Newly crowned Australian Tea Brewers cup Champion Ayden Graham selects seasonal single estate teas for our Collins street store. Here's a look at what Ayden has chosen for the coming month.
Sensory Lab has opened our first ever stand-alone store in Melbourne. The project began in late 2015 when we engaged the noteworthy (and great people) Foolscap Studio to create us a new home.
We wanted to create a calm space away from the hustle of Melbourne's CBD where we could showcase more of the incredible coffee and tea we have to offer.
A space where you could escape the office to relax and read a book or catch up with friends.
Newly crowned Australian Tea Brewers cup Champion Ayden Graham has crafted a tea list unlike anything in Melbourne especially for our new store. We will be offering a range of specialty single estate teas across various types of processing; from soft, sweet white teas to complex and intriguing semi-oxidised oolongs. Teas are sourced direct and seasonally (the same buying process we use for our coffee) meaning our tea list will be in constant rotation.
30 Collins Street is also our first Melbourne store to serve hot food, with the addition of our toast bar. With a focus on some of Melbourne's best bakers and locally sourced hero condiments (99th Monkey peanut butter, Rooftop Honey, Jam Lady Jam) and some more adventurous tartines from ST ALi Executive Chef Andy Hearnden.
Sensory Lab 30 Collins Street is open 7am - 5pm, Monday to Friday and 8am till 3pm, Saturday.
We can't wait to see you!
When I am out on the field buying coffee, building face-to-face
relationships and engaging in projects in origin countries. I invariably
absorb many unique pieces of information along the way.
This series of blog posts are really about me sharing that information
in the most compact form I can, giving you access to information that
can only be gleaned from experience rather than textbook lessons.
In this entry I reflect on my recent trip to Brazil where I was lucky
enough to take part in the Cup of Excellence.
Most of you would be aware of the Cup of Excellence program and
how it works. It is a great tool to help buyers like myself identify new
farmers to pay attention to, whether that be to buy out-right or to
keep on the watch list as a potential new producing partner. More
recently however I have been noticing that it is a more useful tool for
identifying regions of note. What I mean by that I a little more in-
depth than what area is producing the most winners. What I actually
mean is that it gives us an insight into which areas are beginning to
produce placing farms and which regions are starting to fade away in
the award ceremonies. Coffee regions like anything ebb and flow
with quality. No organic thing is ever sure fire year in year out. It is
an exercise in noticing the evolution of regions.
The Cup of Excellence has brought knowledge of Brazilian coffees
and producing regions where people had never imagined possible.
The Zona da Mata (‘Forests of Minas’) region, where the first
champion of the Cup of Excellence came out of, and the areas around
the Chapada Diamantina, in Bahia, such as Mucuge and Piatã are both
great examples of regions that a few short years ago we would not
have understood as having high quality coffee, if any at all.
This years Brazil Early Harvest COE is a great example of the ebb and
flow of regions in action. Norte Pioneiro do Parana took 3 spots in the
top 22. In previous year, Parana was unheard of. They have never
Piatã as I mentioned before, is another interesting
region, it took out all top 5 spots last year, and this year they have
taken ownership of 4 positions on the board. The Brazil COE has been
dominated by Minas Gerias in previous years and is now seeing far
more regional variety than ever before. This of course is very exciting
for me as a buyer because it just cements more and more the great
diversity of profiles that can be found in Brazil.
Of course this leads us to why is this happening. The theory, at least
among the Brazil Specialty Coffee Association, is that recent weather
events have affected some areas worst than others, heavily effecting
quality and therefore allowing the more mediocre coffee of different
regions really shine.
Abnormal dryness has been problematic for Brazil over the past few
coffee seasons. If you had not heard, Brazil is currently undergoing
the most severe drought they have experienced in 35 years. This
major drought devastated a large part of the country in 2014 and it
has been a slow slog back to normality. As this year’s harvest has just
begun, it seems the rains have returned.
Jose Dias of Fazenda Sertazinho is busy planting out a new farm with
drought resistant trees and is taking action to mitigate further risks
should the current rainfall not continue. He believes that climate
change is our immediate challenge and must be tackled head on.
Irrigation is a major move on his behalf, having recently built a 10
million liter dam that will be filled with his existing water sources to
irrigate the new crop.
