Today I’d like to explore a little bit about organic coffee, and posit a reply to folks who say, “I only drink organic coffee.” I know you’re out there, and I know that you care an awful lot about being organic, sustainable, and socially responsible. And I personally respect, and agree with, those tenets. We should try to farm coffee without using artificial or synthetic chemicals. It should be our goal to support sustainable farming. And we should try our best to be socially responsible; to choose products from farms and roasters who support these ideals.
That said, I think we often conflate these ideas, and assume that if something is organic, it must be sustainable. I would argue that, in coffee, this just isn’t the case. Sustainable farming needs to be our primary focus and is more desirable than producing a purely organic product.
First, I would argue that most coffee farmers actually want to farm, and are typically organic farmers. They’re often far out in the forests, miles and miles away from the city. Know the easiest way to create fertilizer? Composting organic material found on the farm (sourced from plants or animals). And I’ve seen many farmers invest in ways to improve their fertilization process. Some have even gone to great lengths to use organic methods (e.g., farming parasitic wasps to combat beetles that attack the plant to cultivating parasitic fungi that consume disease-causing illnesses). One thing that most of these farms have in common is they had a solid existing infrastructure, and, through that, had cash that they could invest back into their farms. But that just isn’t the case for many small farmers. When someone’s struggling to earn enough to feed their family, it’s really not fair for to ask why they didn’t organically farm.
Similarly, the easiest way to maintain coffee farms is by hand. This is often well and good, but there are times when coffee farms “get sick.” The best example of this was an outbreak of coffee rust in Central America. Rust often spreads due to no fault of a coffee farmer. It can literally blow into a farm with the wind. The latest strain of rust recorded has mutated so that it’s immune to organic fungicides. I saw farmers who wanted to keep their farm organic (because they got a premium) lose their entire farm. It was heartbreaking to see the barren trees and the farmers giving up.
I saw others who chose to use the fungicide, knowing that, in the short term, they wouldn’t be able to sell their crop as “organic.” But in the long term, it was more sustainable (AND necessary) to support their family and livelihood. Believe me, small-holder coffee farmers aren’t chomping at the bit to spray their farm down with chemicals; they’re expensive, and often the supply doesn’t match demand. But sometimes, you need to make a hard decision and do it.
Many of these coffee tree diseases are analogous to common disease we see in humans. If you’re healthy, you can often resist illness. And, if you’re healthy and have access to the right foods/diet/money, you could potentially try to combat it organically. Sometimes, it’s just necessary to treat the problem. For example, you wouldn’t want to “tough out” meningitis.
An organic farm that I visited in Nicaragua back in 2015. As you can see, these coffee trees have no leaves and a heavy parasitic moss growing over them. In this case, with low market conditions, even being organic, it wasn't sustainable to grow coffee here.
That said, farming also has a problem with being too systemically dependent on chemicals and selective farming. A large part of the reason we see diseases swing through coffee regions like this is due to over-dependency on chemicals. And, if the market changes (e.g., your product is suddenly worth a lot less) the plants haven’t built up a natural resistance to disease without these chemicals. Because they're no longer affordable, well, it’s likely to fail.
Another problem with lack of resistance has nothing to do with chemicals, but more so with the demands of consumers. We often crave and demand high-quality coffee (e.g., specialty). For many years, farms have selected varieties of coffee that have yielded high cupping scores, in terms of quality. But, with high quality comes more demand, and most of these boutique varieties are surprisingly fragile plants. If there’s mono-culture on a farm, and a disease rips through it that affects that particular variety, that puts a farmer in a really difficult position.
Certification is another problem that I have with “organic” coffees. Yes, it’s cool, and farmers can get a premium for having their coffee certified as organic. But, did you know that every single country has a different “organic” standard. So, if a coffee farmer wants to be organic and sell coffee to the U.S., Canada, England, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand, they’ll need to get certified with each one. And that costs money small farms just often don’t have. Larger farms with a lot of infrastructure and investment capital could potentially get a small premium for “organic” quality. But standards vary from country to country. So, if we collaborate with a producer who is certified organic in England, I can’t legitimately promote their coffee as USDA organic (the organization who oversees certification in the U.S.).
