August 2010 Newsletter
One of the questions I'm often asked is "Why do the various
coffees you sell all taste so different? After all, they're all
Arabica beans, aren't they?" Well, yes, they are all Arabica, but
obviously soils, growing conditions, processing methods and
roasting can all affect the taste. There is more to it than that,
though, as the varietal type of Arabica is important as well, and
to understand this a bit of history is needed.
Once upon a time all the "Arabica" coffee in the world grew in
Ethiopia. Modern genetics reveals that Arabica has 44
chromosomes, is self-pollinating and has a somewhat unstable
genome, making it prone to mutation. There are literally
thousands of Arabica varietals, some cultivated but most wild,
still growing in Ethiopia. Some of these varietals were
cultivated in Arabia, the part that is now called Yemen. This is
where the name "Arabica" comes from, and the varietal(s) is now
Typica cultivation spread to India, then Java, until eventually a
single plant was shipped to the island in the Indian Ocean now
called Reunion, where it flourished and mutated. Back then the
island was called the Ile Bourbon after the Bourbon royalty of
France. This single plant (and its millions of mutant offspring)
became the "Bourbon" cultivar. When it was transplanted to
Brazil, and then to most other Latin-American countries, it also
became the world's most prolific Arabica varietal, in terms of
the tonnage produced from it.
In very, very general taste terms Typicas tend more towards fruit
and chocolate flavours and flowery aromas, while Bourbons
emphasize sweetness and clean acidity with pure "Coffee" aroma.
Of course there are a zillion combinations and mutations of these
characteristics, as well as deliberate crosses created by farmers
and geneticists. Maragogype for instance is a spontaneous Typica
mutation. The rich blackcurrant flavour of good Kenyan coffee is
due to a variant of the original Bourbon strain.
From the point of view of 99% of the world's coffee farmers, they
don't care how it tastes. All they want is a varietal with the
maximum yield and resistance to disease and insects. This is one
reason that various hybrids that all taste more-or-less the same
have taken over most Central American coffee farms. They produce
pleasant if unexciting coffees suitable for mass-market tastes.
Catui (Central America) and Ruiri (East Africa) are a couple of
hybrids that come to mind.
One of my main beefs with the "Fair Trade" system is that it
subsidizes exactly this sort of thing, emphasising quantity with
no regard for quality. My opinion is that this is a recipe for
disaster in the long term, whatever short-term benefits it
produces. Australia once subsidized wool producers with a
guaranteed minimum price; we ended up with a mountain of low
quality wool it took years to sell (at a loss) and the farmers
went broke anyway.
Fortunately, this month's special coffee is produced from 100%
heirloom Typica varieties. Stocktake time for me and other
roasters has turned up odds and ends of various "Island" coffees
including Haiti, Dominican, Puerto Rican and even a couple of
kilos of Jamaican Blue Mountain, which I have mixed with some
Cuban to make
This is a chocolate and nut bomb with a really creamy mouthfeel
and lingering aftertaste. It is of course unique, unrepeatable
and very limited in quantity.
Until next month