Right now, many coffee-producing communities are busy harvesting and processing the crops that you’ll buy, roast, brew, or drink. Seasonal workers migrate to farming regions, and soon trucks loaded with ripe-red cherries make their way from the farm to the processing mill.
More recent additions to this usual crowd are groups of green bean buyers and other coffee professionals that have travelled potentially thousands of miles to observe the process.
What value does knowledge of the coffee origin offer to these coffee professionals? Does it help them decide which coffees to buy, or does it have even more to offer?
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What Can You Learn From Visiting a Coffee’s Origin?
Coffee origin: it’s an ambiguous phrase to describe a wide variety of places. You could visit a large, wealthy plantation in Brazil or a small community of Rwandan producers growing coffee in their gardens, alongside other fruit and vegetables.
You could spend two nights or a month on a farm, picking coffee and helping with processing. You could see processing mills, travel along the same roads that your coffee is transported along, and meet producers’ families. You could visit coffee labs in producing countries and speak to technical experts, or visit a coffee botanical garden.
All of these places are places of origin, and you’ll learn different things from each one.
Gonzalo Hernández is the Founder of Coffea diversa, a Costa Rican micro-lot production, milling, exporting, and roasting academy. He also has a coffee botanical garden, which hosts the largest private collection of coffee botanical variants in the world. His business runs a four-day course covering coffee farming, processing, botanical varieties, cupping, and practical training for traders, baristas, and roasters.
Gonzalo tells me that you learn things at origin that you can’t grasp from the outside. It’s one thing to watch a YouTube video about processing, he says, but the knowledge will always be superficial compared to the deep understanding that you get from experiencing it in real life and doing it with your own hands.
“At our academy, the students get to learn in a systematic way… everything from farming and processing [theory] in a classroom, to the practical tasks of planting [seedlings] in a bag… tp pruning the plant, fertilizing, weed control, harvesting… and then processing. [These are all] tasks that the students physically perform with their own hands in a real world coffee plantation,” he says.
William Zhang is the founder and owner of Shanghai based Shanghai Carmo Trading, a boutique supplier of specialty green coffee in the rapidly growing Chinese specialty coffee market. William tells me that “specialty coffee is a very young industry in China. Coffee professionals in China need to acquire knowledge [and]…detailed information about how coffee is produced in the farm, and about how coffee is processed.”
“In China, it’s common for coffee professionals [to] take Q Grader courses, barista courses, and roasting courses, so they can develop… skills in those areas, but their knowledge in coffee farming and coffee processing is very limited. They need to know how coffee is planted, how coffee seedlings are prepared, how to process washed coffee, how to process honey coffee, [and] how to process natural coffee.”
William states that “many things became clear to me when I took the course at Coffea diversa Academy in Costa Rica. I learned …how to make coffee seedlings, why it’s important to prune coffee tree[s], how to measure brix in ripe cherry coffee, how coffee farming affects the quality of coffee, how the different ways in which coffee is processed [can] affect the taste profile of coffee, [and] how different coffee botanical varieties grown in the same terroir have different taste profiles.”
He adds that “the comparative cupping sessions of coffees processed under different processing methods and…the cupping of different botanical varieties were very useful indeed.”
Altogether, William believes that this knowledge will help put things into perspective, so he can better understand his coffee trading business in China.
Students learning about wet milling coffee. Credit: Coffea diversa Academy
A Better Understanding of Coffee Flavor And Quality
Coffee is an ingredient. Like all ingredients, the more you know about it, the better you’re able to use it. But do we really need to go to origin to discover this, when we have good information from suppliers and equipment?
According to Sergey Tabera, Head Roaster at Torrefacto Coffee Co in Moscow, Russia and Russian Roasting Champion, yes. He tells me that it was hard to fully grasp the impact of processing, variety, and more until he went to origin. Only after his visit did he begin to understand why different coffees need to be roasted differently.
It helped him comprehend why some coffee had more sugar, why some coffee beans were denser than the others, and why certain flavors were more prevalent among certain coffees.
He explains that he now knows to roast washed coffees with more heat, while he’s careful to not apply too much heat to natural or honey processed coffees, because of how the processing method affects the beans’ sugar content. Walking through the depulping machine and seeing the processing in person left him better able to visualize the concept.
Sergey adds that he particularly values the information he’s discovered about coffee genetics and varieties, which he learned through visiting Coffea diversa’s more than 700 coffee botanical variants.
During his visit, he tried various varieties, all of which had been washed in exactly the same way. As a result, he was able to better understand the distinctive taste of each one. He encountered rare varieties and learned their unique characteristics. He now knows to roast varieties like Rume Sudan and Geisha (with their bright acidity and flavor) more lightly compared to varieties with great sweetness but less acidity.
Vincent Wang is Head Green Coffee Buyer at Black Gold Coffee Co., one of the largest specialty green coffee companies in Taiwan. He tells me that the benefit of visiting origin is getting a more complete image of the supply chain.
Vincent tells me that “people should be aware of… the people that come from abroad to…harvest the cherries. In this case, in Costa Rica, you get people from Panama, indigenous people, or people from Nicaragua.”
The industry’s social and environmental sustainability can also be better understood when we have a fuller picture of what happens on the farms. Vincent says he has observed producers being negatively affected by low international coffee prices. Many producers have moved away from coffee to producing avocados or lemons, or exploring other career changes.