The same problem lies with Fair Trade coffees, but I won’t digress there in this blog.
Finally, I would argue that organic certification really has no bearing on the overall quality of the coffee, and that if you reward “organic” instead of rewarding “quality,” you’re focusing on the wrong ideal. It’s kind of a bummer when we’re tasting coffees: often “organic” certified coffees cup lower than their “non-organic” counterparts. Their premium is coming on the fact that it’s organic, not on because of quality. On the other side, suppose that we’re blind tasting 10 coffees, and that the person setting up our table placed two organic samples on the table, equal in quality to the others. If you asked me to choose which one was organic, I’d probably lose every time. The reason the quality coffees taste good is not because they’re organic, but because farmers had the resources and ability to fertilize, grow, groom, pick, process, dry, and sell their coffee in a sustainable way. And, a few of these just happened to be organic.
Drying beds at AGRIVID, a small cooperative of farmers in Tarrazu, Costa Rica. They are one of the first organic micromills in the region. But they were able to be organic because they previously focused on improving quality and infrastructure.
If it’s important to you (for health or lifestyle reasons), then I am fully in support of your mission to find the perfect organic cup. But, if you’re doing it to support sustainability, I recommend focusing on the transparency of the roaster and know that if they’re charging you a little more than the grocery store “organic” brand does, it’s likely they paid the producer more for that coffee. Many small roasters make it their mission to understand the farmer’s cost of production and pay a price reflective of that.
That’s our mission: we truly care about where our coffee comes from, and that our coffees will be here today, tomorrow, and years to come.
We often get asked, how do you meet the coffee producers that you work with? It might sound like such a hard task with producers living thousands of miles away, but in the age of technology and social media, we are actually very closely connected. But it starts with who you know.
Finca El Crucero
At Mission Coffee Co., we were introduced to our friend Herbert, a coffee farmer and representative of a small cooperative called La Real Expedición Botánica (which we will call La REB), by Brandon, our Lead Roaster. The two of them had met in Florida and tried to start a coffee relationship there but could never get the timing right. They kept in touch, and when we had the chance to cup from La REB late last year (Thanksgiving Day, actually!) we jumped at the opportunity.
So, how do you get noticed in a sea of other coffee producers? Well, you could get lucky and (if you have enough money to afford it) send a coffee to Cup of Excellence, win, and receive recognition and awareness that way. This is unfortunately the exception, not the rule. Another way to build awareness is to build relationships directly with roasters, which obviously takes time, money, and resources that most Colombian farmers don’t have. In fact, a 2012 survey of Colombian farmers found that over a third of those polled had some sort of off-farm income; almost all had to diversify their farming; only 17% were considered “coffee specialists.”
It’s hard to get noticed and to build a relationship on your own. If you don’t get lucky, you need to find another way to make those connections. That’s where our connection with La REB comes into play. Unlike a traditional co-operative, La REB combines coffee knowledge, resources, and marketing, and even has some investment from roasters here in the United States. The folks representing La REB (like Herbert) are all coffee farmers working towards improving quality and finding roasters who want to share in this experience. Ana Mustafa, who oversees El Crucero, is part of this group.
Coffee Blossoms at El Crucero.
Just a few years ago, Ana didn’t sell coffee at a specialty grade—she and her family were dependent on prices of the Colombia Federation. Unlike most countries, at least Colombia has an internal federation that dictates a premium above C-Market prices, but it’s still not high enough to make a sustainable wage. When we first cupped this coffee late last year, we were intrigued both by Ana’s story and willingness to experiment. The first lot (that we released in January of 2019) was a “double fermentation,” which is a hybrid of “natural” and “washed” process. Coffee sits in cherry for two days (a la natural process), but then is pulped, fermented, and washed. It was really an amazing coffee (and if you did not get any of that first round, well, you missed out!)
