corn Starch
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice(about 1/2 lemon)
1 teaspoon Vanilla
Mix the cheese, sour cream, sugar, lemon juice, vanilla and corn starch
together in a large bowl. You will find the going tough if you dont have
an electric beater. Add one egg at a time until all are in the bowl.
(Remove the shells before you use the eggs)
The mixture should be smooth and filled with a creamy lightness with no
lumps so make sure that the cream cheese is at room temperature before
you put it in the bowl. Leave out overnight or at least 3 hours to get
it soft enough to beat by hand. With an electric beater you don’t have
the problem. That whole process should take about 15 minutes. Remember, smooth texture is good, but if you beat it past smooth, you will not enjoy the texture later when you eat it. Just beat it until there are no cheese lumps.
The crust is a simple graham cracker crumb and butter crust that can be found in The Joy of Cooking, my favorite all purpose cook book that teaches you the science behind your desired effect.
Line the spring form pan with the graham cracker and butter crust and pop it in the hot oven for 5 minutes . It will crisp up nicely to provide a counterpoint texture to the final result.
Remove the pan from the oven and pour the cheese mixture into it. Place the filled and heavy pan with batter into the Roasting pan and place in the oven on the middle rack. Pour cold water into the roasting pan until the water is half way up the side of the spring form pan. Bake for one hour.
W hen the hour is up, turn off the heat but let the cake cool for a couple of hours in the water before you take it out of the oven. This slow cooling allows the cake to set without falling . Leave in the spring form pan after you remove from the oven and cool in the refer for a couple of hours before serving. A wet knife cuts cheese cake best
You will get 10 hefty slices from this cheese cake. I will leave the fruit part up to your creativity .
Now you can have the taste of Lindy’s Cheese Cake just like the Nighthawks of the 50’s remember it to be. I can tell you this because I was there!
2 zakies of great coffee, carefully protected by secret coffeeman code.
We got a long-awaited package in the mail a few days ago, from Amsterdam. Labeled â€œ2 zakies groene koffie bonenâ€ (and although I don’t speak dutch) this was no mystery: this was the much anticipated, occasionally fretted over, often nagged at pre-shipment sample of this year’s Sidama Natural from the Hache Cooperative, part of the Sidama Farmers Cooperative Union.
This is a coffee I fell in love with last year during my first trip to Ethiopia. I actually fell in love with it from across the room at first (smell) sight. I was cupping a selection of the best washed coffees of the year and the next table over samples of the washed sun-dried naturals were being preparedâ€¦suddenly, deep in my cuppers trance, I smelled sweet sweet strawberry. I stopped, interrupted everyone else, and made a fool of myself hopping around on my two overcaffeinated feet asking about that sweet smelling coffee that had just been ground. Later, after I’d settled down, had an amazing lunch of Injera and Doro Wat (Ethiopian food is as great as their coffee, if you ask me), I found the same coffee, this time hidden as sample number 17 or whatever it was.
We bought a whole container of it, and over the past year it’s become a stand-out favorite among staff, long-time customers, and new friends alike. It’s the backbone of our espresso, and a couple other signature blends. Its jammy sweetness, deep heavy body, and sweet berry aroma are unique. These flavors are the result of a graceful coincidence of dozens of critical variables, and hundreds of other weighty factors as well. Ripe, sweet cherries produced by antique coffee varietals, slowly ripened thanks to high altitude, the gentle stress of good contrasting diurnal temperatures, just the right amount of rain to encourage the coffee to blossom and then a dry period long enough to encourage good pollination, followed by enough rain to allow the coffee trees to produce full, juicy fruitâ€¦and that’s all before the coffee has even been picked!
After that it’s selection, and careful drying on raised bends with plenty of airflow and a drying period long enough to allow for some sweet wine-like flavors to emerge through light fermentation, but not so long that sour or dry flavors develop. There is certainly a lot of science going on here, but its at least as much if not more artâ€¦and the result last year was thrilling. This year it is too!
The pre-shipment sample shows that same unique jammy strawberry character. It’s becoming clear that this is the hallmark of natural coffees from Sidama, as contrasted with the distinctive blueberry sweetness of natural coffees from Harrar. Only in Ethiopia, with such elegant and intense coffees, could we get away with waxing this poetic on coffee from specific micro-climates and appellations. But it’s there, in the cup, I’m sure a lot of you have tasted these flavors yourselves. In addition to that syrupy strawberry, there are a host of flavors in this year’s Hache much more characteristic of the washed coffees from Sidama: sweet citrus pith, and heavy jasmine blossom perfume-like elegance. At a darker roast, these flavors will hold and convert to heavy chocolate notes. At a lighter roast, the acidity will shed light on the full dimension of this coffee’s character.