The question remains if the drought in Brazil an old pattern, a new
trend with frequent occurrences, or an abnormal event. Regardless,
irrigation and shade will have to be considered to ensure long term
sustainability. Drought resistant varieties (ie Japi) are being
developed and grown by influential producers like Jose.
We have to learn to mitigate against drought and create ways to
circumvent future disasters. If any coffee producing country has the
creativity and ability to do it, we can be assured that it is Brazil.
We are yet to see the severity of the impact this season. Farmers
remain optimistic but cautious as the early rains fall. Traders are also
overall very optimistic. Since Brazil is such a major force in coffee
supply it causes some severe volatility in the market wen something
goes wrong (or right). The annual Brazilian crop and world coffee
prices are intimately linked. Brazil is reporting an extra high volume
of output for the ensuing harvest. Increased pruning and fertilization
on the back of ravaging droughts should see a very good yield,
potentially of unprecedented levels. The weakening of their currency,
the Brazillian Real, has also helped increase exports as well. All of
this should result in a decreased NY ‘C’ market, which has been
evident in the last few weeks of down trend. As with this years
quality, we will just have to wait and see how all this rides out.
I want to move on from the dryer topic of climate change and what
Brazil specifically is doing about it and on to some of their other
creative solutions. I was lucky enough to attend a talk by well
respected Brazilian professor; Doctor Flavio Borem
Doctor Flavio Borem has been working for the past six years on a
project to produce a new packaging for green coffee called the High
Barrier bag. Coffee typically comes packed in Grain Pro, Innovation
bags, Vacume packs or plain jute bags. Professor Borem has been
trying to not only find out which is the best packaging material, but
improve on our existing materials.
The aim of his research is to have green coffee beans last a full 18
months in storage without showing signs of age. For those of you
who need a little brush up on this, coffee really only tastes fresh for
about 9 months after harvest (depending on where it is from, how it
has been dried and how it has been stored). When it looses that
freshness it begins to loose acidity and develop a papery taste.
Obviously this is not ideal but, if you really like a coffee you can only
get it once a year, you might want to buy a lot of it. The catch to this is
it won’t taste as great for a full 12 months.
If a coffee is processed properly, the theory is we should be able to
extend that life. To undergo this research Professor Borem and his
team has been tracking changes in coffee stored in all the different
packing options over the last 12-month period.
What Dr Borem has found is that coffee with lower sugar content, (ie
washed) have a lower respiratory rate in storage than thoses with
high sugar content (natural and honey process). The respiratory rate
is essentially the rate in which the cells open and close at rest, or put
simply, breath. The faster the breath the more CO2 is produced, and
in turn the more quality is lost, a big part of this is the change in cell
make up and the loss of aromatics. So you can determine by this that
washed process coffee keeps better than natural process coffee
Thus far his findings have indicated that an Innovation and High
Barrier bag is on par with the existing Vacuum pack. This is a good
thing as the Vacuum Pack, previously believed to be the best form of
packing, has an unfortunate habit of breaking.
The studies are far from over but it is a very interesting project to
continue to follow. I really do hope that Flavio can crack the code to
give us delicious coffee all year round from our favorite producers. It
would be a true game changer for specialty coffee.
- Lucy Ward
In Australia milk based coffee reins supreme, so we thought we would do a little test to see how 8 different popular milks stacked up. We invited a few of our friends who brew Sensory Lab coffee to come along and join in the fun. We tested each milk cold, hot and with espresso. We also tested how long the quality of latte art held up in the cup. Want to know the results? Check out the video and join us on the next Tasting Night.
