Roaster: Coffee Alchemy
Origin 1: Colombia Segundo Burbano
Origin 2: Bolivia Juan Ticona
For a week before the cupping session, I’d been enjoying these two coffees as a morning pick-me-up. Having been roasted on the 11 February, both of them needed some time to settle and lose that ‘freshness’ which is typical of just-roasted coffee. Although enjoyable, it was only until six days later that they started to come into their own, and I knew they were ready to be cupped.
Like a boxing match, the bout between these two coffees wasn’t exactly even. Colombian coffee has always been a heavy-weight in the specialty coffee arena, having consistently produced a number of acclaimed coffees from various regions. Bolivia, on the other hand, was the up-and-comer, and the definite underdog of the match.
To look at both their histories, one can see that Bolivia is irrefutably the developing origin, having only been considered ‘specialty’ for the last eight or nine years. Pre-2004, their green beans were considered the worst in Latin America. The main trouble, it seemed, was in the quality of their processing. Only through the efforts of USAid and the willingness of the farmers to re-educate themselves, has Bolivia been able to see a substantial improvement in the quality of their coffee.
On the other hand, Colombian has always had a great reputation for coffee, reinforced, in part, by a great deal of money invested in its marketing. Since the first Cup of Excellence competition, Colombian farmers have attracted premium prices for their coffee. The famed Colombian Geisha has consistently sold for upwards of $120/kg. As farming practices improve, one can expect that the quality of their coffee will only go from strength to strength.
Tana Toraja is a mountainous coffee growing region in southern Sulawesi, one of the four largest islands in the Indonesian archipelago. With a reputation for full body and low acidity, Toraja coffee has continually caught the eye of the specialty coffee industry.
Like with any origin, there is much more to the story than just the name. The coffee beans commonly traded as Toraja are uncommonly scarce for one thing, with no more than 2000 tonnes being produced each year. Of that number, 50% is purchased by The Starbucks Coffee Company, who are said to need seventy cargo ship containers worth of Toraja (1260 tonnes) to fit the hefty demands of their worldwide customers. Key Coffee of Japan buys the next largest amount, purchasing around 27% of the Toraja crop each year. This leaves less than a quarter left for all the other players in the market.
Besides the obvious, corresponding price rise, the level of geographical fraud in Sulawesi is symptomatic of the increased demand for Toraja, remembering that it only accounts for 2% of total coffee exports in Indonesia. Tony Marsh and Jeff Nielson’s 2007 report to the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research concluded that:
The relationship between actual origins and the use of geographical identities [in Sulawesi] is a tenuous one. A coffee marked Kalosi does not necessarily come from Enrekang, and the volume of coffee traded within Indonesia and abroad under the Toraja label would seem to far exceed actual production in the district. (1)
Geographical identity is a big selling point in the specialty coffee industry. With such inadequate traceability systems in place, it’s hardly surprising that people are trying to pass off their beans as being from the more reputable North Toraja region. As Marsh and Nielson conclude:
The unique brand credibility of Toraja coffee is being eroded by highly variable quality across Sulawesi and lack of appropriate traceability systems. There is certainly no way of guaranteeing the regional origin of all coffee sold in Makassar prior to export…A high-value coffee means that there are high risks associated with adulteration. The mixing of various local origins prior to export is almost certainly diluting the reputation of Toraja…in international marketing (2)
Whether it be certification or investing in more comprehensive traceability systems, something needs to be done in order to protect the Toraja name. As the maxim goes, it takes years to build a reputation and moments to ruin it, and you certainly can’t trade on name alone forever, not when it’s becoming increasingly muddied in the market. The Toraja coffee industry needs to get together on these issues or risk losing buyers to other, more consistent, markets.
(1) Marsh, T. Nielson, J. 2007. ‘Securing the profitability of the Toraja coffee industry’, Report to the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, p. 21
(2)Ibid. p. 26
Note: Tony Marsh and Jeff Nielson’s report to can be found here.
— Mark Stell of Portland Roasting, Macro Roaster of the Year 2012. Some great industry insight from a guy whose built an amazingly successful roasting company from the ground up, made huge inroads in pushing sustainability, and coolest of all, has his own coffee farm in Tanzania. Really good reading.
Full Article from Roast Magazine available here (pdf).
Images: Leela Cyd Ross
Oceans’ 11-style Chemex method. Ridiculous music, useful instruction.
