October 07, 2016

Tea With Intent

 



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.

 

Feng Qing Yin Zhen
Fengqing, Yunnan, China
A white tea made from solely the buds (young shoots) of the tea plant, which yield a gentle and sweet flavour. A soft forest floor aroma gives way to a sweet pine needle flavour, with a slippery fruit mouthfeel, and a lingering, delicate aftertaste.
 
Lu Shan Yun Wu
Jiangxi, Zhejiang, China
A classic example of a well processed green tea, with a good balance of sweetness and ocean-spray umami, and a comfortable, viscous liquor.
 
Wu Yi Shan Ai Jiao
Rock Oolong
Nanping, Fujian, China
A semi-oxidised rock oolong made from a dwarf varietal, this tea gives up a complex floral aroma leading into mineral-sweet honeysuckle with a subtle peatiness. Quality processing leaves no char or sour flavours. 
 
Feng Qing Dian Hong
Fengqing, Yunnan, China
A traditionally processed (i.e, dried in the sun as opposed to mechanically) red tea made from small leaf Fengqing material, giving a sweet, dried fruit flavour upfront, with a malty complexity and very subtle cacao sourness.

Want to know more about the complex subtleties, and the oft-misunderstood world of tea? Ayden is holding introduction classes at our newly opened Collins Street store.
We invite you to secure a spot here.
September 23, 2016

Sensory Lab Opens a New Store

Coffee Made Perfect at the top end of town.

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 butterRooftop 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!

 

 

November 18, 2015

Ever-Elusive Quality.

Ever-Elusive Quality

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.

CLIMATE CHANGE


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

placed before.

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.

 

PACKAGING


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

October 29, 2015

SENSORY LAB MILK NIGHT.

Sensory Lab Milk Tasting Night. from Sensory Lab on Vimeo.

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.

September 09, 2015

Costa Rica – Its all about the process.

COSTA RICA PROCESSING.

 

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

forceful acidity.



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

processing.



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

have.

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).

 

Lucy Ward

August 05, 2015

WHAT MAKES A GOOD COFFEE GREAT?

The Making of a Brazilian Coffee

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.

http://bit.ly/1IIU69f

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

dry season.

 

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 

to: https://vimeo.com/52427194

 

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

Borem.

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

July 06, 2015

Seasonality and Sensory Lab

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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June 25, 2015

International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWC)

 

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

May 19, 2015

A BRAZILIAN LOVE AFFAIR


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!

 

May 10, 2015

COLOMBIA TRIP PART 2

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.