Article by Ashley Rodriguez
Photos courtesy of Third Rail Coffee
Most customers in our coffee shops wouldn’t describe coffee as inherently sweet. However, as coffee professionals, sweetness is something we look for in coffee everyday. From the roaster to the barista, we constantly fiddle with coffee to draw out sweetness and use various brew methods and roast profiles to make a delightfully balanced cup.
However, for all the crazy experimentation and tinkering we do, we cannot forget about all the work that happens before the coffee even reaches our hands. Coffee farmers have just as large a hand, if not a larger, in developing sweetness, and it’s important for coffee professionals to know how these flavors are developed, which is difficult to do at origin. Given that farmers often don’t get to taste their crops, how do they craft sweetness at origin? In addition, how do farmers know what growing conditions and what varietals produce the sweetest cup?
These were the questions tackled at “Sweetness and Traceability,” a workshop hosted by Mayaland Coffee and the TC-Lab in Guatemala. Josue Morales, master roaster and co-founder of both organizations, led a workshop attended by over 30 coffee professionals and enthusiasts at the newly-opened Third Rail Coffee in New York’s East Village. Morales highlighted six farms he works with in Guatemala and addressed how Mayaland and the TG-Lab have helped and guided these farms into producing high quality coffees with distinct flavors and pronounced sweetness.
Morales focused on what he called ‘unestablished farms,’ farms that are producing well-balanced coffees but haven’t yet appeared on specialty coffee’s radar. “There are probably 18 to 20 farms that grow beautiful coffee that you all have probably worked with,” said Morales, “I’m here to contradict what you believe about Guatemalan coffee.”
Morales and the TG-Lab help farmers learn more about how the terroir of their land affects the flavor of the coffees they grow. Farmers send Morales samples of their coffees every week, separating samples by the day they were picked, geographical location of the farm, and genetic variety. Morales roasts and cups these samples, and works with farmers to identify top lot. He also helps troubleshoot issues at the growing and harvesting level.
During the workshop, Morales introduced attendees to the owners of Finca San Jorge and Rincon Escondido via Skype, and discussed how through the work of the TG-Lab he was able to identify a varietal (on their farm) that was misclassified as Maragogype. “A neighbor gave us these plants, and when we sent it to Josue, he told us it was actually another varietal called Maracaturra,” said Barsen Lemus, farm manager of Rincon Escondido. The Maracaturra was among the coffees available to taste at the workshop and is a hybrid of the Caturra and Maragogype varietals.
Accompanying the Maracaturra were coffees from varying farms that Morales works with at the TG-Lab. Attendees tried all these coffees in a ‘mock-cupping’ where they evaluated the dry and wet aromas of the coffee, and they tried them as a batch brew to mimic normal cafe conditions. Morales discussed each coffee at length and discussed with the audience what he looks for in each coffee and how he helps farmers improve quality. “What I’m trying to highlight is clarity–that’ll allow its notes and character to shine,” he explained. The coffees ranged widely in growing conditions and varietals, which in turn presented itself in an wide range of flavors in each cup.
Along with evaluating sweetness, Morales also discussed the importance of traceability, or the ability to understand how specific farming practices and varietals affect a particular coffee’s flavor. “The challenge with co-ops and farms is not finding quality, but maintaining quality,” says Morales, and the TG-Lab hopes to build farmers’ understanding of what growing practices and varietals produce what flavors. By constantly evaluating and tasting coffees from different days, areas, and varietals of a farm, growers can closely trace how different variables affect flavor. With that knowledge, farmers aren’t only able to identify quality, but to replicate it year to year and experiment with ways to take their coffee to the next level. Traceability, in this sense, is about determining cause and effect–many coffee professionals know what effect they’re looking for, and by understanding the cause of flavor farmers are not only able to reproduce effect but to manipulate different variables and produce new and interesting results.
Understanding how sweetness and flavor are created was the major takeaway for many attendees at the event. “Although we tried only coffees from Guatemala, I was surprised by the array of flavors that were present on the table,” said Joshua Alberg, barista at Third Rail Coffee. “We assume that coffees from certain regions taste one way, and it was interesting to see how much flavor variation can come out of a region when you focus on other aspects like how the coffee is grown or its type.”
Although Morales and the TG-Lab have done a lot to improve farmers’ and consumers’ understandings of how flavor and sweetness are developed, he was quick to mention that we still have a lot to learn. At the end of the workshop, Morales talked about Brewer’s Cup and why many competitors are using some of the varietals of coffee present on the cupping table. “The beans are a lot bigger than most, and they’re able to store more genetic information and absorb more nutrients than other beans.” Morales then mentioned how the Maracaturra, for example, was able to produce more sugar than other varietals without rotting or getting rancid.
“So is size related to sweetness then?” asked an attendee.
Morales shrugged his shoulders. “That’s what we’re still trying to figure out.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Author Ashley Rodriguez thought that she’d take a break from teaching middle school science and putz around in a coffee shop for a few months. She ended up digging it way more than teaching (and was vaguely better at it). Come say hi to her at Third Rail Coffee in New York.