Rank #1: #3: The Best Cup of Coffee I've Ever Had
If you made it through last week's deep dive about how we talk about and label specialty coffee - you've earned your coffee-nerd badge!
This week I want to pull back the lens and talk more broadly about quality and value. Instead of examining the rigidity of microbiology, this week's episode explores the subjective side of preference and what makes something "good".
I tell you a little about my coffee tasting history and share the story of the best (and worst) cup of coffee I've ever had.
Oct 21 2019
Rank #2: #6: The Sommelier of Coffee?
You heard my experience getting my Q grader license on last weeks episode. Today’s podcast is a continuation of the Q grader discussion but focusing on its role with coffee producers.
I mentioned that it’s tempting to use the wine Sommelier certification as a shorthand to describe the Q grader license because the Sommelier’s has been around much longer and its a more familiar term than Q grader.
I’ve been guilty of using this shorthand in the past but its both lazy and inaccurate. I feel it's important to untangle these two tests because if we keep repeating it, eventually we will start to believe it. However tempting it is, these two certifications are different in a fundamental way. The sommelier certification is predominantly used by the service industry (restaurants, etc) and the Q grader license is used as a means of quality control for exporters, importers and roasters.
The sommelier certification is consumer facing, it is not a means to improve wine production quality. There is very little overlap between a winemaker's world and a sommelier's world.
In contrast the Q grader license has a significant overlap in the production and consumer worlds. I value the Q grader license and I'm glad to have a standardized method of coffee evaluation but there is one often overlooked detail that has nagged at me.
Coffee producers are rarely Q graders, they are not the tasting experts, the buyers are. This means that everyone else in the value chain is more of an expert in tasting coffee than the people responsible for producing coffee.
Most of us haven’t considered what it means when the consumer is more sophisticated than the producer. What kind of power dynamic is created when a specialty coffee buyer is more sophisticated than the person who is deciding the flavor profile of the coffee?
I'm also curious about the system of cupping scores perpetuated with the Q grader system.
Join me in today's episode as I imagine a world without coffee scores.
Nov 11 2019
Q&A Coffee Podcast with Scott Rao
The Crown Podcast by Royal Coffee
Tim Wendelboe Podcast
Recap: Recent Developments in Coffee
The MAP IT FORWARD Podcast
Tasting Notes: Normal people, extraordinary coffee.
The Matchbook Coffee Podcast
Coffee With April
Filter Stories - Coffee Documentaries
Rank #3: #5: To Be or Not To Be A Q-Grader
What is a Q Grader?
In the coffee industry the Q Grader license is often compared to the sommelier exam in wine—this is a shorthand that can be useful to provide some vague ballpark approximation, but over the next 2 podcast episodes we will see how different these tests are.
When I started to get serious about working in the coffee industry I was looking for ways to deepen my knowledge and the Q Grader license seemed like a good place to start. If I wanted to use fermentation techniques to improve coffee quality I would need to learn what the industry considered to be high quality.
Because how can we agree on what is coffee quality, without speaking the same sensory language?
To move the conversation of quality forward, I needed to differentiate between preference (coffees people like) and quality (agreed upon criteria that are independent of preference).
I have definitely scored high quality coffees that were not in my preferred flavor profile—conversely just liking a coffee is not enough to qualify it as a good coffee. It needs to meet quality standards of acidity, structure, body, sweetness and balance. I believe it is important to be able to put our personal preferences in context when evaluating a coffee.
Join me on today's episode as I share my experience with the Q Grader license.
To take a sensory class from Alexandre Schmitt: https://www.wineandflavors.com/en/
Maybe we can revive the hashtag: #letcoffeebecoffee
Nov 04 2019
Rank #4: #4: Over Fermentation and Brettanomyces
I find the term "over fermentation" to be especially annoying. From a biology point of view this term is nonsense.