“Many of those coffee producers are thinking about going to the city and getting another job for the[ir] kids,” he tells me, “or moving towards specialty coffee, which is a hard thing to do because it requires a lot of investment.”
“You see a lot of …producers and owners that are very young. They’re 25 years old but taking charge of [the farm] because their father[s are] growing old.”
A student prunes a coffee tree. Credit: Coffea diversa Academy
Business Opportunities From Farm to Café
Being in origin allows us to not just better understand our business partners, but also discover the businesses that may not make the headlines or have a social media presence.
For instance, Sergey tells me that during his time in Costa Rica with Coffea diversa, he met the family behind Finca Tres Hermanas. This farm, run by a father and his three daughters, was facing financial challenges.
They were growing and picking coffee cherries but unable to process them, meaning they were selling them in the fruit form. However, the daughters wanted to build a micro mill to process the coffee cherries they picked. They believed this would add value to their coffee production. It would allow them to see a greater share of the profits by selling the green coffee beans rather than just the fruit.
Sergey and his team could see that the sisters were dedicated and enthusiastic. Yet the financial burden of establishing a micro mill left their goal a distant dream. Without a dedicated buyer or some form of financial reassurance, they couldn’t take on that risk.
Seeing the potential in the farm, Sergey and his team committed to a long-term relationship with them. This gave the producers the security to invest in a micro mill and, in doing so, improve their coffee quality and profits.
Sergey didn’t just find a new, high-quality coffee to sell and a business relationship that should span years. He also gained a marketing advantage in Russia. He says that he is now able to share more authentic stories with his clients.
“People now want to know more details about where their coffee comes from…and feel that they are getting closer to the producers. Even though you may be drinking coffee in your home, it’s more like a journey to the producing country and farm through a cup of coffee,” he says.
In fact, his stories were so compelling that a few of his clients signed up to travel to producing countries with him, simultaneously strengthening his relationships with both his buyers and his suppliers at origin.
Sergey is not the only one to benefit from this. As a green bean buyer, Vincent finds that his understanding of origin countries has helped him build partnerships and friendships with the producers. He says that his producer-partners can see that he understands more of the realities of coffee production, which builds trust.
This strong relationship not only gives him all the usual benefits of a strong business relationship, but has also allowed him to monitor how the coffee is harvested and processed.
“I think that everything that producers do…affects the whole taste of the coffee. So, if the producers are really organized in their work, then you can really taste the difference…” he says.
Students with their certificates, after graduation. Credit: Coffea diversa Academy
Forming Reasonable Expectations
Roasters and buyers need to develop reasonable expectations of what can be achieved by visiting origin. For instance, by learning about production and processing, you can understand that it takes time for any quality improvements to be reflected in the final cup quality. Sometimes, it can take years. Knowing this can help you plan ahead and invest sensibly in your business relationship.
For example, Vincent tells me that you get a better understanding of the equipment, mill, and local conditions from visiting origin. If you work with the producer, you then know what to expect of the final coffee.
You can see the impact of climatic variations and transport issues, which allows you to realistically react to that news when you’re far away from the farm in your home country. At the same time, you might choose to share information with producers, if you’re knowledgeable and well-positioned to do so, such as about selective picking or raised beds.
Baristas Also Gain Career Benefits
Gonzalo tells me it’s not just green bean buyers whose careers benefit from a better knowledge of origin. He emphasizes that when baristas understand how different varieties, processing, and farming methods affect the coffee’s flavor, and have the opportunity to meet the producers themselves, they’re more likely to effectively communicate this information to their customers and positively impact their business.
Vincent echoes Gonzalo in this. “The knowledge that you gained in origin makes you appreciate your coffee more. As a barista…it’s a great experience…and [it can bring the farm] closer to the customers.”
William concurs with these appreciations. “My experience at Coffea diversa… made me a more effective and convincing salesperson in my interactions with my roaster clients. It also made me a better buyer as it became more clear to me what aspects I need to look at when I’m purchasing coffee from a supplier. So the course at the Coffea diversa Academy helped me greatly at both ends of the supply chain: the green coffee purchasing at origin and the green coffee sales in China.”
Gonzalo tells me that “there’s a big void” in most coffee professional’s knowledge in the areas of farming and processing. He meets many who have excellent knowledge about brewing and roasting coffee, read books, and watch YouTube videos about coffee production. Yet they lack the in-depth, comprehensive understanding that comes from seeing and learning production for themselves.
“A book cannot replace the experience of being there and interacting with the people that produce this product that’s the basis for our industry,” he stresses.
Students making coffee seedlings. Credit: Coffea diversa Academy
With so many elements that can influence the end result of roasting, producing, and brewing coffee, it’s easy to see why many coffee professionals might not realize just how important getting to know the origin of a coffee is.
Whether you’re a barista, roaster, or even a fellow coffee farmer, understanding what origin producers go through to create a coffee bean will help you understand it better, and use this knowledge to your advantage.
Written by SungHee Tark. Feature photo: A student plants a coffee tree at Coffea diversa Academy. Credit: Coffea diversa Academy
Please note: This article has been sponsored by Coffea diversa Academy.
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