In specialty coffee, we are seeing the emergence of two schools of thought around the future of coffee. One school focuses only on sustainable logos (FT, Organic, etc.) They believe if this product has a label, it does good. The other school focuses on exotic varieties and processing methods.
The truth is, in many cases, farmers and producers often don’t have the ability or quality to meet certification standards. Sometimes, because they are not the right type of organization. Others…well…they just don’t have the money yet, and they’re busy working on making their farm actually sustainable.
On the other side, we often see coffee nerds demanding crazy processing and boutique varieties. “Are you growing geisha? SL-28? How are you fermenting? Malolactic Anaerobic fermentation?!?!”
Fuego (left) and Acatenango (right) - two volcanoes that have contributed to the fertile volcanic soil of the Antigua Valley
A lot of coffee is not sexy or hip. But, often, it can be sustainably delicious. True sustainability happens only when you’re able to build something repeatable, invest in your farm, invest in your workers, and make something genuinely great! That is the case with our coffee from Finca Retana in Antigua, Guatemala.
We found this coffee with the help of our friends at San Miguel Coffee, a large mill found in Antigua. They’ve been the pinnacle of sustainability for years and now are helping other farms around Guatemala get exposure and teaching them this same sustainable model. San Miguel embraces many of the same values as Retana: they provide housing for workers, have a school on-premise for children of pickers and anyone else in the region who can’t afford school, and provides free clinics to all pickers/workers of the mill.
The drying patio at San Miguel Coffees. The Volcano Agua is in the background.
Let’s pause for a quick primer on why we love Antigua coffees. First, if you know a little about geography in Central America and Guatemala in particular, you’ll know that volcanoes are all over the place. In the region of Antigua, there are three that surround the entire valley: Agua, Acatenango, and Fuego. The later of the three is still active and has caused some crazy scary damage to the surrounding community (lava flows and random ash falls…). But, while there is some risk, the reward of volcanic soil marries perfectly with coffee varieties.
Second, the Antigua Regional Association (APCA) is one of the more progressive guiding associations in specialty coffee. Why? They’ve set up a regional price floor for specialty coffee in this region that is high enough to pay for the cost of production + cost of living + reinvestment. This price is often at or above USD 3.00 and doesn’t fluctuate with the specialty coffee market. As I write today (7/29/2019) the commodity coffee market is USD 1.00 per lb. That’s a significant difference.
Does that mean that the Antigua valley is perfect? No. But, producers there can thrive, grow, and build a coffee-growing community.
In the fields of Finca Retana. Photo credit:San Miguel Coffees and Finca Retana
Let’s take a closer look at Finca Retana. The land where Retana currently lives has gone through a handful of owners, originally owned by an order of friars who were led by Father Retana (the namesake of the farm). At different points, it has been home to sugar cane farms (used in making the traditional Antigua candy (rapadura), milk cattle, avocados, macadamia, and finally coffee.
Retana currently is about 125 acres of land planted with two varieties (yellow bourbon and Caturra). At the end of the harvest, they can produce around 1500 bags of green coffee every year.
Drying patios at Finca Retana. Also, #coffeedog. Photo credit: San Miguel Coffees and Finca Retana.
With this success, they were able to give back and support their picking families. There is a small settlement on the farm for its workers, where about 20 families live there. They pay for the education of children and supplies electricity, drinking water, and 3.46 acres of land for those families to plant and cultivate their own food.
The lot that we selected from Finca Retana is a 100% Bourbon variety that has been fully washed and dried on patios. In the cup, you’ll taste the rich volcanic soil express itself as a rich cocoa nib and lush body texture. The acidity in this cup is balanced and floral.
Ripe Yellow Bourbon ready for processing. Photo credit: San Miguel Coffees and Finca Retana
So, if you support sustainable coffee, buy a bag of Finca Retana. Or, if you want an accessible and all-day drinking coffee, this one will be your jam.
Blends are one of the most undefined and unrefined practices in the coffee world today. I would argue that a coffee company often spends a good amount of time fine-tuning their espresso blend, and then leaves the rest to chance.
Have a coffee that is turning old? Throw it in a blend. Have a coffee that didn’t sell well? Throw it in a blend. Need a cheap coffee to spread out the cost of an expensive lot? Throw it in a blend. Arguably, I’ve seen many coffee blends in the past that have performed one or many of these functions: pair a decent coffee with a not so decent one, and you have the lesser of two evils that still tastes pretty good. In this era of single origin and crazy processing styles (carbonic maceration, what is that?!) I think we under-appreciate the complexity offered from a well thought-out blend of coffee.
Taking a step back, I like to draw inspiration from the wine industry. When I search for a bottle of wine, I’m enamored with single varietals—grapes that I’ve never tasted before to expand my palate. Some are floral. Some are heavy-bodied. None are terribly balanced. They’re great for one or two applications, or for sipping at a tasting, but they’re often not dynamic nor complex in flavor and overall profile.
Enter: blends. Some of the most prestigious wines in the world (Burgundy, Bordeaux, California Reds) are all blends of a variety of grapes. Each by themselves is delicious, but in layering several together, you get a complexity that is not possible by itself.