What changed this year is a question burning a small hole in my head at the moment. I’ve already sent out a blitzkrieg of emails, and started comparing plane tickets on Ethiopian Airlines versus KLM. I’m thrilled, and pleasantly surprised. The farmers are happy. And I can’t wait to share this coffee with you. Last year’s Hache is still standing up nicely; if you want to get a final taste of it order soon. And stay tuned for notice of this coffees arrival sometime towards the end of June.
It was a big day in the cupping lab. Starting with a sample roasting session that went well after dark the night before (I got started a bit late thanks to a fan belt breaking on the company rig coming over the coastal range from San Francisco—that’s another, not so fun story) and picking up at 8am I had a chance to sort through, taste, and ponder this year’s crop from Cooperativa Solidaridad, in Aranjuez, Nicaragua. The exciting (and labor intensive) part of this cupping is that each of the cooperative’s farmers processes their coffee on-farm, and then keeps their beans separate all the way through to shipping. This enables us to explore the variety of flavors being produced by different farmers spread out over a mountainous area of about 30 square miles high in northern Nicaragua.
I came to work with my game face on (and a hearty bowl of oatmeal in my belly) and settled into a final check of the coffee roasts. Roasting each of the 100gram samples identically is critical; any difference in roast profile, time, or color will impart a variability that makes it impossible to compare one coffee to the other, which is the simple (and challenging) goal of this exercise. I spent about 5 hours yesterday roasting, checking, and re-roasting the samples. It’s an exhausting and enthralling task. There is a rhythm to the process, and pretty soon you find yourself immersed in a world of steam, smoke, flame, and smell. The end result, double and triple checked this morning, was 15 samples identically roasted, and ready to be scored and ranked.
I have to do this blind, otherwise I start to think about the farmers. I know these people, and have spent time on their farms taking shelter from a rainstorm, eating a delicious meal of chicken soup and potatoes all raised within 50 feet of their kitchen, or underneath the shade of their trees talking about coffee, farming, and their cooperative. They are friends, teachers, and partners, and I can’t help but think of them when I taste their coffee. Knowing that tasting with this kind of relationship is quickly an emotional experience, the first thing I do when the coffees arrive is number them, and tear off the tags identifying farmer, quantity, etc. Quite the scientist, I knowâ€¦
Then there’s the moment of truth: small 10gram samples are scooped out, and ground. Water is boiled. The perfume of sweet fresh coffee fills the room. And the hints of Aranjuez begin to float around tooâ€¦I move from sample to sample, spinning the rotating table underneath me smelling sweet maple syrup in some, deeply carmelized butterscotch in others, yellow raisins, and lightly toasted cashews. I pour equal amounts of freshly boiled water, and smell again. The aromas intensify. It’s almost as if the coffee blossoms. A timer sounds. 5 minutes is up. I break the cap, smell deeply, and clean away the wet grounds. Spoonful by spoonful I taste the coffees. Bright and lively they score well on acidity. Most are fantastic. A few really jump out. They are round, deeply toned with the clean characteristic sugary maple syrup-caramel that is the hallmark of these coffees. A number of the best blossom in the cup: their taste begins sweetly and with a lively citric acidity, a new dimension of flavor opens a second later (deep maple syrup rich sweetness) and a full buttery richness envelopes your palate. The flavor fades gracefully, and exits leaving a sweetly toned cacao bitterness. Damn, that’s good coffee!
More than half score over 90 on a scale of 100. That’s a full step up from previous years. The farmers’ hard work and our shared investment in the future of coffee is paying off.
We’ll load two shipping containers, the first with the 90-plus coffees. These will head for single origins, and our espresso blends. The balance will add a deep sweetness to our dark roasts. While the coffee heads north from Nicaragua, copies of my scoring sheet will head south. Benjamin Rivera, the Cooperative’s quality control officer and I will confer on the scores, and he’ll visit the farmers one by one to share the results. Where coffees are great, we’ll try to replicate the farmer’s craft at his or her neighbors. Where the coffees need help, we’ll dig in to identify and fix the problems. Already these coffees are greatâ€¦they get better each year, and I’m looking forward to sharing the new crop Nicaraguans with you soon—you can find them in our new single origin â€œJoya de Aranjuezâ€ 12oz. package.