Costa Rica is home to some of the most revered coffee in Central America. Well known for
their exceptional processing methods, Costa Rican coffee is typically very bright and very
clean, two factors we absolutely love in Melbourne. One thing Costa Rica does exceptionally
well is honey processing, or ‘miel’ as it is know locally. This is a phrase that they coined to
describe their take on the pulp natural process I described in the Brazil blog post. I absolutely
love honey process and the amazing array of flavour you can get. From black through to
white, the best quality ones are intensely sweet, complementing their natural otherwise rather
People often ask me to explain honey process, it does have a pretty great name but I assure
you, no honey is used in the process. In a nut-shell, honey process coffee is dried with all or
part of the sugary mucilage still left on the parchment. When it dries down it all clumps
together and forms a sticky mass, similar to honey. You end up with intensely sweet and
slightly fruity cup that sits about halfway between a fully washed and a natural coffee. There
is a whole spectrum of honey process coffee out there you might have heard of, anything
from white, gold, black, and even pink have been seen popping up over the years. There is
no hard and fast rule on how to process your coffee. So many producers, always pushing
boundaries, experiment and develop their own style. This refining of process is really
common in Costa Rica and I think that is why they are at the forefront when it comes to
Honey process is almost artisanal in nature. The precision that is required to get it just right is
a beautiful thing. Rather than push the cherries through a de-pulper or roller like in a normal
wet process coffee, they put them through the gentle mechanical washer. Mechanical
washers use very little water to gently rub the coffee up against each other. The tighter they
push, the more mucilage comes off. This gives them a great degree of control to determine
how much mucilage is left on the cherry. The honey colour relates to how much mucilage is
left on the bean. The mucilage also relates to how much body and sweetness the end cup will
Each farm is a little different but basically black honey has only the skin removed, is
fermented in a big covered vat and is dried down quite quickly. Red honey has about 25% of
the mucilage removed, Yellow honey 50%, Golden Honey 75%, and White honey has pretty
much everything removed (similar to Brazilian pulp-naturals).
I have been mulling over this question for a while; what really makes a cup of coffee
stand out from the rest? How do you determine its defining factor of quality? There
are so many things at play in what we have come to understand as quality, but I
really think we are still somewhat unsure of what it actually is. At many points in a
coffee cherry’s life, events occur that can produce (or take away from) quality. The
actual processing of the coffee is one of these defining moments. It is a fantastic
manipulator of flavour, and can be used to craft nuances that can only be unlocked
by skilled workers. I find the idea of changing flavour by tweaking the processing
absolutely fascinating! I want to take some time to dig a bit deeper into processing
methods around the globe. Each method is unique, developed for their particular
environment and each have a huge impact in the cup. It is kind of like a craft brewer
manipulating fermentation to produce different results.
Most of us are aware of the different methods of processing coffee, at least as far as
understanding natural, honey and washed process. If you need to brush up a little,
make sure you have a look here before reading further.
I intend to go a bit deeper than the cursory understanding and
look at the specifics for each country, the terminology and slight differences.
Brazil is one of my favorite origins, so it makes sense for me to start here; they have
such interesting and advanced techniques for harvesting and processing. The cutting
edge technology used on these farms is incomparable anywhere in the world.
A large part of what is done at farm level in Brazil is mechanised. Labour costs are
high and so much of this has developed out of necessity. Most of the harvest is
picked mechanically, or through using a method called strip picking, where the
branches are literally stripped of all their fruit. For someone who has only seen
selective picking, it can be quite jolting to see this treatment of the trees. You might
even argue that it is a shift away from specialty coffee, but at the end of the day, cup
quality does not lie.
The mindset in Brazil is to pick it all and sort it out later. Whereas the mindset of
specialty producers in Latin America (for example) is to only pick the ripe coffee, only
when it is at a perfect level of ripeness. It all makes sense when you start to dig
deeper into how they process their coffee. In small specialty producers outside of
Brazil, the technology to perfectly sort the cherries just does not exist.
Rather than pick perfectly ripe cherries between 19 and 23 brix (the amount of sugar
in the fruit) by hand, the Brazilians leave the fruit on the tree until it is closer to 23 all
the way to 30 brix, super sweet. So already we have the influence of a much riper
fruit. Typically the farm will time the harvesting to the day when each branch has
the least green fruit, and the dried pod cherries are not so aged they are
dropping to the ground, or moulding on the tree. This takes a pretty experienced
eye to work out; however, careful monitoring and years of practice have
perfected the technique.
In Brazil they have four types of processing: Natural (dry), pulped natural, semi-
washed, and washed. The majority of coffee is dry processed (or natural
processed); this is the traditional method that is still widely embraced in the
regions of Cerrado Mineiro and Mogiana Paulista, where harvest coincides with the
The term “Natural” came about as a way to differentiate the process from the
“Washed Milds” of Central America and Colombia. They wanted to have their own
term to use for marketing, and “unwashed” just didn’t fit well for them
(understandably). Ethiopia quickly took up the baton as well, but what we understand
as “Natural” in Brazil is not exactly the same as what we understand as “Natural” in
Ethiopia. In Brazil Natural refers to a harvesting style rather than a processing
method. There are a heap of factors that are different between Ethiopian Natural
and Brazil Natural. Most notably is the way it is picked, where coffee is allowed
to dry on the branch and fruit at all stage of ripeness are picked.