The whole of a blend should be greater than its parts.
That was the inspiration behind this year’s Sun Summer Blend. We wanted to use coffees that would be delicious enough to serve as a single source coffee, yet becomes something more unique and special when blended together. Even before we knew which specific coffees we wanted to feature, we knew our game plan. We wanted to recreate the sensation of an “Arnold Palmer in coffee format.” We quickly thought of two regions of coffees that strongly exemplified these characteristics: the Yirgacheffe region of Ethiopia and the Huehuetenango region of Guatemala.
What we ended up choosing was a rad combo of coffee. First, let’s introduce you to the two players in this blend.
Ethiopia Yirgacheffe Reko: This was, by far, our favorite Ethiopia Yirgacheffe we’ve cupped this year. Reko comes from a washing station of the same name, found in the Kochere region of Ethiopia. Reko translates to “challenge,” as this hill is steep and treacherous. That said, the coffee brought here by 850+ small coffee farmers have a phenomenal profile year after year. Their meticulous attention to detail and ability to educate their producer partners sets this coffee apart. In processing, it’s floated, separated by stages of harvest, and meticulously watched every step of the way. This coffee is a floral bomb, with notes of black tea, jasmine, and citrus.
A handful of producers that deliver coffee to the Reko Washing Station in Ethiopia. Photo Credit: Trabocca
Washing channels and density sorting at Reko Washing Station. Photo credit: Trabocca
Guatemala Waykan: This community lot has been a favorite at Mission Coffee for many years! We’ve used it both in blends and as a single origin. These regional lots are a beneficial way for smaller producers (which is quite typical in Huehuetenango, Guatemala) to receive better quality premiums and more selling power. Any producer in the region can bring their coffee the Waykan project. Coffees that score well are blended into a regional lot; exceptional scored coffees are featured as microlot and receive an additional paid premium on the lot!
So, when you put these two together, you get some magical sparks. Again, the goal was to create a blend that was reminiscent of an Arnold Palmer. In our Sun Blend, you’ll get a dynamic mouthfeel created by both coffees playing off of each other. You’ll get the black tea and jasmine texture of the along with the sweet juiciness of the Waykan. The acidities layer nicely to give you the feeling of a bright squeeze of citrus fruit. The finish of both coffees, layered together, is sweet and floral.
We get this question a lot: Do light roasts have more caffeine than dark roasts?
There’s so much misinformation out there, folks are never quite sure what’s true and what’s not. In fact, I often hear people order light roast coffee because they believe it’ll promise more of that boost. But are they right about that?
Let’s look at the science of roasting and see if this checks out—or if it’s just an urban coffee myth.
During the roasting process, we take raw (green) coffee from room temperature and modulate the flavor and profiles of the bean over 9–14 minutes. We typically crank up the temperature hotter than 400 degrees Fahrenheit while we’re at it.
Closeup of our tried and true 5kg US Roaster Corps. You'll find this guy at our Roasting Annex.
The beans’ color changes quite a bit, from green to yellow to light brown to deep brown to black. The flavors also change via maillard and Strecker reactions (really cool and complex non-enzymatic reactions that I won’t spend much time on here, but if you want to learn more, I suggest checking this TED video about chocolate chip cookieschange at different temperatures.) One thing we fail to look at (or adequately explain) is what happens to the caffeine inside of the coffee bean.
Do you know why coffee has caffeine? It’s a feature that was naturally selected over the years. We obviously know that caffeine is a stimulant. The plant uses this to defend itself from many different pests. The caffeine overstimulates the bugs, paralyzing them, and preventing them from further damaging the plant (pretty ‘effin cool defense mechanism, if you ask me!).
So, we know that caffeine is a naturally occurring stimulant. We also know that caffeine does not begin to degrade until around 455 degrees Fahrenheit (e.g., it’s stable and not breaking apart). For example, Mission Coffee’s darkest roasts are lucky to get up to 430 degrees Fahrenheit. Logic would tell us that the bean often does not get up to a high enough temperature to cause the caffeine to degrade. So, if you had a light roast bean and a dark roasted bean of the same coffee, per volume, it would likely have a comparable amount of caffeine, right?
A finished roast cooling off in the cooling tray of our 5kg US Roaster. Coffee displayed here is a light roast, as seen by intact cellulose center and light brown coloration.
Caffeine content is actually correlated to coffee varieties (each plant will have a slightly different level of the chemical). Most coffees, whether they’re light or dark roasts, actually have the same amount of caffeine.
So, what is actually dissolvable in a coffee? And does it change from a light roast to a dark roast?
Well, does burnt toast taste different than perfectly golden toast? (Yes). Can you get the same nutritional value from each? (Maybe? I’m not a scientist.) It seems likely and logical that dark roasts are slightly less soluble (there’s much less stuff to dissolve; less flavors, things have degraded and changed, etc.). But, one thing that doesn’t change at these roast levels is caffeine.
While a light roast bean and dark roast bean may have the same amount of caffeine, when you look at the finished brew, there may be negligible smidgen more caffeine in a dark roast simply because there’s less of other stuff in there.
