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How we Select our Coffee Beans

As we are preparing to select our next beans, we felt it was a good time to answer a couple of questions we receive often – How do we select our coffee beans?  And followed by – Are our coffee beans organic and/or Fairtrade?

How do we select our Coffee Beans?
We work with reputable importers who act as liaisons to specialty coffee farmers, who are usually small and family-owned.  Our primary importer selects coffee based on a cupping score, which includes grading on the following criteria:  Fragrance, Taste/Aftertaste/Acidity, Body, Sweetness & Balance, Overall Impression.  Any coffee that receives a score below 80 is rejected.

The flavor wheel was developed to help coffee tasters communicate about coffee flavors. Similar to wine and cheese, coffee can be incredibly complex.
The flavor wheel was developed to help coffee tasters communicate about coffee flavors. Similar to wine and cheese, coffee can be incredibly complex.

By working with an importer who only brings in specialty grade coffee that meets a ‘taste experience’ standard, we know the beans we choose from are going to be all high caliber choices.  When we make a sample order, all the beans we are considering come from good farms, have met the minimum cupping score and are usually grown as small, micro-lots in a quality-controlled environment.  [In contrast, commodity grade coffee is generally bland or unpalatable, grown on large factory farms and harvested by large machinery. ]

Out of the lots available in a given season, we then select beans based on two criteria:

  1. How will this bean complement the other beans on our menu in Silver City?  Do the cupping notes provide nice contrast and variety to the other coffees?
  2. When we taste this coffee, do we have a “Holy moly, that’s good!” experience?

In terms of the contrast mentioned in goal #1, we are not referring to ‘dark roast’ versus ‘light roast’.  Roast degree is controlled by the roaster, not the plant.  Each bean will be distinctive/unique based on altitude, soil, rainfall, bean varietals present in the crop and how it was processed (we will discuss green coffee bean processing in another post).  These factors create the cup personality – the qualities mentioned in our importer’s cupping notes.

In general, we like to have a few ‘bright’, fruity coffees as well as some heavy, earthy coffee options.  Sometimes we’ll be drawn to a nutty coffee or one with ‘tea-like’ tones.  We also enjoy offering coffee beans that are kind of wild.  The Costa Rica, which we are about to replace, was the best wild coffee so far – bright, citrus flavors with a heavy mulled wine-ness.  Absolutely delicious.  Absolutely surprising.

For goal #2, we want each coffee bean option to provide an excellent experience for our customers, either as a drink they enjoy in Silver City or a bean they take/ship to brew at home.  Not every flavor is going to make everybody happy, but hopefully, by providing enough options with diverse cupping notes, every coffee drinker can find a good match.

In summary, we work with an importer who does the preliminary selections based on how FANTASTIC a coffee is; We then sort through our options to select the coffee beans that would work best for us at a given time.

Are our Coffee Beans Organic and/or Fairtrade?
Quick answer – Some are and some are not.

Courtesy of coffeedrinkingbenefits.com (http://www.coffeedrinkingbenefits.com/what-they-really-mean-fair-trade-organic-and-all-of-the-other-coffee-certifications/)
Courtesy of coffeedrinkingbenefits.com (http://www.coffeedrinkingbenefits.com/what-they-really-mean-fair-trade-organic-and-all-of-the-other-coffee-certifications/)

As we hopefully made clear in our answer to the first question, our objectives lie with selecting high quality, specialty grade, exquisite tasting coffee beans.  Sometimes those descriptors overlap with the common certifications/labels (i.e. Organic, Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, etc) and sometimes they do not.  If you are not familiar with specialty grade coffee, you may not have ever heard for paying extra for great flavor.  But that is how it is done when you work with an excellent importer who has goals aligned with ours – great tasting coffee.

By offering financial incentive to farmers to grow amazing tasting coffee beans, our importer is encouraging the development of a better product (rather than offering extra payment because a farm is certified under one of the popular labels).  This is important, because often the small farms are indeed organic or offer excellent employment practices (and other considerations of the Fairtrade label), but they are not signed up to receive the label.

By focusing on cup quality, farmers choose practices that are the best for the coffee plant.  That means shade grown, high elevation, adequate supply of water and the workers who know how to best groom the plant and process the beans properly.

One of the downsides of ‘Organic Fairtade’ coffee is that it is – without exception – processed and sold by a cooperative.  This excludes independent farms owned by families that utilize ‘child labor’ (i.e. their kids work the farm, which is often admired in other industries) and farms hoping to be paid more for great tasting coffee.  As specialty grade coffee will always surpass Fairtrade non-specialty coffee in terms of quality, and can therefore demand a premium on the open market, choosing to sell one’s beans as Fairtrade may actually be detrimental for the farmer (excellent article here).

Additionally, as cooperative coffee is often batched together, there is no benefit to growing the most amazing coffee imaginable.  What you harvest gets processed together with the other farms participating in the cooperative; thus, tracing a truly remarkable bean (or a bad bean) back to its origin so that you can purchase it again (or avoid that farm) is basically impossible.

The certification programs have their strengths and honorable goals; but just because a coffee does not wear them, it does not mean the farm or farmer is less.  It means their goals are different.  While Direct Trade programs are the easiest way for farm-to-roaster transparency, we feel that working with great importers is nearly as good.  By allowing our importer to shoulder the costs and responsibilities of travel, cupping, transporting, importing, etc, we are able to focus on our strengths – roasting and brewing exceptional coffee.

Closing Thoughts
We choose to focus on the art of roasting.  We select a variety of amazing coffee beans that brew into delightful drinks.  We then work to bring out the best qualities a bean has to offer.

This task is not as simple as throwing a frozen dinner in the microwave and pressing ‘start’.  Variable bean characteristics – the density, moisture content, origin, varietals and processing method all play a role in how the roast goes.  Add to that the local environmental conditions – temperature, humidity, air flow, gas pressure and you have a truly complex, multi-variable and fragile process.  We monitor the roast process using digital profiling software so we can identify where we went right (or wrong) and how to make improvements for the next round.  Because we roast in small batches, we are forced to roast nearly every single day to keep up with demand.

The end result – Our carefully selected, fantastic tasting coffee is always served to you freshly roasted and recently rested.  Our mission – Roast, cup and serve the finest coffee in Silver City.

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