Back in 1978 (that’s thirty eight years ago) I was just beginning to learn about coffee. I spent the first six years getting comfortable with the fire and heat it took to convert it from a tasteless seed into a toasted reddish brown carrier of comforting flavor.
Then I turned my focus to understanding the botany and chemistry of this magical “bean.” One of the first things I wanted to know was what made my coffee so much better then every canned coffee on the shelf.
Back then, a one pound can of Folgers or Martinson’s cost one dollar. My coffee, packed in a clear bag, closed with a twist tie at the top, was $3.50 per pound. I wondered, how could those big coffee companies turn out coffee at such a low price?
Back then there was not a lot of intellectual conversation about coffee in print or on the web. (There was no web, the closest thing to it was The Encyclopedia Britannica.) Coffee was an unsophisticated cup of Joe and not much more. There were no “to go” cups. You didn’t see people walking in the streets, or driving cars with cups of coffee in there hand. Cars didn’t have cup holders yet. Cane sugar found its greatest use in coffee and there was no such thing as corn syrup in packaged foods. It was a simpler time, a time before craft beer, and when people smoked in restaurants.
My investigation led me to Robusta coffee vs. Arabica Coffee.
Back then Every coffee company said their coffee was “Mountain Grown,” an indication that it was High Quality with “Deep, Rich” flavor. But it was pretty much a lie. The canned coffee was basically the lowest grades of coffee they could put into the mouths of unsuspecting and gullible American consumers. The truth was that the major portion of the canned coffee blends was coffee from a variety called Robusta, and Robusta was really cheap coffee with a rough, leathery flavor with wood notes and an ashy dry finish. But it had a heavy body and packed a punch that my coffee did not come close to.
So what was going on here? I was roasting Arabicas, and they were blending in Robustas with their Arabica’s to lower their cost. Robusta was all about volume and price. Arabica was all about flavor. The difference between Specialty Coffee and the 300 year history of coffee leading up to 1978 was the focus on Arabica varieties and the disdain for the Robusta variety.
The botany of these two varieties was very different. Although a raw coffee bean is known to have over 1600 chemical compounds, we tend to define coffee by its caffeine content. (Did you know coffee is 20% coffee oil by weight?) I learned that Robusta varieties have 2.5 -3 times the caffeine as Arabica varieties. I learned that caffeine is a waste product of photosynthesis and is stored in the plant only because the plant, unlike the animal kingdom, can not get rid of its waste. So there it is. And being water soluble, it is not destroyed by the high heat of roasting, and comes out into the cup when coffee is brewed.
So why do these two varieties produce such different levels of Caffeine?
To get to the answer you need to know that the two varieties do best in different environments. The Robusta variety likes the lowlands where the sun is hot, the air is heavy and moist, and the ground is rich in alluvial soils. The Arabica variety loves the cool dryer climates of the high country between 3,000-6,000 ft above sea level. Here the soils are young, with a very thin layer of topsoil, the ground is cool and the forest shade trees are essential for the light sensitive leaves of the Arabica tree.
Photosynthesis is the process by which the plant takes in sunlight (energy) and along with the soils nutrients and water, converts these assets into food. In this case, into coffee berries which contain two seeds and a whole lot of sweet juicy pulp that surrounds them. The seeds are the way the plants reproduces itself, and in the two different environments that these varieties call home, the seeds wind up with different amounts of Carbohydrates (food) and Caffeine (waste). Why?
Germination risk is the reason. The tree evolved to maximize its chances for survival.
When a coffee tree drops its berries at the end of a growing season, it wants the seeds to have a high success rate, meaning it wants its seeds to germinate. In the case of the Arabica variety, high up the mountainside, the conditions for germination and young seedling survival are slim. The soil is dry and cool , and the rainy season is six months after the seeds are ripe and fall from the tree to the ground. The tree knows that it might be a while for the conditions to become perfect. So it prepares the seed by being very efficient with its photosynthesis.
