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Coffee Processing/Handling Techniques Play out in the Cup

July 02, 2009
Category: in Skill-Building: Sourcing

Coffee Processing/Handling Techniques (at origin) Play out in the Cup

Lessons from cuppings of six different Uganda Bugisu coffees

by Taylor Mork, Crop to Cup Coffee Co. (Brooklyn, NY)

Yesterday at Crop to Cup Brooklyn we had an eye opening and tasty coffee cupping. The goal was to re-cup a set of 6 new crop coffee samples that we recently received from two sources in the Bugisu region of Uganda.  We had cupped them last Friday, off a nice sample roast created by no other than NYC coffee fave Daniel Humphries.  We cupped roughly 24 hours after roasting.  JD and his team from Oslo Coffee and a few other friends joined us, and we definitely got a good read on the options.  We all settled on what we thought were the best coffees.

Yesterday, our goal was to reevaluate these six samples (when you’re buying 20-40 tons of the stuff, you want to be sure!), and try them on an even lighter roast, with new sets of taste buds. Luckily coffee fanatics Neil and Anne from TampTamp jumped at the chance (offer of free beer afterwards did NOT influence their decision to join), and our own Brooklyn team – me, Fernando and Jeanne – and some friends/neighbors at Greenspaces were there to help dig in (with spoons).

The coffees yesterday were cupped about 27 hours after roasting (so not much different from the previous set), semi-blind by me and blind by all others.  I knew which three were from which exporter, but I did not know how each exporter’s 3 were arranged.  The other cuppers simply knew that there were 6 Uganda Bugisu coffees on the table.  In the end, we all settled on the same 3 coffees as “good” (all from one exporter), and we also all settled on which of those 3 were “very good” and “awesome.”

What made yesterday so much more interesting was that – after the cupping – I busted out the laptop and read aloud emails from our export partners explaining each coffee’s origin and processing style. I had not done this last Friday because I knew I was going to re-cup these coffees, and I didn’t want to influence later taste evaluations.

So here’s what happened.  I won’t go into much detail about the specific tastes we got from the good, better and best coffees, because I really want to focus on processing and handling here.

The coffees that all came from one export partner – let’s call them Exporter A - did not cup well. The main details I received about their coffees were the sizes/grades. We received coffees of A, AA and PB sizes.  All three cupped poorly on Friday night, and again yesterday.  We found a gem (amazing dark blueberry) in one cup (of three) of the AA on Friday night, but the other 2 of 3 were not good, telling us that this is a mixed lot with inconsistent quality.  I don’t want great coffee only 1 in 3 mornings of my life, and I don’t want only 1 in 3 customers happy!  The PB and A did not impress us much on Friday, but also didn’t put us off so much that we didn’t think a later cupping could yield good results. In a nutshell, we weren’t overly excited about these beans from Exporter A, but we also wanted to give them a second chance.

On yesterday’s lighter roast cupping of Exporter A’s coffees, we lost any positivity remaining from Friday. They were not just “not great,” but were unfortunately just “pretty bad.”  Although their dry aromas gave off some nice cinnamon and chocolate, they tasted dirty, baggy, grassy (not in a good way) and just plain flat.  Anne picked out a lot of notes of underripe beans.

Exporter B’s three coffees (all single-A grade), on the other hand, gave us a refreshing whiff of “clean!”  Wow, was it a nice change.  The first (let’s call it coffee #4) had a nice sweet dry aroma, a good clean cup, with good body and acidity, sweet and slightly fruity - a great coffee that would impress many coffee drinkers.  The second of Exporter B’s (coffee #5) – our top favorite overall – had beautiful orange currant tones, very pleasant medium-high acidity, lovely juiciness, and great balance. Best of all, it was bright, but not too bright – i.e. it’s not going to scare away the large portion of the coffee community that loves a hint of bright oranges, but still needs a good thick cup of chocolaty joe .  Anne was brimming with excitement for having picked out the cultivar: Bourbon SL-28.  That girl knows what she’s talking about when it comes to coffee, and this was a perfect example of what great coffee SL-28 trees can produce.  The third (coffee #6) was good, although a bit confusing because of its slight inconsistencies (2 of 3 cups were consistent and good, and 1 of 3 cups was amazing – dark fruity, blueberry, plum-like).

