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
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
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
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
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!