It produces more food and less waste for each seed. High carbs for the long wait and for energy for sprouting under difficult conditions. The Robusta tree does not waste its energy on producing a lot of carbs for the seed’s germination energy because it knows that the soil is warm and moist, and that the nutrients are there in the soil to feed the plant in its sprouting stage. Why waste energy on producing long chain, complex carbohydrates? So the energy goes into the production of Caffeine.
I like to think of the Robusta as a Buick that will operate without being highly tuned and the Arabica tree as a Ferrari that will not run unless it is highly tuned.
Hardy Robusta – Fragile Arabica. Arabicas taste better because they have the need to put food in the seed. That food is a complex starch that under high heat, breaks down into simple sugars which caramelize and produce the flavor of coffee. Robusta has starch to convert to sugar in the roasting process and thus, it is less sweet. Now, caffeine being one of nature’s most bitter substances, adds a distinguishing bitterness to coffee- and 3 times more in Robusta. Arabica coffees have less caffeine, and more carbohydrates so it is sweeter and less bitter. The major negative in Robusta, Caffeine, becomes a positive when you forget the flavor and use it for the speedy pick-up that its caffeine gives the drinker.
In 1978 Thanksgiving Coffee Company introduced Pony Express, “The Jackhammer of Coffee,” the start your day with a “Blastoff” drink.
It is natures natural five-hour power shot. It will make your heart race, it will keep you on your toes, and if you want to stay awake, you will stay awake!
Today, Robusta coffees are quite a bit more flavorful, mostly because the way coffee has evolved over the past 35 years. Flavor counts for value, and value means higher price. When I first created Pony Express, the flavor was metallic with a petroleum aftertaste. It was rough and not to satisfying. Today, our Robusta comes from places like Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines. It is clean and has a flavor that will take you back to a time when coffee was “Just a cup of Joe”, but this time, you might just develop a taste for it and never look back.
– Paul Katzeff
DARK ROAST • HIGH CAFFEINE
Flor de Jinotega, Nicaragua
November 2010-January 2011 Harvest
Guadalupe Jesus Picado, SOPPEXCCA Cooperative, Jinotega Nicaragua. 2010.
Nestled in the mountains above the regional capital Jinotega, the farmers of SOPPEXCCA grow coffee under the protective shade of bananas, mangos, and mahogany, and alongside dense forests providing home to dozens of rare orchids and winter habitat for hundreds of migratory songbirds. Jinotega is the heartland of Nicaragua’s coffee producing zone and many of the country’s finest coffees come from the thousands of small-scale family farms arrayed throughout the department’s lush mountain landscape.
This landscape wasn’t always organized this way. Before the revolution of the 1980s many of these small family farms were actually consolidated in expansive haciendas owned by foreigners and the country’s elite and farmed with the intensive use of agrochemical fertilizers and pesticides. The farmers themselves were hired labor, invariably poorly paid. In fact, the genesis of the revolution itself traces directly to these large farms, and the thousands of farmers without access to land. One of the central demands and outcomes of the revolution was a process of land redistribution whereby farmers gained access to the land they had worked for generations. Cooperatives arose out of the need to organize these small farms in larger economic unions that could market coffee, facilitate much needed financing, and serve the community’s broad social, economic, and environmental needs.
Though relatively small in membership, SOPPEXCCA has emerged as Jinotega’s leading cooperative. The cooperative represents 654 families and is recognized around the world as a leader in the movement to empower small-scale farmers, especially women and youth. SOPPEXCCA has built primary schools in its member communities, alongside pharmacies, cooperative grocery stores, and technical assistance centers. Extensive micro-credit programs offer members access to financing at a discount of 75% compared to locally available commercial finance. Long-term work to develop sustainable coffee production has resulted in a cooperatively-owned organic fertilizer production facility, innovative climate change adaptation efforts, and of course, ongoing coffee quality improvement programs.
