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The intricacies of producing specialty coffee.

One of the key factors in the selection of the range of coffees to be offered in a coffee store is knowing what are the differences between the various types of coffee in the market. And to know that, one must understand how coffee is made, and what makes a coffee a specialty. In my meetings with my colleagues on the International Committee of the Specialty Coffee Association of America, we have often discussed a definition of specialty coffee, but we haven't yet reached a definition that seems complete and satisfactory to the group.

It seems to me that one of the ways to help people in that respect is to describe how to produce a specialty coffee, and what will make it special, so that one will be able to see the differences and choose according to his objectives. But to see the differences one must know how coffee is produced.

Starting a Coffee Plantation

There are many factors that affect coffee quality that must be taken into account before starting a coffee plantation. The location is the most obvious: coffee is affected by climate conditions, and the final result will vary depending on what region of the world it is produced. It will also vary within a region depending on micro-climate, even inside a coffee farm. As higher altitudes affects the taste for the better, coffee usually is planted on hilly terrain. Even the choice for one of the sides of the hill can affect the result. Lots that receive the morning sun will produce different cup characteristics. The second very important factor are the seeds to be used. Coffee quality varies tremendously according to which variety is planted. The first and widely known distinction is what species the coffee trees belong to. The only known species to produce fine coffee is Coffea Arabica, compared to C. Canephora (which produces Robusta coffee), C. Liberica and a few others cultivated on smaller scales.

But even with Arabica varietals, distinctions apply. Better results are reached with Tipica, Bourbon, Mokka, Mokka-Java, Mundo Novo, Acaiah, Caturra, Catuai whereas it is harder to produce fine coffees with Catimor, Maragogipe and a few others.


Supposing you did everything correctly when starting your coffee plantation, you chose the right region to start with, and inside that region you have a farm with a propitious location, good altitude, good land quality, and have chosen the right plot to plant your coffee trees. Suppose you have chosen the best seeds from the best variety available that suits that coffee region. Now all you have to do is prepare your coffee nursery, prepare your field for planting, plant your trees, care for them for a few years, and they will give you fruits that will satisfy the most demanding coffee-lover. Then comes the biggest obstacle to cup quality: harvesting, drying and preparing your coffee.

Given the proper conditions, most coffees while still on the tree have a fine quality, which is often ruined due to careless harvesting or drying methods. Low prices in recent years have made farmers less willing to waste time caring for the quality of the final product, for there will be little financial reward.

To understand why harvesting and preparation makes such a big difference we must know what makes a coffee bean. The coffee fruit, while still on the tree, looks like a small pointed cherry, and like it has an outer skin, a sweet pulp (when fully ripe) and two seeds covered by an inside skin (called parchment). These seeds, after peeling the fruit and washing away the pulp (called mucilage), are the coffee beans. The two different methods used for processing coffee concern the disposal of the mucilage. In the dry process, the fruits are left through their complete natural cycle in the trees, until the mucilage is absorbed by the seeds and the outer skin dries partially. The fruit is then harvested and dried in terraces or driers. It is only after the drying is complete that it will be peeled and the beans will be prepared. This method produces the so-called 'natural' coffees. In the wet process, the fruits are harvested as soon as they ripen, the outer skin is peeled, and they are left in fermentation tanks for a short period. After that the mucilage is washed away, and the beans are dried inside the inner skin or parchment. This method produces the so-called "washed" coffees.

The dry method was the traditional method, used in Yemen and Ethiopia and later in Brazil, where coffee culture expanded rapidly at the end of the last century. But to adopt this method, the region must have well defined seasons. The coffee tree flowers in spring, the fruits grow during the summer and the dry fruits are harvested in winter. The same climate conditions that cause periodical frosts in sub-tropical allows for the simultaneous ripening of most fruits in the tree.

In the beginning of the last century however, coffee culture expanded in areas closer to the equator, in South and Central America and Southeast Asia. These regions have no marked seasons, and year-round rains produce many flowering of the trees, which will bear fruits most of the year. New methods of harvesting were developed, selectively picking only the ripe cherries, and the wet process evolved, allowing the fruits to dry in a shorter time in artificial driers. With frequent rains throughout the year, it is difficult to sun-dry the beans. This method is adopted in Colombia, all of Central America, parts of Indonesia and most of Central Africa.


Once you understood how coffee is produced, you can understand what will make some coffees a "Specialty." Some people compare coffee to wine, because regions produce different cup characteristic. But coffee production is more like Wine production than most people think. The cup characteristics reflect the result of a fermentation process, or the action of microorganisms in the breakup of a sugary substance (in our case, the mucilage). In the dry process it will occur naturally inside the fruit, and in the wet process it will occur in a controlled environment, inside fermentation tanks. And whenever there is contamination in the process, be it inside the fruits due to undesired micro-organisms penetrating the fruit and thriving in the mucilage, fermentation chamber due to temperature variations or lack of cleanliness affecting the type of micro-organisms that consume the mucilage, you will have altered results which will affect cup quality.

There are many factors that will make a coffee special:

* When it comes from a locale, that due to specific climate and soil conditions, produces coffees impossible to duplicate in other regions. Example: Kenya, Jamaica, Hawaii.

* When it is a pure varietal of varieties that produce markedly different results. Example: Bourbon, Mokka.

* When it comes from estates known for the excellence of their production. Only this process will assure consistency of quality and continuity of supply.

Apart from these special characteristics, in the main producing countries, coffees will attain the excellence requirements of the specialty market when through strict quality control the very best lost will be selected by cupping towards well defined criteria. In this process the majority of lots tested are usually rejected, so a large amount of coffee must be available for selection, and a thorough knowledge of the distinct coffees produced in different origins is necessary.

Defining specialty is a difficult task, and the requirements vary according to the different regional markets and one's personal taste preferences- A good knowledge of coffee growing practices in different origins will help the connoisseur in what to expect of the many types available, and how to select the best lot of different origins. But the more one tries to learn about coffee, the more one finds that there is no such thing as "the best coffee," only the best lots of different types. One learns that variation will always be the main characteristic of the industry and the reason for its growing success.

Marcelo B. Vieira is the president of The Specialty Coffee Association of Brazil and a coffee farmer at Monte Belo, Minas Gerais, Brazil.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Lockwood Trade Journal Co., Inc.
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Title Annotation:Specialty Coffee Report
Author:Vieira, Marcelo B.
Publication:Tea & Coffee Trade Journal
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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