Sorting the chaff from the chaff.

gurnks62It’s nice up here in the ivory tower; having a choice of some of the highest quality coffee on the planet.  Some of them I’m not even that keen on.  I will dismiss them as not being hugely exciting or not having developed much from the previous year’s crop.

I have been spoiled.  I need to drink less of this fancy stuff.  Tasting some new coffees the other week illustated this.  Three amazing examples and one which did nothing to excite me at all.  Asked what I thought about it I replied in bullish fashion “It’s crap.”  Of course it was not a crap coffee.  In its company it failed to shine but nonetheless it had been produced and processed with the same level of care as its peers and in isolation would certainly impress.

So bad coffee gets better the more good coffee you drink.  That is a poorly constructed and confusing sentence.  When one is used to the highest quality coffee, merely good coffee can taste bad.  Better? Meh.  So what about the people aiming for the mass market?  What about your purchasers for Dowe Egberts, Kenco, Nestle et al.  What a job they have to do.  These guys know what the great stuff tases like but have to chose the best from the lower division to meet their financial constraints and huge volumes.  Surely this is a much harder task than simply picking the best coffee on the table.  Having to weigh up the pros and cons between flawed coffees, trying to estimate how they might detriorate over the course of the contract and judging how they might be blended to highlight their strengths is an unenviable task but one which surely takes at least as much experience and skill as choosing between cup of excellence candidates.  Imagine you had to pick the Radio 1 playlist.  Nothing truly inventive or awe inspiring please, we don’t want the population getting restless and nothing really terrible, just pick the best of the mediocrity.  Soul destroying definitely, but still challenging.

The cupping table at which I spout my ill-qualified bilge is one festooned with caffine [this word has just been invented.  Please suggest a better word for something pertaining to coffee.] gems, selected by highly skilled people which means I don’t come into contact with much coffee which is anything less than exceptional.  When one does come along I am ill equipped to analyse it as I will immediately focus on what it is lacking and pull faces.  This is something which definitely requires attention, but is the converse also true?  Would a mass market purchaser be able to spot that the acidity in a Guatemalan micro-lot is slightly lower in the mix than it should be or would they be so blown away by the cleanliness of the coffee compared to their bread and butter that they don’t notice?

Of course the answer is that it depends on the individual but I think perhaps the big boys, or more specifically the little people working for the big boys deserve a break from the bile, pith and vitriol they are more usually discussed with.  If not for their ethics then for their olfactory sacrifices.


~ by bombcup on January 31, 2009.

4 Responses to “Sorting the chaff from the chaff.”

  1. Interesting topic. I have often been surprised how coffees I know is stellar taste boring and bland in the wrong company. A nice and sweet Colombian with clean crisp acidity and notes of tropic fruit isn’t in it’s right element when tasted among extreme dry processed and über-fruity Ethiopians. But if you taste it against it’s peers you will realize what a great coffee it is.

    For the bulk buyers, the microlots probably very seldom make it to the table and so will not influence their palates much. I’m not saying they never taste it, but it’s probably not on their table when they cup coffees to buy. They pick what they prefer out of what’s available to them.


  2. Congratulations on your new appointment Ola, you must be incredibly excited.

    Thanks for the comments, the realisation that I need to step back and consider the context of my criticism has been a valuable lesson.

  3. You’re right – these guys have a very hard job to do, selecting the best they can within the limits set by their companies.

    I recently experienced what they can do when they get it right. I had returned from a trip to the other side of the world, and had only 2 days at home before another (work) trip. I wasn’t going to roast anything in that time, nor had i ordered any roast beans in advance.

    So while doing the shopping in the local co-op, I picked up some coffee. Whole beans (the co-op has a limited choice), Taylors of Harrogate (do they count as big guys? Possibly not). “Kenya AA Gold” – i was looking for something in a medium roast. And I took a bag from the back of the shelf – so that the “best before” date was impossibly far in the future.

    And – I was impressed! Recognizable Kenyan character, roasted lightly. My notes on it say only – “FLORAL, light, ACIDIC, and honey-ey”. Which is pretty good going for a “supermarket coffee”.

    Or, am I spoiled to call this “supermarket coffee”? I realize now that I went straight for the whole beans, and for a named origin coffee. Not too long ago, 4-5 years, instant would have been the norm for me, and ground “real” coffee rather posh. Whole beans would have seemed impossibly distant – “but you need a grinder!”

    Hmm. Before it’s too late, maybe we should analyze this. How did we get from there to here, and how can we help others to do so?

  4. Kenya and Brazil have some huge farms that are able to deliver large quantities of decent coffee to a reasonable price. I guess these two countries would be something to look for when buying coffee from a “Supermarket” roaster.

    That being said I wont take anything away from the craftsmanship of these roasters.

    Thanks for the congrats Bombcup. I’m really excited about it! Will keep the TMC gang posted.


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