During the harvest, coffee is carefully picked, then depulped and fermented overnight before it is washed and sun-dried. Careful attention to the subtleties of processing and the farmer’s pride produce sweetly floral coffee, with notes of brown sugar and cacao, summer stone fruit, and lingering taste of milk chocolate.
Cooperative SOPPEXCCA · Altitude 1,200 meters ·Region Jinotega •Processing wet/washed · Varietals bourbon, typica, caturra · Cooperative membership 654
Some of you may have noticed that a few of our all-time favorite coffees have been made unavailable recently, namely Byron’s Maracaturra and Sidama Natural, Ethiopia. Indeed, we have roasted our last pounds of Byron’s, and in the case of our jammy wonderkid from Ethiopia, we’re tightening the belt and saving the last dozen or so bags for our espresso blends.
The bad news: you can’t get this great coffee right now.
The good news: these are great coffees (at least in our minds!) and they are rare, limited, and super special. These aren’t the kinds of coffees you can just order up from a broker, no, you’ve got to slog a lot of miles (and or a lot of frequent flier miles as the case may be) to find coffees of this caliber, and of course, the farmers who grow them. And though we’re out right now, new crop coffees are en route and should be here soon.
In the case of Byron’s Maracaturra, the 2009/2010 crop is on the water and should be here in our warehouse in the next few weeks. This year’s crop is more fruit-forward than ever, still with a delicate jasmine/darjeeling complexity. As for the new crop Sidama Natural, it’s a big fruit bomb again this year. We’re stoked on the pre-shipment sample and looking forward to the coffee’s arrival. It’s due to ship from Ethiopia next week, and we should see its arrival sometime in late July/early August.
We hope you’re enjoying the slightly wild ride of great coffee. Like a lot of the finest crafted foods in the world, there’s no mass-produced version. We always try to buy as much as we can, but in the case of some of the most unique coffees in our roster, there’s only so much of the great stuff out there. Please let us know if we’ve left you in the lurch…we’ve got a lot of other great coffee in stock at the moment, and we’d be happy to help you find a great coffee to hold you over until the arrival of your favorites.
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.
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.
I received this complex letter last week. It had many contradictions but the writer was obviously a coffee lover , so I took the opportunity to arm her with the basic principles of coffee selection that applied to her request. What follows is first her letter, then my response, and then my recommendation .
We have enjoyed finding your website.
We would like a recommendation for a blend:
Not acidy. Don’t like a painful stomach by the second cup.
Full bodied coffee. Tastes like it smells.
No flavors (except coffee flavor) (It’s difficult to tell from your descriptions whether the flavor is added to the mix (like vanilla or hazelnut), or whether the flavor “tones” are just a means of describing the coffee au naturel.
On your website, we only saw 12 oz bags. Do you have 5 lbs. bags? How much do they cost?
