Varietals - Installment i. - Coffee is the new wine
With wine, we think of ordering from a specific vineyard, the grapes they produce, the farmer themselves. Coffee SHOULD be looked at in the same way & albeit, nowadays is more like this than ever before. A somewhat “golden age” of coffee. We don’t necessarily receive the same prestige as wine does though...And that’s the tragedy. There is so much that goes into the heaps of coffee we drink every single day & so much of it has been poorly marketed or not marketed at all. For quite some time, coffee people, from a distance, looked pretty cool. We should have been able to convey our story a bit more & show people why we were in this small counter culture group that was going against the grain & attempting to elevate coffee culture. Instead, we all had bones to pick with, not only the big companies but, even with our own people. It became a whole “mob mentality” thing that, I guess is unavoidable to some degree but, we were so focused on doing crazy latte art swans rather than seeing the bigger picture. That people should know about the Process & why their coffee should cost more than what they’re paying at the moment. Not because of the swan, but because of all the incredible work that happens by mother nature, & the people moving with her, producing this amazing stuff thousands of miles away. It’s back breakingly tough, your crop futures are uncertain, there’s the economy at play, climate change, civil wars, etc...the list is long of hardships for farmers & producers.
Making a simple cup of coffee seems pretty simple but is...well….pretty complicated. As is making a bottle of wine. There are definitely parallels to draw, which is what has fascinated me for years. Since we will be tackling things the crew does here at Traffic & what we represent, which is a focus on Varietals we love & processing methods we feel pair well with certain coffees.
We’re going to begin with some talk of varietals. The cup characteristics of coffee are not only determined by the origin of the bean. Its varietal (variety or cultivar) plays a major role in this also. The two subspecies of COFFEA are Arabica, & Robusta.These plants have varietals that fall under their respective gene pool but, Arabica definitely wins in diversity, with good reason. Arabica...it’s varietals, are basically all formed from original Typica & Bourbon plants. Every other varietal is said to be a departure from these two. Arabica yields much less caffeine than Robusta but, it’s ability to translate a multitude of complex & surprising flavours makes it far more interesting to produce. All this beauty comes at a cost. Arabica plants yield much smaller amounts. They are fragile, susceptible to disease, harder to grow right, & ultimately more expensive to maintain. Robusta is the caffeine powerhouse of the world with...arguably the worst flavour profile of all time. Even if you can’t taste it, you’ll feel it. You’ll be so unmistakably WIRED. Its plants are hardier, way easier to grow, forgiving, & produce much more fruit. While some people may disagree (There are Robusta Q Graders….What’s a Q grader? We’ll talk about that in another post), it always tastes kinda like…...burnt or worn rubber. It’s odd. It’s also that distinctive aftertaste of almost every “italian” coffee you’ve had in North America at least. It’s why “Italian” coffee will have Indian beans in the blend, they pretty much only grow robusta because it’s what the big box places buy….you know who i’m talking about.
Enough about Robusta...let’s get back to Variety!
Varietal is a term generally used in the wine industry to describe a wine made from a specific variety of grape (like Gamay or Reisling); these varietals give the wine a particular taste and profile, and this also happens in the coffee. To add to this, we’ll go back to wine to draw another parallel.....growing different grapes, in different climates, different altitudes, different soils, will ultimately yield very different results. Take Blue Mountain from Jamaica. Ahhhhh yes, everyones aunt or uncle has gone to Jamaica and come back with the worlds MOST EXPENSIVE COFFEE (actually nowhere near it) & they tell you how great it was. Unfortunately, for Jamaica, & the rest of us that have had the displeasure of consuming this coffee, it’s awful. Really, really awful. There are some contributing factors for this, including what I call the “sunshine effect” (Everything tastes, looks, feels amazing when we’re on vacation somewhere exotic) but also a whole bunch of other stuff we won’t tackle as it’s irrelevant to this conversation. What IS important is that Blue Mountain is a varietal! It has been brought other places, like the very first coffee plants of this world, it too has travelled very far.
Years ago, in 2006, I tasted a coffee from Papua New Guinea that contained a handful of different varietals & among them, blue mountain. It was a coffee I remember vividly to this day. Rich & full bodied, like a chocolate blackberry cake with just enough acidity to balance the cup. It was awesome. Papua New Guinea is awesome. What this showed me was that, not only were varietals important, but WHERE they were grown was important. The methods used to grow those plants & the luck of the draw when it came to weather. So many factors & so much I didn’t understand. Today is not much different. I’m still on a journey to learn more from everyone & everything around me. That’s why I constantly sample for Traffic. It’s endless. I try to run the gamut on everything available from farmers, friends of those farmers, exporters, importers, you name it. You never know where that surprising cup may come from. There are hunches that work out but, just because it says “geisha” does not mean it will be any good. I personally have had more BAD Geisha than GREAT Geisha. I have my own fairly critical thoughts regarding this varietal but it will have to wait until another post. If you have never heard of it, peak your head into some coffee mags or the world coffee research lexicon. DO NOT go on Reddit & let 1000 people shove their ideas down your throat. The majority of a crowd will always swing ONE WAY. It’s not objective. Make your own opinion & obviously, drink a ton of coffee in the process.
That’s it for now. We have a long way to go. There’s still so much to talk about.
Until Next time, as my good friend Lee Knutilla use to tell me…