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May 2005 Newsletter

There will be no "special" coffee this month. This isn't all that unusual (it happens a couple of times a year under normal circumstances, usually when I've been away) but this time the reason's different.

There is no special because I haven't been able to find a coffee of sufficient quality to justify its supply as a special. This IS unusual; but it highlights the fact that truly excellent coffees are becoming increasingly harder to get. In general, the reasons for this go back to the glut of coffee caused by Vietnam a few years back, and the subsequent collapse of world coffee prices.

The disastrous effect this had on coffee growers in many countries led to many coffee plantations being abandoned or converted to other crops. Even where this did not happen, overall coffee quality often fell because the farmer could not afford to pay the necessary attention to his crop. Some good things have come from this, such as increased recognition of the need for "Relationship" coffees, but overall the effects have been bad.

Green coffee prices are now rising again, but the damage has been done. This was brought home to me fairly forcefully during April when I was told by my regular supplier that there was no Nicaraguan or Colombian Maragogype available. It wasn't a price based shortage , it was simply that these coffees are getting rarer all the time.

The reason for this is fairly simple. Maragogype and other spectacular specialty coffees are what are called "Heirloom Varietals", coffees produced from plants originally selected for flavour. Modern varietals tend to be optimised for yield, rather than taste. A Maragogype coffee bush may produce less than 1kg of green coffee a year. One of the new hybrids can easily triple that yield.

From the farmer's point of view, it makes sense to replace the Maragogype bushes with higher yielding types; even if he's paid less per kilo, he has many more kilos of coffee to sell and his overall income rises. Since much of the world's specialty coffee is produced by small farmers with minute plots of land, where the number of coffee plants is strictly limited, this scenario is becoming distressingly common.

The end result for the coffee in the cup is that, as I have said before, you get a whole lot of coffees that taste basically the same. No faults, and nothing to complain about in the taste, but no real excitement, either. I have no idea what the long term solution to this sort of problem is, other than to hope that the rise of relationship coffees and the various "Cup of Excellence" competitions will stimulate interest in preserving the tastier heirloom coffees.

In my own case I was able to snaffle sufficient stock from a friendly roaster to keep my supplies of both Maragogypes running, but it was a near thing.

In other news, there is a new photo essay up on the "Espresso" page of the website: "Why I like the laScala Butterfly". It sets out the reasons I decided to choose these machines over several others available at the time, see http://www.coffeeco.com.au/articles/butterfly.html .

Jim Schulman, creator of "The Insanely Long Water FAQ", coffeegeek moderator and espresso hobbyist has produced a guide for the home barista at http://www.home-barista.com/espresso-guide.html , which I would recommend to anyone aspiring to excellence in home espresso.

And YES, next month there WILL be a special, and it will be a corker!

Alan