[A]s I analyzed a cup of coffee I had just brewed, it struck me again: the idea of perfection in coffee is subjective. For years, coffee has had its back against the wall, working to be a specialty product while it’s produced in some of the toughest areas, shipped across the world, and largely consumed for its effects. It’s the underdog that we have to fight for. It’s been born into a tough world, and it spent its early years as an unsophisticated commodity.
Many of today’s industries have their standards mostly figured out. As the specialty coffee industry is still in its infancy, we have standards for water chemistry, extraction percentage, brew strength, cupping, data organization, green quality, roast quality, and while these data points are measured, the consensus for right and wrong is blurred. Additionally, we’re constantly improving them, making it like trying to hit a moving target.
Coffee is capricious. Coffee is unpredictable. We want coffee to surprise us; we want each coffee to offer the purest form of its unique personality.
The confusion stems from asking the wrong question: how can I make this perfect? We will always find experienced cuppers arguing for an SCAA point, roasters fired up over the new roasting trend, farmers experimenting with unique cultivars, and baristas fighting for an espresso recipe. And this, as confusing as it can be, is what makes the process challenging, but worth it.
In 2013, I tried a coffee grown in Kenya, roasted in San Francisco, and brewed using a V60 in Manhattan. The first sip was all but transcendent: my mouth was flooded with juicy, mouth-puckering, sugary pink lemonade and ruby-red grapefruit. Let that sink in for a second. Around half of you just swooned, and the other half cringed so hard you had to put the magazine down and grab another cup of coffee to get the mental taste out of your mouth. So was that coffee good or bad? Again: that’s the wrong question.
All of the shifting variables we place on coffee is exacerbated by its fleeting nature. That mind-melting experience was unique because it would be impossible to replicate. The combination of this exact crop, grown, picked, and sorted as it was, processed in this specific way, bought and roasted by this roaster to this specific roast level and development, and then brewed by this barista with that water on this brewer with this method in this shop is a daunting—and probably impossible—feat to repeat, and I think I left a couple variables out. On top of that, coffee loses its luster so quickly that you only have a two- to three-week window before you miss your chance forever.
It’s important to understand why we have these inconsistencies on the agricultural side: some of them are inherent in the nature of agriculture, but some of the issues stem from the economic climate of the countries in question. The places coffee can be grown include some of the most remote countries, which can preclude the access to the education, technology, and data-keeping that would make repeatability more possible. However, generations of experience from our hard-working partners at origin are an invaluable variable we wouldn’t want to control.
Two main thoughts: exceptional coffee is a fleeting art and consistency is key to keeping celebrated farms scoring high year after year. Will the supply chain ever be able to repeat an identical experience? No. Even perfectly replicating the process at origin won’t ensure an identical outcome. If the producer could, could we brew it identically?
Nope. But those aren’t the right questions. The right question is, “How can I help a farmer to produce consistently every year?” What we should be working toward is a range of excellence in a variety of forms. As importers or roasters, we can partner with producers to fund projects that help ensure exactly that. Last year, with the help of roasters, our team at Royal Coffee funded a chromatography lab at COMSA in Honduras. As baristas, we can do our best to honor producer’s efforts. It’s unfortunate when we bring in a high-scoring coffee one year that scores much lower the next. In contrast, it’s with excitement that we welcome back a coffee that is markedly different in flavor than the previous year’s crop, but of comparable or higher quality.
As a roaster, if you don’t have direct access to a farm, inquire with your importer about programs you can participate in. For retail, celebrate the farmer. I had a saying when I was a barista-trainer: “Our only job is to not screw it up.” Years of work have gone into making coffee what it is; the best we can do is represent it well. We shouldn’t try to stuff coffee into a neat, comfortable little box. Coffee is capricious. Coffee is unpredictable. We want coffee to surprise us; we want each coffee to offer the purest form of its unique personality.
—David Planer is the director of marketing and education at Royal Coffee New York.