Thursday, March 26, 2009

Super-specialty coffees are worth the search -- and the cost

Thursday, March 26, 2009
By China Millman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Andy Starnes/Post-Gazette

Nicholas Coffee Company in Market Square, Downtown, carries several specialty coffee choices, which are displayed in the store's original bins from 1919.

Americans like good coffee. Specialty coffee -- loosely defined as high-quality, geographically distinct beans -- has a 20 to 30 percent market share. We also care about the living and working conditions of people who pick our coffee beans and the environmental effect of coffee production. Certified coffees, such as organic coffee, fair trade coffee and Rainforest Alliance coffee are increasingly popular -- even Wal-Mart introduced a line of certified coffees in 2008.

But these numbers represent the coffee market that existed before the global financial crisis. Historically, when consumers are concerned about price, our dedication to quality and to reasonable wages are more expendable.

If you care about the quality of available coffee, you should be worried about this trend. The solution? Don't spend less, spend more. Coffee is one of those rare products in which we can have our cake and eat it, too. We can increase the pleasure of drinking better coffee and improve the lives of the coffee workers by paying them more. While many consumers think that they're doing the right thing by purchasing fair trade coffee, which guarantees that workers' co-operatives are receiving a minimum price per pound, we can do better -- for ourselves and for the workers.

Specialty coffee is relatively easy to find, thanks in part to Starbucks Coffee Company, which has played a substantial role in setting quality standards and educating the public, and which still dominates the specialty market. But the very best coffees, super-specialty coffees, are found at a smaller, more select list of cafes and roasters. There's no straightforward rule for identifying these places by sight, but if you look for businesses that offer a menu of single origin coffees (see The Buzz), provide lots of detail about those coffees and emphasize the unique flavor profile of each coffee they sell, you'll be on the right track.

The most famous (and largest) of the super-specialty roasters include Intelligentsia in Chicago, Stumptown in Portland, Ore., Batdorf & Bronson in Olympia, Wash., and Counter Culture in Durham, N.C. These companies and others like them are creating a market for super-premium coffees by buying directly from origin and paying substantially more for the beans that produce the best coffee. They form long-term relationships with farms and, when their standards are met, contract to buy beans at a premium price.

Intelligentsia Direct Trade, for example, sets a price that's at least 25 percent above fair trade prices. Companies also may buy coffee at auctions such as Cups of Excellence, where they compete to buy the coffees that score the highest in quality.

Larger audiences for these coffees means greater incentives for exporters and producers and more money flowing into developing economies.

While these companies have done an excellent job in sourcing and roasting incredible coffees, they need to do more to educate consumers about their overall value. It's easy to tell the difference between a bad cup of coffee and a decent cup of coffee. But appreciating the differences at the higher end of the quality spectrum takes more attention and experience.

The focus should be on developing a framework for personal preferences. Sometimes learning how to describe a taste goes hand in hand with actually experiencing the taste. And once you know how to describe what you like or don't like about a coffee, you're much more likely to be able to find the coffees that you'll enjoy the most.

These super-specialty coffees come in far more varieties than "bold" or "mild," "city roast" or "French roast." Key tasting terms include acidity (positively described as a brightness or liveliness in the taste), body (the brewed coffee's weight or feel in the mouth) and balance (whether a coffee has a good mix of acidity, sweetness, aroma and body). Specialty coffee has a specialized language, just like wine, and learning the basics of this language makes a coffee menu immediately more accessible. Keep in mind that reading descriptions will only get you so far. The best way to develop opinions about coffee is to taste, taste, taste.


Robusta: This species grows more quickly and has a higher yield, but produces beans with inferior flavors. However, a little robusta in an espresso blend, especially a carefully cultivated and processed robusta, can enhance body and crema, the dense, flavorful foam layer at the top of a properly pulled espresso shot.

Arabica: A species with hundreds of cultivar varieties, many of which have the potential to produce incredible coffee. Arabica coffee plants grow best at high altitudes in the shade of other trees, which allows their cherries to ripen slowly and evenly.

Cultivars: Some of the oldest Arabica cultivars are typica, bourbon and kent. But there are hundreds, many of which have the potential to be turned into incredible coffee. Some, such as SL28 and SL34, are less poetically named, but equally respected in the coffee world. Some coffees will include cultivars in the name, but super-specialty roasters will always include it in more detailed information available on a Web site.


The flavor of coffee beans is substantially influenced by the environmental conditions where it is grown such as soil type and rainfall. Just as for wine, the conditions of different regions and farms affect the characteristics of the bean. Super-specialty coffee will identify very specific lots of specific farms or regions, rather than just selling coffee as a Costa Rica or a Kenya. Of course, the presence of a specific farm on the label doesn't guarantee a higher level of quality; it's just one sign that a coffee might be top quality.

Coffee beans are the seeds of a fruit called a coffee cherry. After ripe cherries are picked, the skin and pulp of the fruit, and the parchment "skin" around the coffee must be removed.

Countries with access to a lot of water typically wet process their coffee, which allows the skin and pulp to be removed quickly, often producing a cleaner, brighter, lighter bodied coffee.

Countries without as much access to water traditionally use a dry or natural processing method, which involves allowing the skin and pulp to dry so they can be peeled off, which usually takes about a week. With this method, it is more likely the coffee will be tainted by the flavors of fermentation, but it also produces a fuller bodied, sweeter coffee and can enhance the aromas and flavors of the finished product. In general, more labor-intensive methods of processing result in better coffee.

Many growing regions are experimenting with both methods to see which works best for different varieties under different conditions. There are also semi-dry and semi-wet processing methods.


Most super-specialty coffee roasters prefer to profile-roast, tasting the coffee at various degrees until they find the right roast for that bean, typically a lighter roast. But darker roast coffees still have quite a following and careful roasting will allow the aromas of the bean to have an influence. Recently super-specialty roasters have begun to focus on the freshness of green beans, and new standards are being set to use green beans within at most a year of harvest and to make sure that those beans are properly stored to maximize freshness.


Almost every brewing method, from drip coffee to chemex pots to espresso machines, can produce excellent coffee; but no matter how excellent the bean, if brewed improperly, the coffee won't reach its full potential. The same beans may exhibit different characteristics when brewed differently, for example a coffee may exhibit more brightness (acidity) in a French press than a chemex, while the chemex may produce a smoother, cleaner body.

Next month, I'll take a look at the many variables baristas must control to produce great coffee, and how we can learn from them to take home coffee brewing to a new level of quality.