Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Coffee Origins and Terroir

Writing for Slate, Stephen Kearse asks "What Defines a Coffee's Terroir?" and provides some preliminary answers, beginning with the subtitle: "Country of origin is just the beginning." His story begins with his realization that the fact that his enjoyment of one Ethiopian coffee did not translate to a similar experience with all the coffees he encountered from that country, which as he points out is the birthplace of coffee -- the only place that Arabica grows wild. 

Geographic differences at a finer scale can influence the flavor of coffee -- from elevation, aspect, and slope to meso- or microclimatic variations to very important differences in soil composition. The human geography of variation in cultivation and processing are also important. Incidentally, Kearse focuses on two of these factors -- topography and climate. He erroneously uses the word "geography" for topography; "geography and climate" is like "vegetables and carrots" or "colors and red."  
MattiaATH/iStock via Slate
Learn more about Ethiopian coffees from George Howell, the roaster from
Acton, Massachusetts who introduced the terroir concept to coffee.
The second line of the article provides a hint about the author's age, which is to say he is at least a few years younger than I am. He became accustomed to scorched, flavored coffees in graduate school. While my wife and I were in graduate school -- after I had become a coffee drinker but long before I became a coffee maven -- we were part of the experiment by Folgers that paved the way for the broad marketing of flavored coffees. If he were much younger than I, though, he would have more likely been accustomed to the Keurig, which provides stale, weak, overpriced coffee, but not scorched coffee.

Kearse is correct, of course, that national borders do not fully define coffee terroir, though they do often provide hints to broad categories of flavor characteristics. He is also correct that annual variations in temperature and in the timing and amount of precipitation mean that specific locations will produce flavors that vary somewhat from year to year. I do not think those variations are commonly as dramatic as he suggests, nor do I think that micro-terroir at the scale of 1 hectare (2.47 acres) is commonly discernible. 

I agree with him in the main, however, and also with his suggestion that our impressions of flavor have something to do with our experience of a place, either directly or by association. He mentions the Ethiopian restaurants of Washington, DC; my strongest associations of course are with Nicaragua. Knowing that independent experts have judged some of my friends' coffees there the very best in the world only reinforces my natural tendency to favor coffees from anywhere in the country. The suggestibility of tasting results -- even among professional tasters -- has been documented for wine and I will admit there is a strong dose of it in coffee as well.


Like Stephen Kearse, I have spent some time exploring the trendy restaurants of my home town, and the Adams-Morgan neighborhood is especially rich in its offerings from Ethiopian and indeed the entire world. I particularly remember an Ethiopian restaurant so authentic that it did not have plates or utensils -- serving all food on large breads in the traditional manner. It even had Ethiopian beer. So when the coffee menu was brought out -- an entire little book -- I was expecting to see coffees of Oromia, Yirgacheffe, and so on. Rather, it was a collection of mixed drinks -- Irish Coffees and the like. So I asked about the coffee itself. "What kind of coffee is used in these drinks?" I wanted to know. The server was confused by my question, and consulted a manager. "American. Regular American," came the answer.  I tried later to connect this restaurant with an ethical supplier -- Deans Beans -- but the restaurant would not even acknowledge the samples of fair-trade, organic Ethiopian coffee that company sent. Like most restaurants, even this most authentic Ethiopian place relied on a regional coffee service whose main selling points are price and maintenance of the brewing equipment.

To learn more about the people behind Ethiopian coffee and the trading systems that disadvantage them, I recommend Black Gold.

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