In Brazil, typically the coffee is laid out onto patios to dry, direct from the trees.
These cherry pods that are laid out to dry are called boia (ball) in Portuguese.
As I mentioned a bit earlier, all the coffee is picked no matter the level of
ripeness, so there is a high percentage of coffee on the patio that is over-ripe
and/or raisin like. Some of the more modern Brazilian farms force-separate the
coffee before it gets to the patio, reducing under-ripe cherries, which is of
course preferred from a quality standpoint. This force-separation is typically
done with a siphon system where the under-ripe cherries are floated off the
surface of a water tank. Other, less advanced farms, or ones with access to less
water just combine the lot, which is why you get so many quakers (under-ripes)
in Brazil natural process coffee.
Traditionally, dry processing is what produces the leather, tobacco, woody notes
we are likely familiar with in Brazilian coffee, rather than sweet, balanced fruit-
driven flavours of many modern Brazil Naturals. Dr Flavio Borem of Universidade
Federal de Lavras (UFLA) has done a lot of study into processing methods and
particularly natural processing methods. His theory on producing cup quality in
natural process coffee (typically understood as having poor cup quality) delves into
controlling metabolic changes in the drying process to preserve sweetness,
complexity and body. Controlling drying temperatures and drying rate maintains cell
structure integrity. Cell membranes are susceptible to damage in natural process
coffee and this damage can result in foul tastes in the cup. This stuff all gets a little
deep so if you want to educate yourself some more I suggest you head here
About 25 years ago the pulp natural process was introduced to Brazil by
Pinhalense, a well respected machinery manufacturer. Pulp Natural is probably the
second most popular processing method in Brazil. It is known as Cereja Descascado
in Brazil, 'Descascado' means 'removing the fruit skin' and Cereja means 'cherry’. In
Central America it is also known as ‘Honey Process’ or ‘Miel’. Pulp Natural is of
course made possible by some great equipment (championed by Pinhalense) called
demucilagers, which in essence promote a unique sweetness in the cup. Typically
the coffee is stripped of its skin in a pulping machine. Afterwards, the mucilage is
washed off to the desired level before being dried, completely skipping the
fermentation process that is used in other processing methods. Since a fair bit of
mucilage can still remain on the beans when they hit the drying process, Pulp
Naturals can only really be executed well in places with low humidity so they can dry
quickly, reducing the risk of moulding. Once dry the Pulp Natural coffee is placed in a
wooden box called Tulhas to rest and gain a more ‘settled’ taste.
Semi Washed (desmucilado or without mucilage) is a bit of a hybrid process that has
gone out of fashion because of an adverse association with Sumatran coffee (Giling
Basah). It is often confused as being one and the same as Pulp Natural processing
but I have come to understand it as being just a little different. It gives coffee a big
body and is generally quite sweet. It is a process that can go very wrong easily but
conversely can provide a lot of variation if executed correctly. This is where it all gets
a little confusing. The coffee is passed through a demucilager, which is set to take off
as much of the fruit as possible. In Central America, demucilagers used in this way
mechanically wash the coffee; hence you hear the term Mechanically Washed.
Since you can set these machines to remove pretty much all the fruit, you can end up
with some super clean coffee. Once again the fermentation step is skipped and the
coffee is sent straight to the patios to dry. Semi washed coffees that are dried quickly
under constant conditions for the most part taste cleaner and less muddled than
coffees that are dried slower, these can have more fruit in the cup and a more
muddled or hazy flavour. This goes back somewhat to the learning from Dr Flavio
The final processing method I must discuss here is of course washed process.
Recently, coffee producers have been showing an interest in producing washed
coffee, but demand is still lacking in national and international markets. This is likely
in part because of the poor reputation for quality that Brazilian coffee has held for
such a long time, but also because of the lack of washed coffee in the first place in
Brazil. Washed coffee is pretty much the same as the semi-washed process except
this time the coffee is fermented to help remove the mucilage. Typically this process
cleans up the cup profile and brings out acidity.
