Andrew Kelly Journal Entry
We all know now that coffee as we know it is the seed of a fruit that is sometimes called a cherry, and it grows on trees, right? Right.
Unlike the can of Nescafe always sitting there ready (if not to be consumed then to demonstrate that it can survive a nuclear disaster) the kind of coffee we deal in has distinct zones of freshness and slow decline – it has a shelf life not measurable in half-life. And this is before roasting, not after roasting.
Happily, this seasonality thing means frequent trips to purchase fresh product, visiting and tasting with the producers. Colombia is the source of more trips for us than the other countries we buy from simply because there is a greater diversity of seasons of floration, maturation, harvest, and processing there. That is, one can get fresh crop coffee from Colombia for two-thirds of the year, and opposed to one distinct season in most other countries.
And that is why, in January this year I found myself there for 4 days.
We don't go to schmooze, and certainly not to haggle over the price. We go to taste coffee in a controlled lab-like environment (a process called cupping) – closest to its source – in order to be able to select our purchases. We like to buy from particular producers season after season (Lucio Delgado, Esneider Lasso, Elias Roa to name a few), but we also reserve some of our buying for wildcard goodness: coffees that seduce us on the cupping table and demand attention.
This visit was one of our most fruitful ever, whether by virtue of our visit's timing, the weather gods smiling, more producers caring about their work, better selection of samples by the logistics peeps, or other reasons. This wildcard side of things – this chasing of god in a cup – is what keeps so many peeps doing their thing in coffee.
We are chasing elusive characteristics that will delight and excite, and challenge the notions of what can be considered "coffee" flavour. That these characteristics remain a little uncontrolled or unrepeatable is one of the pleasures: that can at least be reliably identified on the cupping table, and then we can talk to the producers to see what they did (differently perhaps) to produce such flavours. The enquiry helps us in our long term establishment of a data pool that enables us to make suggestions to other producers ("we saw that Lucio ferments the seeds for 15 hours and then soaks before dying under shade, and this seemed to work fabulously for preserving the juicy acidity and sparkling mouthfeel in his coffee"). This way the knowledge pool expands and we also have a chance to demonstrate to producers our deepest commitment (backed up through price premiums paid) to their pursuit of quality. We pay over double the going market price for coffee right now, and rightly so – we buy the best of the best, microlots only, and we need to cover the producer's higher costs of quality production and ensure they want to stay in the game.
In January in Huila (and subsequently in our North Melbourne lab where the chosen samples were taken for further scrutiny) – we found more coffees with super exotic flavours (lychee, vanilla, tropical fruits, sugar-candy, etc) than ever before.
The exporter is preparing these coffees for us now: let's pray they arrive by opening time!