So, what makes these coffees taste so good and bad?

Coffees 1-3, from Exporter A (a large regional cooperative):  From this exporter, we received grade information (A, AA, PB) and information that the coffee is hand pulped, washed and dried at the homes/farms of members of "primary societies" (which are members of the larger regional cooperative, in this case the exporter).  This coffee is bought from all over the Bugisu region where the coop's primary societies reside (not just bought from select regions).  It is then all mixed together without regard to quality or select regions. I am not aware what types of drying systems and transport are provided by the coop to the farmers, but since it all comes from such a large region, it is safe to assume that some is dried properly and blessed with adequate transport to get it down the mountain before it rots, while some is not dried properly (not on raised beds) and left to sit in inadequate storage facilities.  When the coffee comes into the hands of the coop/exporter it is all in dry parchment form, i.e. too late to tell what sort of underripe, ripe and overripe beans went in, impossible to tell which microregions and altitudes of Bugisu the beans came from, too late to tell which beans had waited too long between harvest and depulping+washing and thus molded. Those defects definitely came through in the cup. The coffee is a big batch of coffee from all over the large Bugisu region (up to 40 miles long and 5 miles wide) (here, see the Western side of Mt. Elgon, stretching from Kapchorwa down to Bomwege), collected by the coop/exporter then hulled and separated according to size.  Even though the factory that hulls and sorts their coffee is top-notch, hulling and sorting is a relatively straightforward process and isn’t the stage of the coffee process where the most damage can be done.

Coffees 4-6 (Exporter B):  Coffee 4 is from farmer groups (Producer Organizations, i.e. "POs") in six specific microregions in Uganda. These farmer groups have all been provided with reliable hand pulpers, drying systems and transport.  Although quality can be compromised when you have hundreds of different farmers all pulping, drying and storing their own coffee before selling to the exporter, they are at least starting out on the right foot through proper training and equipment.  Coffee 5 – our favorite from the cupping - is from four specific “washing stations” whose operations are controlled by the exporter and supported by quite a bit of investment (one is the set of 2 buildings and 4 white tanks to the left of the road right before it is covered by clouds, here).  I used to work at the company managing these stations in Uganda (a different company than who manages them now), and I know the effort and money it takes to keep these running, and the amazing quality that they can produce.  Farmers of Coffee 5 bring their just-harvested coffee cherries to the washing station, where underripes and overripes can be refused, and the pulping, washing, fermenting and drying processes can all be closely monitored and controlled for consistency, with high-quality equipment, running water and adequate space. Coffee 6 – the one that was very tasty but slightly inconsistent - was a blend of the two – i.e. half from farmer groups with hand pulpers, and half from washing stations.

Sure, we all know that coffee (wet-processed coffee, at least) usually tastes best when farmers are able to bring their freshly harvested cherries to washing stations. We also know that when farmers don’t have a washing station around but still want to produce really good coffee, then they can produce awesome stuff if provided with the proper hand-pulping and small-scale drying equipment, training, relationships and quality control to keep out coffee from poorly performing regions.  We also know that bulk coffee, such as jumbled bunches of simply “Ugandan” or “Bugisu” coffee collected blindly throughout the region without regard to the many different valleys, altitudes and processing limitations of farmers in this massive region – will taste uninteresting and dirty.  At best, the latter will taste “different” – different from an Ethiopian, from a Colombian or from a Papau New Guinea coffee. But what’s the point of different if it doesn’t taste great?!

But how often do we – coffee drinkers - get to see all of these rules play out on one table?  What made this coffee cupping so interesting and educational is that we had the opportunity to really see and taste all in one place what “rules” most of us simply take to be true. It is not often that we get to put six different Uganda Bugisu coffees on the table, taste such stark quality differences, then match the tastes – both good and bad – to specific processing styles and rules.

Even better, we found a few coffees that we can’t wait to import!  Come soon we’ll have 20-40 tons of this stuff pulling up on a ship at the port of Newark.  Now can you guess which one(s)…and tell me why?!

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