Taylor St Baristas
from Fresh Grind
I guess I should first make it clear that I’m talking facetiously about coffee ‘binging’. My family is adamant that I drink an unhealthy amount of coffee, despite being shown a litany of articles which conclude the exact opposite (i.e. here).
I think that this common misconception is why there still aren’t any decent coffee crawls in Sydney.
Although Sydney’s cafe scene has burgeoned well beyond the typical inner-city spots, there is yet to be any concerted attempt to market cafe tours to the eager cafe-going public.
Melbourne, the self-proclaimed cafe capital of Australia, already offers a wide range of tours that explore the many laneway cafes in the city, from the famous to the obscure. The ‘Coffee Cultural Trek’ and ‘Hidden Secret Tours’ are just a few of the options that come up from a simple Google search. But as for a Sydney equivalent? Nada.
Some of the staff at the cafe did our own impromptu version a few weeks back. Without turning this post into another coffee review (which let’s face it, there are already way too many), I’ll share some of my impressions.
We’d agreed previously on Single Origin Roasters (SOR), Sample and Coffee Alchemy. Alchemy and SOR are probably the best cafes in Sydney right now*, and Sample, I’d be told, was an awesome up-and-comer. For no other reason than its central location, we started at SOR. I went with a Panama Geisha pour-over, made by the highly acclaimed Shoji Sasa at his little Sideshow brewing bar. The coffee satisifed the hell out of my caffeine deprived palate, like some sort of black elixir. It was then that I understood what Charles Maurice de Talleyrandmeant when he called the perfect cup ’pure as an angel’ and ‘sweet as love’.
The main problem, I found, with a really amazing first cup of coffee is that there is little possibility of a comparable follow-up. David Schomer, who wrote the classic Espresso Techniques manual, said that ‘coffee never tastes better than when your body really wants it’ and that usually means the first coffee of the day.
So unsurprisingly, the espresso blend that followed the pour-over felt spectacularly average, despite being technically perfect.
And that’s how coffee is, subjective. If coffee tastes its best when your low on caffeine, then the opposite is true as well. On his blog, Jim Seven, James Hoffman describes how palate fatigue inevidabily dampens a person’s ability to not only enjoy a coffee but also to discern its specific flavours.
Our little Thursday coffee crawl was a case in point. By the time we reached Coffee Alchemy most of us were six or so coffees deep (which roughly equates to 600-700mg of caffeine each) and to me, the Panama Geisha experience felt like a long, long time ago.
Fortunately, I had sneaked a short visit to Coffee Alchemy the previous Monday, having been way too impatient to wait two measly days to visit probably the most talked about place for coffee excellence, in Sydney.**
Without saying too much about Alchemy, again because so much has already been said, I’ll try to keep this bit short.
Alchemy has, with good reason, earned their reputation for the best coffee in Sydney. To me, they just seem to be head and shoulders above everyone else, much like Bill Huntington was in the NY fashion scene or Dr Albert Barnes in art. In short, 6 months ahead of the curve with the rest of the field always playing catchup.
But on the day of the crawl, I must admit I had no such sentiment.
The problem was that I’d breached my caffeine limit well before we arrived at Alchemy. If six coffees was my max., then at least I should have taken it a bit easier, maybe having two coffees at each place instead of six or eight or however many I had had.
No doubt, caffeine tolerance plays a major factor in organising a coffee crawl. Most people have one or two coffees a day, which greatly affects how many places they can visit, and how many coffees they can have. The increase in available brewing methods certainly making coffee selection much more important. Am I looking at just filter coffee today, or maybe filter and espresso?
At the end of the day, it all boils down to the purpose of the crawl. If it’s for fun, then the objective should be geared towards achieving a positive experience. Think good company, good conversation and all knit-picking mind activity firmly switched off. As the maxim goes, if you go looking for faults, you’ll always find them.
If the objective is more professionally orientated, then there should be paramaters in place so that you can at least quantify the experience in terms of technique analysis, taste evaluation, knowledge etc. Perhaps more importantly is to keep your mind open to different approaches, especially those that inspire innovation and passion.
And that, as they say, is what it’s really all about.
*this is an absolutely qualified statement made purely in the interest of the articles flow. There are, of course, many other cafes in Sydney who are at the very least as good as those mentioned above. Just a few that come immediately to mind include Reuben Hills, Le Monde, Mecca King Street, Mecca Ultimo, etc. The list goes on.
**at least amongst my mates