This harvest was a little different. From the money that Ana made from the last harvest, she was able to do more experimentation to improve the quality. We saw that the milling (both wet and dry) were improved (this improves the integrity of the green coffee). Plus, they were able to further dial in what fermentation duration does to the overall profile (ferment at 12 hours, 24, 36, or longer). And, surprise, surprise: with a bit more resources and some guidance from La REB, her quality went up. And higher quality means that roasters are willing to buy at higher prices.
A stunning view of Ana's farm.
This harvest’s Crucero features what’s called a “layered washed” process. This is a result of their experimentation with processing. It blends several different processing durations, and each one adds a bit of complexity to the overall cup profile. This advancement in processing has yielded a familiar, yet slightly cleaner, cup profile. When you sit down and enjoy a cup, you will notice a rich, round cocoa-like body. As it sits on your palate, you get a fruitiness of peach jam and fresh fruits. On the finish, we think you will still get a rum-like aftertaste. This is an amazing coffee that you don’t want to miss. (Order now!)
We’re excited for our continued relationship with Ana, El Crucero, and La REB. We’ve heard plans for more experimentation, more progress, and more improvement. This coffee will only get better with time.
The road to producing specialty coffee is not an easy one. I think many of us assume if we go to our local coffee roaster, they’ll just happen to have amazing coffees. But amazing coffee isn’t just dependent on roasters or branding or hip baristas—it’s the farmers who build sustainable and quality-centric farms. They’re the ones who commit year after year to improving product quality and infrastructure.
Finca El Platanar - Acatenango, Guatemala (Photo: Yepocapa Coffee)
I’m not sure how many of you realize this, but coffee farming is effing hard. There’s no magic formula that drops a bazillion pounds of coffee on grocery store shelves each year. The work is arduous—it’s labor-intensive and a huge investment on all fronts. And, if you make less money than you invest, it’s nearly impossible to create a sustainable business model.
Speaking of hard work and relentless dedication, let’s check out our new relationship coffee from Finca El Platanar in Acatenango, Guatemala.
This farm, like most other farms in the world, grew coffee that was delivered and sold on the open coffee market. At times, selling on the open market can seem beneficial to producers. For example, if the market is high, they can receive a premium for simply delivering average qualities of coffee. If the market is low, however, they’ll receive a much lower price for that same product. That’s what happened back in 2011/2012. In 2011, the market swung dramatically in the producers’ favor, topping out at $3.00/lb. for commodity-quality coffee—a price for most producers that’s well above cost of production. But, by the end of 2013, that same coffee fell to just above $1.00/lb. On top of that, in 2012, a major coffee epidemic swept through Central America called “rust.” This is a fungus that spreads quickly in moist environments and attaches onto the leaves of coffee plants. As it matures, it eventually eats up the plant’s resources, causing the leaves to fall off the tree. Without leaves, plants do not have the power to ripen their coffee cherry. To make matters worse, this rust had mutated from earlier forms, and was resistant to fungicides.
I took this picture while traveling in Nicaragua back in 2014. You can clearly see these tress have been affected by rust due to lack of leaves on the plants.
Think about that. Put yourself in the farmer’s shoes. You were getting $2.00 less for the same product. And to keep the farm in healthy operational status, you also needed to spend more money for pesticides, more fertilizer, and added labor to help clean up the farm.
You can imagine how this caused one of the major breaking points for small holder coffee farmers in Central America in the past ten years. La Roya (Coffee Rust) and low coffee prices forced many producing families to downscale or abandon their coffee growing operations. Many were better off investing in different crops and forgoing the coffee they had grown for generations.
Don Daniel, Farm Manager at El Platanar. (Photo: Yepocapa Coffee)
Enter: Don Daniel, farm manager at Finca El Platanar. When that rust hit in 2012—in tandem with a poor market—they chose to abandon 50 percent of their coffee farm. With the plummeting prices, they just couldn’t afford to reinvest the time, energy, and money into that part of the farm
That’s the downside to selling coffee in an open market. When times are good, they’re really good. But when they’re not (which is more often the case), market pricing makes it very difficult-to-impossible for a farm to be sustainable. El Platanar knows this reality all too well. Without direct access to coffee roasters (who typically reward quality with higher prices), there was really no incentive for the team to push toward quality premiums.