So that is Brazilian coffee processing in a nutshell, sort of. Once the cherries are
reduced down to parchment coffee, more sorting has to happen to make sure the
final product is speciality quality. The parchment coffee is typically taken from the
farm to a dry mill, where the coffee is prepared for export. Once the coffee is
received it is run through density sorting, a large flat bed that, through vibration,
separates out coffee based on density. Density can be used as a great indication of
quality. It is then run through a cleaning process and is finally sent to the colour
sorter before export. The colour sorter is a machine with a tiny laser that inspects
each bean for blemishes. So as you can see, sorting is all mechanized in Brazil. Not
only does this present you with a much better cup quality (machines make less
mistakes than people), but it also alleviates the in-country problem of high wages.
— Lucy Ward
Our buying philosophy and seasonality
The shape of the coffee list at any good roasting company is the hallmark of a green buyer. It is their major contribution to the company and their legacy for the future. As some of you know I have been on staff for a few months now, slowly making my mark on Sensory Lab and the coffee we buy. My buying philosophies push Sensory Lab deeper into the realm of relationship coffee and into the never-ending pursuit of freshness.
A big part of this philosophy is to buy in season and use coffee while it is at its best. You would have heard the term seasonal when it comes to your fruit and vegetables, and lets face it, fresh is always best. Coffee is the same, sort of. We don’t eat the fruit of the coffee (though it is quite delicious), instead we just consume the bean, or to be technical about it, the seed. A seed can last months without losing its vibrancy and depth of flavour, but eventually the flavours fade, and the coffee loses its characteristics. Balancing this life span with harvest times is part of the art of buying seasonally.
Using opposing or complementary harvests to make up inventory, and constantly monitoring coffee stocks for quality is the key to the seasonal inventory. This is something Sensory Lab has not explored to its full extent before. Always on the look out for ways to improve, I am introducing seasonal buying as the first part of my overall strategy.
You will soon be seeing new coffee enter our catalogue that you may not have seen before. Our first introduction to opposing harvests will come from Colombia. Traditionally we purchase our blend Colombians exclusively from the Huila region in the far south of Colombia. As the Huila coffee begins to reach the end of their lifespan, our blends will now be invigorated with coffee from Cauca and Narino, in the West. Huila harvests in the December months, Cauca and Narino harvest mid year. Thus with this technique, we can always be assured of fresh coffee. I am happier than ever to see variation and rotation on our seasonal roster and hope to implement similar changes across our total inventory in the near future.
Of course this means that you can’t get your favourite coffee all year round, but when you can you will always know it is at its best when it comes from us. I love that coffee is ephemeral, it adds to the beauty of it. It is an agricultural product which ebbs and flows with the season. My belief is that we should celebrate the terroir and season just as much as much as we celebrate the producers.
Conscious that our customers require a consistent blend adds challenge and excitement to this style of buying. Our blends will continue with the same profile year round but will be enhanced with a new level of freshness. Changes in components in a blend are just an indicator of increased quality. With so many amazing coffees on offer around the world it is always possible to find what you are looking for if you look hard enough.
The quality of our coffee is the yardstick by which we measure ourselves. Let us embrace seasonality and the pursuit of consistent quality and roasting perfection.
– Lucy Ward
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A couple of weeks ago I was invited up to Byron Bay to attend the founding meeting of the International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA) Australia chapter. Looking for any excuse to head to Byron for a weekend, I jumped on a plane and travelled up the coast with little idea of what to expect from the trip. A mad woman on another coffee tour.
Australia is an interesting place to set up an IWCA chapter, not only are we a country full of consumers of delicious coffee beverages, but we also produce our own coffee in the North. In fact we have over 30 producers in Northern NSW alone, not to mention our other growing regions higher North.
IWCA is a global community of women who work in all-different aspects of the coffee industry. The aim of it really is to advocate for all women in the coffee industry, provide them access to resources for improvement, and give them a forum to network with others. These commendable goals of the group is not the only reason I decided to go, but also a burning curiosity about Australian coffee.
