Coffee Quality

”Terroir” is a term commonly used in the wine industry. It can be loosely defined as “the taste of place.” Many agricultural products will develop flavors unique to the soil and climate conditions from where it is grown. This is illustrated by the popularity of wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy. The same varieties of grape grown elsewhere don’t produce the same taste. Coffee quality has a similar response to growing conditions. The same variety of coffee growing in different regions of a country will give a different taste to the beverage.

Typica thrives in the higher elevations of the tropics where it is naturally cooler. Five to seven thousand feet is common. Some shade is required with Typica as it is an under story variety typical of those found in the highland forests of Ethiopia today.

We are told that volcanic soil is particularly good for coffee, yet application of composted humus is helpful with yields and vigor. Appropriately spaced rainfall is critical as is the number and spacing of sunny days. Such conditions are blessings of nature and common to only a few places in the world. As with the better-known wine regions, these coffee regions have earned great acclaim.

Why Typica is getting harder to find:

The Typica and Bourbon varieties are highland forest under story varieties that require shade to survive. Seedlings will sunburn and die without the protection of shade trees. The Mocha and Caturra varieties and most hybrids are sun tolerant and require no shade tree. This makes them a favorite to farmers who clear land and plant coffee trees in high density for maximum yields.

Coffee will grow and survive quite well outside of the ideal condition but yield and cup characteristics can suffer and fail to give the stellar results hoped for. Irrigation will sustain crops in arid conditions but it really doesn’t replace natural rainfall that comes with overcast skies and naturally cooler temperatures.

Today there are some hundreds of sun tolerant hybrid varieties under cultivation around the world yet even under the best growing conditions they generally produce an average cup. Hybrid coffees are essentially developed for some practical purpose, such as higher yield, earlier maturity, root-rot resistance, drought resistance, fungus resistance and direct sun tolerance but never for the ideal or improved flavor. In fact, the flavor is the last thing considered unless it is totally undrinkable.

A number of  years ago the Colombian Coffee Federation convinced thousands of coffee growers to pull out their Typica trees and replace them with a new hybrid called Colombia Six, that was also more resistant to the leaf-rust disease.

In Latin American countries the Typica variety often referred to as Comun, Spanish for common or as Arabigo, Spanish for Arabian.

The Federation even paid the farmers to do this and gave them the new seedlings. As a result now it is more difficult to find the most highly prized coffee of Colombia. 100% shade grown Typica.

Can you imagine Chateau Lafitte Rothschild pulling out their Cabernet Sauvignon grape vines and replanting with Concord grapes just because they gave a higher yield?

Scenarios similar to this happen all over the coffee world. Coffee Board Administrators hear about some new hybrid that has higher yield so they aggressively introduce it for new plantings. New Guinea has six major varieties and a number of lesser varieties that have been introduced over the years. Often a farmer will have four or five varieties interspersed on his plantation. Obviously they get mixed in the harvest to produce a nondescript coffee. Therefore there is no national character to New Guinea coffee. This is the risk of diminishing coffee quality exists also iin Colombia as well as growers mix their crops and harvest.

This article was kindly provided by Mr. Robert Barker. Mr. Barker has over 35 years experience in all fields of Commercial and Specialty Coffee. Starting in 1976 as a coffee producer in Colombia, green buyer for several roasting companies, green coffee importer and trader and most recently coffee production consultant and QA manager in Papua, New Guinea. Mr. Barker has contributed essays to trade journals on the subjects of coffee grading, cupping and roasting. He has served for a number of years on the arbitration panel for the Specialty Coffee Association of America and on the cupping panel of The Coffee Review.