If you want to get even deeper into this topic, I recommend checking out this article on Daily Coffee News. You’ll have all the roast-related details you need.
Turns out, there’s no real difference if you’re drinking a dark roast or light roast. You’re likely to get a nice dose of caffeine from both. But, if you want to have a drink with slightly less caffeine, look for coffee beverages with a lower CONCENTRATION of coffee to water. (There’s a lot more coffee per ounce in espresso than cold brew; more in cold brew than drip).
Next time you’re standing in line at Mission Coffee Co., know that, light or dark roast, you’ll get that much-needed caffeine boost either way!
We get excited when we source coffees from remote or widely unknown countries or regions. Yes, coffees from Sidamo, Nyeri, and Antigua are certainly delicious. But, when you’re able to focus on new and lesser-known frontiers, you can find amazing producers that aren’t as well represented in the coffee market. In fact, many of them don’t have the same access to sell their coffee as other well-known regions. Because we’re a small team, we can’t travel to all these places (yet). So, it’s up to us to align with importers who want to explore these frontiers as well, and, more importantly, do it in a way that’s sustainable to the coffee farmers with whom they work.
This is what happened when we tasted a set of Peruvian coffees from Red Fox Importers a few months ago. I knew they were working in Peru, and I knew I wanted to highlight a coffee from this country. Peru has made immense strides in quality over the past five years. And Peru is less well known than coffee giants like Colombia, Brazil, and Ethiopia. That said, they have some amazing terroir for growing coffee. One thing that has kept them out of the spotlight is their accessibility; particularly their road infrastructure, especially in the most remote regions. The Andes are not the friendliest places to drive— and it takes a staggering 24 hours to drive from the capitol of Lima all the way to the southeastern remote Sandia Province, the area where our favorite coffee was from.
One of the small farm producers who deliver to the Inambari Cooperative. This is a typical solar (greenhouse) style dryer. (Photo credit: Red Fox Coffee Importers
Thinking back on a few of the other coffees that we’ve recently released, you might remember us talking about market accessibility. If a coffee farmer doesn’t personally have the relationship or resources to get their coffee exposed to the specialty world, they’re often dependent on local cooperatives or exporters to do that work for them. These cooperatives often comingle coffee from many small farmers and group it together into similar profile lots. This gives the cooperative larger lots of coffee, which tend to be more appealing to higher-volume buyers. These cooperatives also yield a bit more support in getting certifications like Fair Trade or Organic, which do add on small, yet significant, premiums to small-holder farmers.
Washed parchment coffee drying on platforms inside of a solar drier. Notice how the ends are open...this allows for excellent ventilation. It takes longer for this coffee to dry, but slow drying = better tasting coffee. (Photo credit: Red Fox Coffee Importers)
But farmers lose a bit of autonomy when they do this. The coffee is no longer “their coffee.” It’s a blend, either of a neighborhood, town, region, or state. This has often been the case with remote Peruvian farmers. It’s also been fair to say that folks aren’t pounding down Peru’s door when it comes to their coffee offerings. They’re often overlooked, and their coffee goes into blends that are less special (and fetch lower premiums) on the market.
Enter the team from Red Fox, who has been personally invested in Peru since 2007. Back then, they had the opportunity to cup coffees from the Sandia Valley, and realized that this flavor profile was unique. These coffees drank with beautiful florals and sweetness. After cupping, they were driven to figure out why. That led them to several small cooperatives in the region, one of which this coffee comes from.
Enter: the Inambari Cooperative, a small cooperative that represents farmers that have an average of 2.5 hectares of coffee land. In terms that I think we can more easily grasp, that’s equal to about 4.75 football fields worth of land. And with regard to farming, that’s not really a lot. Plus, when you’re talking farming in the mountains, that’s even crazier. A farmer that remote, and that small, is dependent on a cooperative to make connections happen.
So, what makes the coffee of the Sandia Valley so special? Back in the 1980’s, the UN led a replanting of the region, which brought many desirable/boutique varieties into the region—particularly the Bourbon (which we know well from both Africa and other Central America countries). While not the easiest plant to cultivate, the quality from the Bourbon typically yields chocolate, cherry, and floral-like coffees. And that’s exactly what we tasted in this lot.
Once their coffee is dried to the proper moisture, producers deliver their finished parchment coffee dry mill used by the Inambari Cooperative. (Photo credit: Red Fox Coffee Importers)
This lot from the Inambari Cooperative is a fully washed Caturra and Bourbon mix. The coffee is fully washed (a process where the coffee pulped, fermented, and then remnant fruit washed off) and dried on patios and parabolic (greenhouse-style) solar driers. In the brew, we taste a sweet and fruity body that’s suggestive of a vibrant cocoa and sweet grape jelly. The acidity on this coffee is clean, bright, and malic. It will finish with sweet fruit and florals, reminiscent of chamomile.
If you’ve never had a coffee from Peru before, this is a good place to start. Or even if you’re familiar with Peruvian coffees, we suggest you try this one out. It’ll change the way you think about coffees from this country.
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.