In response to “for Wet Mill”
here was Nick’s post, and here’s my response:
First, to correct Nick, I do indeed know that coffee flavor is tied to growing conditions. If you see my post below, Taking Apart Potential and Process, you’ll notice exactly what I think each factor in coffee (variety, soil, altitude, process, and drying) contributes to overall coffee flavor. My point about climate, however, is that it is subject to variety. The environment cannot force a flavor onto a coffee- the genetic material of a plant must be present and be nurtured by the environment in order to create delicious flavor. It really is that simple. Some people believe that terroir is a sort of magical, indescribable “taste of place”, where any variety planted in the soil of a well-known coffee growing area will automatically be delicious, and reflect the flavor that made that locality great in the first place. Sadly, this has led to the degradation of the “classic flavor profiles from certain places” you describe. It has also led to producers who think they do not need to build their soil, since they have a farm within the famous growing area. It’s led to disappointment among coffee consumers, who wonder where the classic flavors went. Really the concept of terroir is a mixture of good variety, grown in suitable conditions, and processed to enhance the desired flavors.
You mention “regional trends”, and by that I assume you mean that certain geographies grow certain varieties and process a certain way, and the combination of varieties, process, and climate create a sort of “place fingerprint” which links a flavor to a place. This is certainly true of Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia: certain unique varieties, a unique washing style, and a spectacular environment combine to create a distinct traditional style of coffee. It’s a great example of the food tradition you describe. But, what are the “regional trends” of Honduras? Of Nicaragua? Of Peru? Of Colombia? Of Panama? What is the “classic” flavor profile of these places, and who decides it? All of those places have a similar story: Typica was planted first, then waves of different varieties swept through, replacing plantings along the way: Bourbon and Caturra at first, then Catuai, and ultimately Catimor hybrids. Farms sometimes have a mix of varieties, sometimes a pure variety. The variety- as I have said- is a prime determinant of how these coffees will wind up tasting. And here’s the rub, Nick: because we have not recognized the contribution that variety brings to coffee, these countries’ farms you seek to protect are being replanted with nondescript, highly productive varieties which are destroying the “taste of place” you cherish. Farmers aren’t ripping out their precious traditional varieties to plant Gesha and Pacamara- they are replanting with lower quality hybrids.
I truly believe that it is possible to both value coffee tradition and celebrate the contribution of flavor that varieties bring. We can and should celebrate (and protect!) coffee traditions where they exist, and ESPECIALLY recognize the varieties that represent that tradition! I also respect the independence and inventiveness of farmers; and when they choose to plant an exotic variety, we should recognize that, too!
Of course, nobody seeks to diminish anyone’s country- that’s a wildly inflammatory accusation. Let’s use an example here: which description diminishes the State of California more: “A Cabernet Sauvignon from Hall Vineyards in Napa, California” or “California red wine”? I would say the former is descriptive, indicates flavor, gives credit to the farmer and a sense of place. The second is generic and uninformative. The second is what we do in coffee, today. Nobody seeks to erase country of origin from our language. But when that is the descriptor of the coffee to exclude all else, it is the farmer and the consumer who are devalued. That said, I strongly agree with the spirit behind what you are saying: it is really really important that we maximize coffee’s potential to promote international understanding and value among the cultures that produce and consume coffee. Isn’t that possible, while still recognizing the impact of variety on flavor?
And this is important, Nick. As I mentioned before, the varieties that have made these countries great coffee producers are at risk. Unless we start recognizing and valuing great varieties, they will disappear, and along with them will go great coffee.