Thanks for your help
THERE IS ALLOT TO YOUR REQUEST FOR A RECOMMENDATION SO LET’S TAKE MY RESPONSES ONE AT A TIME:
WHEN YOU ASK FOR A COFFEE WITH NO ACIDITY BUT WITH LOTS OF FLAVOR, YOU ARE ALMOST ASKING FOR THE IMPOSSIBLE…ALMOST. A GOOD “MEDIUM” ROAST OF COFFEES FROM PLACES LIKE INDONESIA AND BRAZIL WHOSE COFFEES ARE NATURALLY LOW IN ACIDITY WILL GET YOU A LOWER ACIDITY, BUT ALSO, LESS BRIGHTNESS AND LIVELINESS IN THE CUP. COFFEES GROWN AT ALTITUDES LOWER THEN 800 METERS ALSO HAVE LESS ACIDITY. ACIDITY IS HIGHEST IN COFFEE IN THE LIGHTER ROASTS. THE DARKER THE ROAST , THE LOWER THE ACIDITY, IS A GENERAL RULE . YOUR PAINFUL STOMACH MAY NOT BE COMING FROM THE ACIDITY IN COFFEE . THE PH LEVELS OF LOW ACID COFFEES AND HIGH ACID COFFEES ARE NOT THAT FAR APART TO MAKE IDENTIFYING YOUR “PROBLEM” AS THE ACIDITY. IT COULD ALSO BE THE CAFFEINE BECAUSE THE HIGHER THE CAFFEINE, THE POORER THE COFFEE QUALITY IN GENERAL . IT IS POSSIBLE THAT YOUR PROBLEM IS THAT YOU ARE SUFFERING FROM THE POSSIBLE IMPACT OF POORER QUALITY COFFEE GOING INTO YOUR DIGESTIVE SYSTEM, AND OR, POOR ROASTING CRAFTSMANSHIP. COFFEE HAS OVER 1600 CHEMICAL COMPOUNDS BEFORE IT IS ROASTED AND ABOUT 800 AFTER ROASTING. LOTS OF CHEMICAL REACTIONS TAKE PLACE IN THE 14 MINUTES IT TAKES TO ROAST COFFEE , SO THE CRAFTSMANSHIP APPLIED DURING THAT SHORT PERIOD OF ADDING HEAT TO THE GREEN BEANS REQUIRES SOME DEGREE OF CRAFTSMANSHIP TO CONTROL THOSE CHEMICAL REACTIONS SO AS TO GET THE BEST OUT OF THE COFFEE THAT IS BEING ROASTED. ACIDITY IS MORE A MOUTHFEEL OR TASTE SENSATION(bright and lively) THEN LITMUS TEST NUMBERS.
NO COFFEE TASTES LIKE IT SMELLS. YOU CAN LOOK FOREVER. THE AROMATIC VOLATILES ARE NOT TASTE FACTORS. Ninety-five % OF COFFEE AROMA IS LOST BEFORE IT GETS TO THE CUP. LOST IN ROASTING, GRINDING , AND BREWING NO MATTER HOW FRESH IT IS WHEN YOU GET YOUR COFFEE HOME AND INTO YOUR REFRIGERATOR . SO DREAM ON BUT DONT EXPECT OUR COFFEES TO GET YOU WHERE YOU WANT TO GO WHEN IT COMES TO THE AROMA/TASTE RELATIONSHIP.
DARK ROAST ?????? THIS IS THE ANTI CHRIST OF COFFEE FLAVOR AND AROMA. IN DARK ROASTS 2/3 OF THE FLAVOR IS A REFLECTION OF THE DARKER COFFEE COLOR . THE NUANCES OF THE COFFEE’S FLAVOR ARE “BURNED OUT” OF THE COFFEE VIA COMPLEX CHEMICAL REACTIONS THAT TAKE PLACE AT THE HIGH TEMPERATURES COFFEE IS ROASTED AT.
THE DISCRIPTORS (TONES AND NOTES ),ARE HINTS . DOES A BOTTLE OF ZINFANDEL HAVE BLACK CURRANT ADDED TO THE WINE ? NO , IT IS JUST A WAY THE WINE MASTER HELPS YOU OUT IN YOUR SEARCH FOR THE NUANCES PROFESSIONAL TASTERS CAN IDENTIFY EASILY BECAUSE THEY “TASTE ” EVERY DAY .
WE SELL CONSUMER SIZE PACKAGES BUT IF YOU CALL OUR MAIL ORDER DIVISION AND ASK FOR SUSAN SHE WILL TELL YOU HOW TO ORDER FIVE POUNDERS ( MINIMUM IS 20 POUNDS PER ORDER. ) .
Now for my recommendation :
I recommend you try a medium roast Nicaraguan Maracaturra grown by our friend Byron Coralles, and our Guatamalan Vienna Roast. The two coffees are fabulous individually, but you can blend them (The Medium roast Nicaraguan for flavor and the Guatemalan Vienna roast for strength and complexity to create additional complexity ). No stomach aches here , guaranteed !