This is Part 3 in a series of posts called “What Does A Green Coffee Buyer Do”. If you haven’t read the previous posts, we recommend you start here, Part 1: Planning.
It’s time to start finding the first coffees of the season.
Since it became legally possible to hold both a production and an export license two years ago, many producers have become their own exporter. Unlike in Kenya where there’s a rush to find the best coffees early in the season, good coffee is everywhere in Ethiopia, and companies are pushing hard for a sale! My aim is to find the right people with a similar mindset to Nordic Approach, and a willingness to work according to our values. These relationships often start at the cupping table.
I usually plan my first cupping trip for early February. I book meetings with all exporters we work with, plus other suppliers who have great potential. The days are spent tasting, but also understanding export timelines, and analysing the human aspect of the businesses.
The Challenge of Fresh Coffees
Cupping the first selection gives me an idea of what the harvest will have to offer and what regional profiles to expect. But it can be challenging. Coffees this fresh can be closed, meaning the flavours can be muted or hidden and the mouthfeel can be very astringent. Ethiopian coffees are renowned for this — they need some time to open up and express themselves fully. An essential skill of a coffee buyer is learning how to cup through the astringency and understand the potential of a coffee.
So, how do you cup fresh coffees? Let me use the analogy of wine.
Wine can be consumed now, in five years, ten years or be kept for more than twenty years. Wine experts judge the longevity of a wine by paying attention to the acidity and layers of fruit (aromatic compounds). They assess the concentration and freshness of white wine, and the added level of tannins in reds. A wine will be categorised into sweet, semi-sweet or dry, but this doesn’t indicate that a wine is of high quality or that it will age well.
Coffee is quite different from wine, but there are some similarities. The principal difference is the longevity: coffee can be consumed now, in a few months when coffee arrives port, in six months when the coffee has had enough rest, or in a year from now (typical for Ethiopias) if the coffee was exceptionally processed and carefully stored.
If a wine has clean, well integrated aromatics (no apparent smell of ethanol), with no defects, a good level of freshness and fruit, and high level of intensity, you are off to a great start.
Defects in coffee are greater in number, and have a bigger impact on the final cup.
Defects can arise due to problems with picking (ripeness of cherry), fermentation or drying. Coffee buyers look for primary defects such as phenol, sour beans, and mold, and they pay attention to the astringency. It could be from secondary defects like ageing, quakers or other issues.
If the wine is clean, has tonnes of freshness and acidity which are supported by body and sweetness, the wine has potential of ageing well for five to ten years. For a wine to age well for twenty years or more, it has to have a perfect water to sugar/aromatic compounds/acidity ratio with the added structure, alcohol integration and primary, secondary and tertiary flavors.
In coffee the perfect ratio is measured by water activity and moisture levels within the physical green bean. It’s not easy to understand the potential of a coffee as every batch, variety and harvest-date of green coffee behaves differently when roasted and extracted. Some coffees may reveal all of their aromatic compunds and sweetness at this early stage, giving you a clear picture of its potential. Others will not. Some great coffees can start out tasting herbal or of green grape. They may have some flavour but it is muted or lacking complexity. It may have higher levels of astringency. This doesn’t mean it is a bad coffee, it’s just not showing you its full potential yet.
The art is to be able to look past these issues.
Is it just the roast?
Is the herbal astringency a defect like dustiness or earthiness?
Could it be a natural characteristic of this coffee or just freshness?
What’s hiding in those muted flavours that might reveal themselves with time?
How is the acidity? Might it support more fruit flavours as the coffee opens?
Does the body in the cup suggest an integrated, well fermented and well dried coffee?
Risk and Reward
It’s a risk. We use our experience to carefully assess each cup, then we take a bet on those we think show promise and could be winners in a few months time. Sometimes we make mistakes and they peak earlier than expected. Sometimes they don’t open up as fully as we hoped. Fortunately, those losses are rare, and we usually manage to secure a great selection of well structured, amazing coffees – the really good stuff.