Barista Magazine

APR-MAR 2014

Serving People Serving Coffee Since 2005

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PICK UP A BAG OF COFFEE from your local specialty roaster, and you'll likely find out not only the country where the coffee came from, but also notes on how it was grown, processed, and roasted before it was bagged and landed on the shelf in front of you. For consumers, the inclusion of this information implies that this coffee is going to possess either "distinct" or "preferable" qualities that we want. For example, if a roaster tells you that the coffee you're holding was grown at 5,000 feet above sea level, you're to assume that a higher elevation is good, that it's perhaps preferable, or at the very least, different, from coffee grown at higher or lower ele- vations. As baristas and coffee professionals, we have a knee-jerk understanding that some of these qualities are purportedly superior, but can we actually trace how these conditions affect our final cup of coffee? Maybe we can taste the difference between coffee grown at 5,000 feet versus 3,000 feet, but can we say why and how these conditions affect flavor? Would that be true of every coffee? Or do certain factors only affect specific varietals, or coffee grown in spe- cific countries? By investigating these correlations, we can begin to understand how flavor is developed and apply what we learn in a number of useful ways. From growers attempting to improve their coffee or replicate a particularly exquisite crop, to the barista selling a bag of coffee to a customer, understanding the connection between the way our coffee is grown and the flavor it produces is key to the growth of the coffee industry. When that customer comes in and asks you what all the information on a coffee bag means, you should be able to speak confidently, knowing that the coffee they're hold- ing is very special for specific and intended reasons. F l avo r : W h e r e D o e s I t C o m e F r o m ? From the look on George Howell's face as he sips from a cup of Colombia San Luis, it's clear he's stumbled upon something spec- tacular. "There's an Andean flavor I've only tasted in coffees from Peru: mint, but the other mint flavors, like wintergreen," he says of the coffee, which was grown in the Tolima Department in the western part of Colombia. When asked where that flavor comes from, he smiles and takes a moment. "Well, that's what we're still trying to figure out." The flavors we taste and prize in our daily brew come from a number of different factors. To begin to understand where flavor comes from, we must first divide the contributors to flavor into two different categories: those that are inherent to a coffee bean itself, primarily due to its genetic makeup, and those that can be changed and manipulated. This second category can be further divided into farming practices (including processing) and terroir, or the taste of a coffee from a specific region due to differences in climate, soil, and general geography. As the name he chose for his company (Terroir Coffee) implies, George is interested in the taste of particular coffee-growing regions and how to elucidate those factors when tasting the final cup. "There's lot of debate in wine circles about the importance, if any, that terroir has," he says as he cups a selection of Colombian coffees. "But cupping these Caturras next to each other, I don't think there's any question about the importance of terroir." Tasting the coffees side-by-side, he is quick to point out which flavors come from a region's terroir—like the wintergreen—and which are cre- ated due to farming practices and processing. "The El Roble has a punchy fruit flavor at the very beginning; that comes from the beans being soaked in the fermentation tank just a little bit longer than usual, but that's not a trait of the coffee itself," he explains. Although George can eliminate terroir as a factor for the fruity flavor of the El Roble, how does he jettison variety? Caturra, he says, along with varieties like Bourbon and Typica, has a generally "neutral" taste. These three varieties' flavors are more subtle, so characteristics from the land or from processing are imprinted more easily. George says this is unlike some of the more popular varieties among the coffee community, like Geisha, which has a very particular set of flavor characteristics that are inherent to the coffee and outshine the effects of terroir. The concept of "neutral" coffee is especially exciting to George, since it allows coffee buyers to look at terroir very directly, without the complications that dif- ferent varietals may add to evaluating flavor and its origin. This is not as easy at it seems. Tasting a Bourbon from Kenya, for example, is quite different from tasting a Bourbon from Guatemala. Although variety, processing, and terroir can contribute very dif- ferent aspects to a cup of coffee, this doesn't mean that these ele- ments don't work synergistically. Perhaps the soil in Kenya helps bring out the creaminess that Bourbon is known for, which could be masked by a processing practice in Guatemala. The potential is there, but as a group, coffee professionals are still trying to figure out how these three elements influence and enhance one another. While George speaks confidently about certain cup characteris- tics, he is the first to admit that there's a lot of guesswork in tying traits to their cause. "For example, we say that elevation brings out acidity because of the stress the plants go through when they endure harsher conditions, but that might not be the reason," he says. He mentions that many of the factors that are generally accepted by coffee professionals as truth about the origin of flavor haven't been tested or proven, and that there are a number of obstacles to overcome in order to make experimentation and explo- ration valuable to both roasters and coffee growers. B u i l d i n g K n ow l e d g e a n d U n d e r s t a n d i n g Pa t t e r n s One of the reasons coffee buyers are continuously scratching their heads about the effect of terroir is the inconsistency in weather patterns, which is inexorably linked to terroir. However, there are a number of countries, particularly those facing the Pacific Ocean side of South and Central America, where weather patterns are highly predictable, where optimal weather conditions for coffee are known. Ideally, harvesting begins after the rainy season ends in November. After the harvest, the weather remains dry from December through February, and plants are subjected to pure sun with little or no rain. This prolonged exposure to sun stresses the coffee cherry and sets up the plants for heavy flowering once the rainy season begins in late April or early May. Although this weather pattern doesn't always occur, ideal weather conditions and their effects on cup quality are well understood. They help farmers better predict how their crops will behave from year to year. This comprehension of weather, says Josue Morales, is one of the main contributors to the quality and diversity of coffee in Guatemala. Josue is an expert on Guatemalan coffee and runs the TG-Lab, the country's only coffee lab dedicated to serving small 88 barista magazine B o o k 5 5 - 1 0 8 . i n d d 8 8 Book 55-108.indd 88 3 / 2 5 / 1 4 7 : 4 0 A M 3/25/14 7:40 AM

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