Newly renovated land with young coffee trees. This is immaculate. (Photo: Yepocapa Coffee)
But there’s a happy ending to this story, thanks to our friends at Yepocapa and La Cooperativa San Pedrana. They connected with Don Daniel and have been able to directly export his farm’s coffee as a single farm lot. They gave him a platform to highlight his quality, which only a few years removed from such a massive issue, is dang good. They’ve also been able to support with processing and agronomy help to support his reinvestment into the land.
This lot from El Platanar is a fully washed single variety (Caturra) lot. Coffee was picked and sorted at Finca El Platanar, then processed (fully washed, dry fermentation, and patio dried) at San Pedrana Co-op. This coffee tastes like a typical Central America Caturra: notes of sweet apricot, honey, and roasted nuts can be easily picked out of the body, with a lingering black tea note and sweet apricot/apple-like acidity.
You should really pick up a bag of this coffee. And, when you do, let Don Daniel know that both Mission and you, our customers, care about quality and buying a sustainable coffee product that will give us opportunities to grow in the future.
We have been working on this new idea for a while now, and we’re happy to finally showcase the first in a new series of coffee which we’re calling LIMITED BATCH. These coffees are going to have limited availability, will be sold in 8oz bags, and will be some of the most unique coffees that we’ve ever had. And, you should get them while you can, because once they’re gone, they’re gone.
Our first LIMITED BATCH coffee comes from a producer that we have served here before at Mission: Rodrigo Sanchez. But, this coffee, and this variety, is one of the most unique coffees in all of Colombia.
Now, that’s a mouthful of terms. So, let’s break what makes this so unique:
Finca Monteblanco is a farm that sits in the ideal coffee growing region of Pitalito, Huila. This farm has been in Rodrigo’s family for three generations now. Their story is like many who have ventured into the specialty coffee world. They grew coffee for years without really understanding much about flavor and quality. And, that is not to say that they didn’t care about quality. But, if you never taste your own coffee, how do you know what affects it?
An overhead view of Finca Monteblanco. (Photo credit to Ally Coffee.)
This changed when Rodrigo learned how to cup and analyze his family’s coffees back in 2002. [Cupping is a process by which we analyze aroma, flavor, aftertaste, body, acidity, and balance of a coffee.] By doing this, he was able to dive a bit deeper into the quality grown on the farm and understood how different varieties were affected by the micro-climates in the different terroir of the farm. Yes, coffee from various parts of the same farm can actually taste dramatically different due to things like soil composition and exposure to /shade…).
Walking the coffee fields at Monteblanco. (Photo credit to Ally Coffee.)
During his investigation of varieties on Monteblanco, he discovered one that was significantly different than others. This was a unique variety that his grandfather had planted back in the 1980s. This is what is now known as Pink Bourbon.
What makes Pink Bourbon special? First, it is a hybrid coffee, meaning that is a crossbreed of different varieties. It physically looked like a Bourbon (tall, skinny trees) and had a solid yield of cherry but had other traits unlike the Bourbon - it was more resistant to coffee diseases. And, its cherries ripened to a unique orange/pink color. After cupping the coffee, it became clear that the Pink Bourbon had shared genetics with coffees from Africa / Ethiopia (those floral and acidic makeup of those coffees are unmistakable). So, Rodrigo started cultivating this variety, and in 2014, planted three hectares of land dedicated to the Pink Bourbon.
Even to the untrained eye, these Pink Bourbon cherries look pink! (Photo credit to Ally Coffee.)
Around the same time, Rodrigo began toying around with traditional fermentation, seeing if he could modulate and improve cupping scores by changing the process. In case you didn’t know, almost all coffee is fermented somehow. This natural fermentation process helps remove fruit from the outside of the coffee parchment, but also develops flavor and acidity inside of the coffee bean. As many of you know, fermentation can either be an amazing thing (wine, beer, vinegar, etc…) or it can ruin your food (sour milk, food that has gone “bad”, etc…) What Rodrigo noted was that there was a direct correlation between the sugar content of the coffee (which we measure in units called Brix) and temperature. If you could control the fermentation, you could create more desirable flavors.