Many of us know we produce Australian coffee but don’t know much about it. I have to admit, as a coffee professional, I ranked among you until this trip. Australians have been growing coffee since the 1800s but it had a bit of a boom in the 1980s when a pocket of farmers took up the challenge in Byron Bay. Most of the coffee grown here is organic and the majority of it is the hardy K7 variety. It is interesting to note this because when I think about it, the Byron Bay area has a lot of attributes that are very similar to Kenya, where the K7 originates.
Australia is a pretty flat country, Byron Bay and surrounds is no exception to that rule. Realistically, it probably only reaches 1000 meters above sea level at its highest point. The theory goes that the lack of altitude is negated by the longitude of our coffee growing regions. Basically speaking, cool temperature is good for coffee so because it is grown so far south it still gets the climate benefits that it would grown up high on a volcano.
Since we have such high costs in labor and some seriously good agricultural techniques, harvesting and processing coffee in Australia is fully mechanized. The methods they use are not dissimilar to techniques used in Brazil, though the majority of coffee is processed using a mechanized semi-washed process, similar to the Indonesian Wet Hulled process.
For a number of reasons, the majority of our coffee is not a very high standard. That said, I have heard whispers of legends out there doing great things with their coffee. Surprisingly the chase for quality coffee is not what gets me excited this time around, as is my usual modus operandi. What really excites me about Australian coffee is the opportunity it presents to the coffee community to learn.
We have a pool of very talented professionals in Australia from a huge array of backgrounds that through networking and cross-collaboration can only benefit our growers, roasters, buyers, baristas, consumers and everyone in between. I see the IWCA as a platform to action, a group that can function as the moderators of learning in this respect. The opportunity to learn and cross disciplines is truly exciting.
Written by Lucy Ward
Procurement Specialist for Sensory Lab
When I first started travelling for my work, buying coffee across the globe, Brazil was the first origin I got to visit. When it was proposed I hop on a plane and head across the South Pacific to the tropical countryside of Brazil, it sounded a little like a clip from a 1950s movie. Maybe I would find myself in a bungalow with an in the depths of the jungle like the stories my mother tells of growing up in the plantations of Ceylon, long before civilization and progress changed the landscape forever.
Although the modern landscape of Brazil is much less romantic than in my head, it is still a place you can fall in love with easily. It is colourful, lively, filled with friendly and beautiful people, and most importantly to me, filled with a wonderful array of coffees.
The most wonderful thing about Brazilian coffee is sheer variety you can get from this beautiful country. We all well know the big creamy chocolate and nut coffee that is Brazils signature. But this is an unfair cliché that Brazil carries around with it still to this day. There is so much more to its coffee, so many layers complexity, sweet juicy fruits and crisp bright acids.
There are no less than fourteen micro regions across seven states in Brazil. Most of the coffee is grown in the central and southern states. Just like the famed coffee of the Central Americas, each region has its own unique taste, and each as interesting and complex as the next. It is hard for me to choose a favourite region in this special country but I want to take the time to tell you about a few of the standouts, for me at least.
The state of Espirito Santo is my first love in Brazil. Its steep mountains hold some of the most vibrant and complex coffees in the whole of Brazil. They are sweet and tactile, reminiscent of a fresh tropical juice. The yellow varieties like Bourbon and Catuai from this area are particularly special and typically some of my favourites. It is pretty usual for Cup of Excellence winners to come out of this region and it is no wonder when you see this place. My theory is that the more beautiful a region, the better the coffee. Espirito Santo only proves that theory.
I can’t have this conversation with you without mentioning Minas Gerias. It is probably the best-known region in speciality coffee and has a huge concentration of amazing farmers. The high mountains and cold nights make for great growing conditions. There are four micro regions in this state the conditions are so good. Typically coffee from here is really sweet and floral with an elegant citric acidity. Minas Gerias coffee pretty much always features in Cup of Excellence competitions and is home to a lot of the major speciality coffee exporters. It sums up exactly how amazing Brazilian speciality coffee is with a broad range of flavour profiles available in one small region.
