Today this blog popped up on the internet, to discuss the impact of variety in coffee. I found the discussion on Twitter that started all of this shallow, yesteryear’s news, maybe entertaining at its best. But for the most part, it annoyed me like a mosquito. If you work in coffee, or even just like it, and still think Maracaturra is one of the Kardashian’s puppies, don’t feel bad.
The idea behind both the twitter discussion and the blog, is that variety, more than other things, is influential to flavor, au contraire to what most people believe, according to our peers starting this discussion. Most people think it’s the origin of the coffee that mainly contributes to flavor, because most roasteries name the origin of the coffee on the bag. It was the idea of coffee tasting different according to where it came from - regions, countries, farms - that got me into coffee in the first place in the late 1990s. To me, variety has always been the extra, the ta-da!, the “Ladies and Gentlemen, not only does it come from a place, it is also a variety!”.
To me, understanding flavor and explaining it in words to myself and to others, teaching about coffee, is about sorting information (biggest - big - small - smallest etc. is arguably the easiest way to learn). The idea of coffee, or wine, corn, apples, you-name-it, growing in a specific, geographical place, and flavor being a result of that combined with the work of the farmer, is starting to become familiar to consumers again. I like that. Even with an inconsolable crush on an apple sales boy at a farmer’s market in the Bay Area that made me buy more apples and do more variety tastings in one fall than any normal person would do in a lifetime, I still think an apple is an apple. I’m slightly interested in where they grow. I know they are varieties - with names so weird noone can remember them. I can only remember Crab apple, because I always thought “Crap apple”. Yes. Seriously.
The first contributor to the blog is surprisingly James Hoffman, and I think he sums it up well:
I hope I’ve made clear why I don’t think variety is a great indicator of flavour, without devaluing its importance and contribution to cup quality.
This is why I find it important to talk variety: When I talk to coffee producers, which I do most 52 weeks out of the year, and we talk about what other coffees my company is buying, they never ask about “what varieties are they growing there?”. When they are told varieties play a role in determining flavor and thus, quality, they are sometimes surprised, most often interested. There, with farmers, we have a huge job left undone, one that can not be taken light upon. In a time where Catimor hybrids are gaining terrain for their huge crops and easy adaptation to terroir and lower-yielding varieties with excellent cup quality is loosing, we have to keep it clean, simple and understandable. We want the best possible coffee in terms of cup quality. And, here we go: I am most often not interested in varieties we know taste good being selected, picked and processed separately. I used to be, but I’m not anymore. It’s expensive and in 99% of the cases there is so much other work to be done on farm level (picking, processing, understanding resources available to you or not, understanding of possibilities and limitations). Not to be forgotten: good density sorting can erase all worries the concerned roaster has about the issue of heat penetration, so no worries about varieties there, really. Quite opposite, I believe a blend of good varieties with exemplary dry milling can bring unique complexity to the cup.
So there you have it. The more I think about it, the better James Hoffman said it. I don’t think variety is the most important thing when talking to industry professionals or consumers, and I don’t think it’s the most important thing when talking to farmers. It is important, but it’s not more important for cup quality, not more important for understanding flavor or what to expect from a coffee, and it’s not more important for creating awareness, knowledge and understanding.
Acknowledging the importance of farm level work is key to explaining quality, and variety is part of it.