For many years, the specialty coffee industry has drawn parallels to the wine industry. The most widely used comparison is in the way we describe the flavors we taste. Consumers are familiar with wine labels that boast specialty flavors like mango or plum, bright acidity, and a host of other flavors. At Equal Exchange, we proudly describe our coffees in a similar fashion to celebrate the unique and sweet flavors we taste in the cupping lab, to showcase the terroir and distinct micro-climates where the coffee is grown, and to highlight the cultivation techniques and innovative processing techniques made by our producer partners.
The specialty coffee industry has become more sophisticated in its ability to highlight special flavors, and these advancements span from the way coffee is grown on the farm to the way it is brewed at home. Cafes all over the world - like Equal Exchange's own cafes in Boston and Seattle - celebrate the craft of coffee preparation to highlight these advancements, with manual methods of brewing like a French press or pour over. Likewise, coffee drinkers have embraced the act of finding fresh, whole bean coffee and grinding it at home, becoming more educated about what they prefer in a cup of coffee.
The transformation of coffee into a distinct specialty beverage, akin to wine, has been amazing. As a coffee professional I thought that the parallels between coffee and wine were beginning to diminish, until recently when I borrowed a simple tool used by vintners around the world to test the sugar content found in wine grapes. It's called a brix refractometer, and it's an important tool used in viticulture to measure the percentage of sucrose development in wine grapes. One can measure the amount of sugar that the grape contains and determine if it should be harvested or not. The brix refractometer is also used to measure sucrose in a variety of foods, like beer, fruit juice and now, coffee.
The coffee cherry
Coffee is a fruit that is commonly referred to as a cherry and the two seeds that reside in the middle of each coffee cherry eventually become the coffee beans you recognize as roasted coffee beans. These small, round coffee fruits contain sugar (or sucrose) and are harvested in a ripe state. Unlike a banana, which is harvested green and ripens over time, coffee will not continue to ripen once it is has been picked. With coffee, it is important to allow the coffee to mature to a ripe state so that we are able to enjoy this sweetness in the cup. This sucrose development in coffee is dependent on a variety of factors like sunlight, shade cover and altitude.
Without sunlight, the cherries would not be able to develop. But the coffee plant also enjoys some shade cover, and according to the Coffee Quality Institute, it is believed that shade-grown coffee will have 3% more sugar than coffee that is grown in full sun. Coffee cherries develop at a slower rate at higher altitudes which also contributes to increased sweetness. This sweetness heavily impacts the way coffee tastes - and ultimately our decision to buy it or not.
Sweetness in the cup
Now you might not think of "sweet" when you think of coffee, but it is the one characteristic that we as coffee buyers and cuppers at Equal Exchange cannot live without. Coffee without sweetness is not specialty coffee; it is a fundamental building block for coffee flavor. Without sweetness, coffee is bland and lacks character. So, sweetness is a requirement for all of our coffee, regardless of the origin.
For years I have been talking about and demonstrating the importance of harvesting mature coffee cherries. Harvest after harvest I would talk about how mature coffee tastes on the cupping table and express our desires to buy the sweetest coffees in the world. And the brix refractometer reinforces this message by providing us with concrete evidence about the sucrose contained in each coffee cherry harvested. The physical results I recently experienced in El Salvador were even better than expected.
A coffee experiment
In November 2010, I went to visit our producer partners at Las Colinas co-operative in Tacuba, El Salvador, to implement a new quality system on the farm. During the first day, we walked from producer to producer to show them the brix refractometer and to talk about sweetness in coffee cherries in a scientific way. Each producer had a wide, shallow basket tied to their waste to collect ripe coffee cherries from the Bourbon and Paca coffee trees on the farm.
With the brix refractometer and a graduated cylinder, I was able to measure the quality of the coffee each producer had in his or her basket and demonstrate how the brix refractometer worked. We looked at a variety of cherries; from unripe to over-ripe, and I showed each producer how under-ripe coffee cherries had a lower percentage of sugar compared to their ripe counterparts. This was the first step in our quality program and helped to solidify the foundation for the project. Day one provided excitement and the following two days would illustrate the tiny complexities in picking coffee.
Harvesting with skill
Although I had harvested coffee years ago (I've been with Equal Exchange for 13 years), I decided that strapping a basket to my waist and plucking coffee from the trees may provide some new insight into the hustle and bustle of the harvest. I knew going into it that sweetness is a direct reflection of how mature the coffee cherries are when harvested, so I knew to harvest just the red, ripe cherries. It sounded straightforward, but I quickly realized that it's not.
The first morning I found myself standing on a 45-degree angle plucking from an eight-foot Bourbon coffee tree. In order to reach the coffee on top, the tree had to be carefully bent backwards. It was hard to hold it down for more than five minutes to pick all of the gorgeous red cherries staring me in the face. However, it wasn't even the physical work that I was challenged by; the hardest part of picking coffee, for me, was trying to decide which coffee cherries were ready to pick.
The complexity of this work started to really hit me as the morning light began to shift, and the almost ripe cherries looked ripe on the tree, but not once they made their way into my basket! After a few hours of picking I looked down to see that only about 20 percent of my basket was full, while most of the farmers had red cherries overflowing from their own baskets. They were decisive workers and the quality of what they harvested looked fantastic.
Picking ripe coffee cherries is only one step in the complex system needed to produce exceptional coffee, but it demonstrates the cross pollination that can happen between two industries. We have been borrowing tools and language from the wine industry for more than three decades. We are more sophisticated and innovative than we have ever been in specialty coffee. Borrowing technical tools from other specialty foods will continue to lead to new inventions and innovations. I look forward to seeing what we will borrow next, or conversely, which segment of the specialty food industry will look to us in specialty coffee for inspiration and guidance in the future.