When coffee professionals use this term it's understood to mean a defect, usually vinegar, "boozy" or like rotting fruit. Everyone agrees that it's a negative trait for a coffee to have. I think it's important to be able to identify this trait but I think this label has held fermentation back and made many (producers and roasters alike) shy away from a process that when controlled can enhance coffee quality.
In this week's episode I answer a listener question about double fermentation and Brettanomyces that gives me an opportunity to untangle the concept from the name we've given it.
"Double fermentation" is another common colloquial phrase mistaken for a scientific label.
It gives the impression that there are two fermentations, but this is not what's happening biologically.
I also talk about the Russian River Brewing Company in Windsor California. I visited earlier this year in July and got to see how they use Brettanomyces and try their Brett Beer. The coffee industry is borrowing from the Beer industry as well as the wine industry and beer yeasts are becoming more popular in mills across Central America. This is an exciting time for coffee microbiology but there are a few cautions I want to give about this particular yeast.
For the visually inclined: I have 3 videos that will breakdown the coffee fermentation process:
Oct 28 2019
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Rank #5: #7: Coffee Travel: Helping or Hurting?
I’m writing this from a hotel in the small town of Ataco, El Salvador. I’ve been away from home for 21 days out what will eventually be 120.
It’s currently coffee harvest time in Central America this is the time of the year when I am traveling the most seeing clients at their mills and designing fermentation lots.
This is an interesting industry because of the amount of travel required by many parties along the chain (farmers, producers, exporter, importers, roasters and cafes). All of these entities are usually located in different countries with different languages, time zones, cultures and customs. These far apart business need to work together and the best way to have a smooth business is to have strong relationships. The best way I can think of to have strong relationships is to travel and sit with each other face to face and get to know the other's culture.
Unfortunately flying is a huge contributor of carbon emissions.
I’ve struggled with the paradox since I started traveling heavily in 2014.
At home, I am committed to reducing my environmental impact, I don’t have a car, I buy bulk foods in my own reusable containers, I compost all my food waste, Ive reduced my meat consumptions and I’ve stopped purchasing new clothes. Yet the amount of flying I do every year eclipses all the other efforts.
Previous years I spent November to March alternating one week in Central America and one week at home. Sometimes even seeing 3 clients in 1 month and only being home for a handful of days.
In addition to the environmental strain, there was a personal strain as well. That pace was difficult because It kept me constantly on the move and in airports, I was never home long enough to feel refreshed.
There was a moment I felt like I might need to quit working in coffee because the travel was too demanding.
To reduce my travel, this year I’m trying something different. Instead of going back and forth between Central America and the United States, I will stay in Central America all 4 months. My flying is dramatically reduced but not eliminated. Having such a dramatic carbon footprint is not in alignment with how I live the rest of my life, so I’m still working on how to reconcile that.
Join me for today’s episode for more on this paradox and a harvest update.
Nov 18 2019
Rank #6: #8: "Empowerment": The New Colonialism Trap
I want to start by thanking everyone who has reached out to me and sent questions/comments or just let me know that you enjoy listening. I started this podcast as my offering to chip away at the knowledge gap between coffee producers and consumers
In today’s podcast episode we’re going to hear from 2 sides of the value chain in very different parts of the world. Brendan from Semilla Roasters in Canada gives the roaster perspective and later in the episode we hear from Vivek, a 4th generation coffee producer in India. He asks for advice because he’s unsure where to start. Can he learn to be a good cupper without having a Q grader license?
To me, the gap is an issue because it determines power dynamics. The simple issue is:
Producers who don’t cup their coffee don't have the power to improve their coffee.
It’s an obvious statement but one that is frequently overlooked because it’s been the standard. Producers often rely on external parties to tell them this vital information. The buyer who is able to cup the coffees is the one who can determine the value.
This alone is bad enough but I’ve seen it lead to a new disturbing trend.
Since the buyers are generally more knowledgeable about the coffee’s quality and since they cup more than producers do, they are uniquely in a position to tell producers how to improve or change their coffee.
Regardless of the good intentions, the buyer is dictating terms, the buyers is still the expert, the buyer has more knowledge, the buyer has more power.