Looking through a Brix meter, which measures sugar concentration. (Photo credit to Ally Coffee.)
After trial and error, he developed a process that pulped coffee out of the cherry and fermented it for a long time. 76 hours to be exact. But not just at any temperature. Specifically, between 50-55˚F. (You do not just accidentally arrive at this point. There is tons of trial, error, and tasting every step along the way.) This process, which he coined Cold Fermentation resulted in an ideal development of sweetness, acidity, and flavor notes. After fermenting, the coffee is allowed to dry slowly on solar dryers and raised beds for another three weeks.
So, not only do you have a unique variety in Pink Bourbon. You get to taste this unique Cold Fermentation process on top of it. As soon as we cupped this coffee over at our roasting Annex, we knew that we needed to have it. The roast on this coffee is slightly lighter than most. We wanted to develop a bit of sweetness, but really want the coffee to speak for itself. This Pink Bourbon has an extremely floral nose. When you are tasting, you will notice bright notes of lime and delicate citrus along the sides of your tongue. On the finish, you will get a note that is reminiscent of a sweet, floral raspberry.
Mr. Rodrigo Sanchez, the man behind this amazing Pink Bourbon Cold Fermentation Lot. (Photo credit to Ally Coffee.)
We hope that you splurge and try a cup (or a bag) of Pink Bourbon. This is only the first in our LIMITED BATCH series, so if you miss this one, be sure to check back for more offerings in the future.
I used to go out of my way to avoid coffees from Southeast Asia. There was something about the flavor profile that just didn’t appeal to me. The notes were grassy, earthy, complex, and something my palate couldn’t quite discern. There were reasons for this—for example, the typical coffee processing style used in Southeast Asia (called “wet hull process”) is what gives these coffees their unique character. It’s like trying Scotch for the first time when you’re a die-hard Bourbon drinker. It’s not sweet, round, or floral. It’s harsh, gamey, woodsy, even. And I didn’t like it.
But when I was searching for new coffees a while ago, a few of my coworkers raved about one from Sulawesi.
“Dude, it’s like blackberries and chocolate. It’s fully washed, so it doesn’t have that funk,” they said.
Skeptical, I ordered a sample. Turns out, this coffee tastes just as advertised. Here’s the story behind this super-clean coffee from Asia.
A small mill used to remove the fruit of the coffee cherry. This one is human powered. Photo credit: Cafe Imports
Pulped and "washed" coffee dries on a patio in parchment. Photo credit: Cafe Imports
Sulawesi is an island in the archipelago country of Indonesia. It’s home to the better-known islands of Sumatra, Bali, and Java. Sulawesi houses highlands that are 1400+masl, which is perfect growing altitude for coffee. These highlands are known as Tana Toraja, or “land of the Toraja,” named for the indigenous people who live there. Most of the coffee farms in this region are small. And while these farmers can certainly grow coffee well, they don’t grow enough to export themselves. Yet, the variety that’s cultivated there—S-795 (commonly known as “Jember”)—has ideal genetics for disease resistance, good yield, and quality cup profile.
. One of the many producers who delivers coffee to the PT Toarco mill. Photo credit: Cafe Imports
That’s where the PT Toarco mill comes into play. This mill, a Japanese-Indonesian venture, creates a coffee that has one of the highest-quality standards in Indonesia. Their mill focuses on drying coffee to low moisture, fully washing, and then hulling the coffee. It’s a process that’s nearly identical to the style we see out of super-clean tasting coffees, like those from Central and South America.
Coffee producer delivering parchment coffee to the dry mill. . Photo credit: Cafe Imports
I think this will be one of our most approachable coffees of the year. It has notes that will appeal to earthy Sumatra/PNG drinkers, as well as those who enjoy bright and bold Colombia and Central Americas. The body of this coffee is rich and creamy, like milk chocolate, and drinks with the mouthwatering texture of a ripe melon. The acidity is soft and floral, similar to a grape. Overall, this will be one of our most balanced coffees. If you’ve never had a Sulawesi coffee before, we highly recommend checking this one out.