A little further south is the Sao Paulo state that includes the micro regions of Mogiana and the Mid West. Coffee is grown here a little lower so it matures a bit faster since the days and nights are a bit warmer. This means coffee here is pretty much the opposite of what you find in Espirito Santo and Minas Gerias. The beauty of these coffees is their incredible balance, syrupy mouthfeel and sugary sweetness. The quality here is absolutely incredible considering the altitude. Some of this coffee is grown as low as 850 meters above sea level! The thing that makes them stand out is the amazing farming techniques they have adopted, beautiful mineral rich red soils, and the absolute focus on quality in the whole region. One to take note of for sure, in my mind, a bit of a quiet achiever.
Standing out on its own in the North is the state of Bahia. We have not really begun to see a huge amount of coffee from this region in the speciality market, but this is pretty surprising to me. I have never set foot in this part of Brazil nor cupped its coffee but I am dying to try it. Most of Brazil is covered in massive coffee operations. They are highly industrialised and truly are legitimate commercial farming operations. Rumour has it though that Bahia is the “little Ethiopia” of Brazil. I have heard the whispers among our coffee community of a place where coffee grows under the shade of rainforest, it is picked and sorted by hand and the quality is unsurpassed in Brazil. To add to the “Ethiopia” reference, coffee is grown on the savannah highlands where it is quite dry and cold at night. The coffee allegedly has a highly complex mouth feel and crystal clear tartaric acidity. Hopefully I will venture into the region later this year and bring us home our first Bahia coffee!
They grow a hell of a lot of coffee in Brazil. Most of it is plantation coffee, grown at really low altitudes, mechanically picked and processed in huge bulk quantities. This is the stuff that tastes like chocolate and nuts. Not a bad thing but not exciting by any means. I am a huge advocate of Brazil speciality; it is exciting, dynamic and GROWING. I want to shake the concept that all Brazilian coffee is only good as espresso in blends. I want to shake the preconceptions that it will taste like a Snickers bar. You can find me touting the awesomeness of Brazil speciality on a regular basis around a cupping table somewhere in Melbourne if you want to hear more!
Colombian coffee is typically harvested twice a year, the main crop and a smaller crop called the mitaka (or fly crop). We are currently in the middle of mitaka in the Huila region on the southern end of Colombia.
In Colombia, and Pitalito in particular, production yields are much lower than they should be. It is a sobering fact that some farmers, though their quality is top notch, still can’t produce enough volume to really make a difference to their bottom line. Cost of production for 1kg of exportable coffee on these yields is equal to or more than the price of coffee on the commodities market. This is a huge problem that impacts the daily lives of the people that grow it. When the market crashes, so do the farmers livelihoods.
Quality is already present in the region, but farming is a business and that business needs to be profitable to be sustainable. As much as I would personally love to see each and every one of these farmers sell 100% exceptional specialty coffee, the reality is it doesn’t make business sense to operate that way. The resources required to do this, and the guidance on how in the first place, is typically expensive and daunting to say the least.
The guys at Condor have teamed up with our other in-country partner, ECom over the last two years to embark on a huge project that tackles these roadblocks to quality. The Sustainable Management Services (SMS) team, headed up by Pedro Manrique, is tackling all these issues head on. Pedro has set up an army of skilled agronomists and advisors in the region who spend their days giving technical assistance to farmers. He has big plans for the future and aims to extend his reach across the region, helping farmers on a one on one basis to increase production, quality and longevity of the farm.
Our buying style in Pitalito and San Agustín is to purchase regional selections. This technique sees the production from a lot of little farmers go into our coffee. Since most of the farmers are only producing a few bags a year, this model makes the most sense. Some of the farms we visited in the region were exceptional, well equipped, clean, organized and with excellent conditions; others were clearly struggling with even the basics, like fertilization and crop management. The SMS program is set to have a massive impact on these small guys but the process takes a long time. For each farm that SMS can help out, our overall quality gets just a bit better.
The trip was a great success for us to see the current projects that are happening in the area. But more importantly, it got us thinking outside the box about different projects we can personally drive to improve farming practices in Colombia. The beauty of roasters visiting and engaging n the farms they buy from is not only the relationships you build but also the ability to spot needs that would improve farming practices, and subsequently the quality of the crop. Investing in this community for the long term has the benefit for us of raising our quality from the region and in turn improving the livelihoods of the farmers.
The challenge now for Sensory Lab is to take up an authentic program that has significant and sustainable outcomes for the community but also benefits us in the longer term with quality and trust. Stay tuned for the next step in our big journey to quality improvement.