And I couldn’t leave this topic without talking about the word “empower”
I was guilty of using this word to describe my work. It used to be part of my mission statement to “empower producers with unconventional practices”. I had that written on my profile and website.
But as I discuss in this episode, that word now makes me feel uncomfortable and I’ve removed it from my website and avoid using it.
After listening to today's episode, I hope you’ll consider avoiding it also.
Resources Mentioned in this episode:
All Beans Considered: http://allbeansconsidered.com/
Coffee Quality Institute: https://www.coffeeinstitute.org/
Luxia Presentations: https://www.luxia.coffee/instructional-videos
Nov 25 2019
Rank #7: #9: Doubling Down in El Salvador with Jan Carlo of Mapache
In this episode, I had the chance to speak with Jan-Carlo Handtke of Mapache Coffee.
Jan-Carlo shares important perspectives of what it's like to be a 5th generation producer today. When most people are leaving coffee, Jan-Carlo and his wife Sofia are doubling down, buying new farms and making significant investments in education and equipment.
In this conversation we talk about the role of social media, selling coffee on the local market, and he also shares some of his struggles. We talk about coffee farm irrigation, his Q-grader story, shade trees, and so much more.
Dec 02 2019
Rank #8: #11: Listener Q&A: Why Ferment? Submerged vs Dry Tanks, and Can You Taste Yeast vs Bacteria?
In today’s podcast episode I get to do something a little different. Instead of giving you my thoughts on a particular coffee topic, I’m answering questions from 4 different listeners. Ideally I would like to have an episode for each question because they are rich with topics but many listeners have submitted questions through my website. The pile is growing quite large and I think it would be more helpful if I could keep answers brief to address a higher number of questions.
Today's questions focus on fermentation, yeast, bacteria and temperature:
- I remain skeptical about the role and importance of fermentation on coffee quality and flavor.
- Would the amount of water added into the fermentation tank affect the concentration of fermentation by products found in the final product?
- Is fermentation temperature is largely responsible for flavor differences between submerged (in-water) and dry (out-of-water) coffee fermentations?
- I have always been curious as to whether it is primarily yeast or bacteria causing the fermentation inside the fruit?
- How would a taster know the difference between yeast and bacteria fermented coffee?
Dec 31 2019
Rank #9: #10: What Do Coffee Producers Drink?
When most people hear that I’m going to Central America for work, they often say some variation of “how cool! you’re going to have such great coffee” which is true, but only because I haul most of if myself from The United States back to Central America in my suitcase.
Consuming countries pay a higher price for good coffee - so by design the best coffee leaves the countries where it was produced. The coffee that remains is the stuff that wasn’t good enough to export and sell, so by design the locals drink the lower quality coffee.
In this episode I share a story about drinking coffee with small-holder farmer that illuminated another part of the coffee quality problem.
Dec 23 2019
Rank #10: #17: Coffee Photography, Marketing and Consent
Today's Making Coffee Podcast episode is a continuation of the theme of coffee pickers and their role in quality.
In the previous episode I shared my surprisingly difficult experience trying to source red ripe coffee cherry. It was surprisingly difficult to pay the farmers more for a different quality than they were used to picking because of the established system, a system that developed over decades as a response to chronically low coffee prices.
It's important for me to share this with you because I don’t believe enough of us who enjoy drinking coffee realize how fragile our coffee supply is. Coffee is such a staple in our daily lives that I believe we simultaneously revere it for making our mornings more enjoyable and take it for granted.
For example, many businesses offer free coffee, free coffee refills or free coffee with food. If you look around hotels, restaurants and gatherings you can often find more than 1 “FREE Coffee” sign.
We expect that there will always be coffee. It seems so abundant that there is a real disconnect between the effort it takes to get that cup into our hands and what we are willing to pay for that work. Many of us would be turned off by a $5 cup of coffee but have also likely paid $15 to $20 for a glass of wine. Additionally, it's a lot less common to expect free wine.
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May 05 2020