Quality sadly is too often reduced to a label printed on the front of a tin of the cheapest of instant coffees. That clearly isn’t right, is it?
So what is quality coffee? Damned if the answer doesn’t require perspective. If you were hoping for a definitive response, you will have to read on and form your own opinion.
From my standpoint as an artisan roaster, the question is perhaps easier. Or at least it is if you are the real thing. Not buying cheap coffee and presenting and passing it off as the good stuff.
You cannot polish a turd. So to produce an extraordinary coffee experience, one needs to find great coffees. For this you have to search a bit harder and pay a fair bit more. It is why we shun “Fairtrade” The principle of paying a bit more to be fair is redundant when you pay way more to buy sustainable quality.
So what do we look for when sourcing coffee? First before anything else are tasty beans. For me, that is the product of cupping: We grind and immerse coffee in set ratios with hot water at a set temperature, after a set time we scoop off the crust and taste, both hot and cold. This gives us a clear insight into the flavour, body, acidity, sweetness and aromas of the coffee. It also highlights faults such as bitterness or odd flavours.
We then find out about the farm, if we don’t know it. If we do know the farm, we find out about its varietal, just as one would with wine, and what method the fruit was removed from the seed, this has a dramatic effect on the final flavour, particularly if NOT being used in an espresso machine. Great filter coffee is ultra-sensitive, particularly to muddiness and other faults.
We then look at the coffee’s price in relation to how and why it would be used. Pointless buying a geeky Panama Geisha Especial Lot #1 from our friends at the Esmeralda Estate at over R2000 per pound on the farm, if it is going to be used to produce a R20 flat white. Also pointless buying cheap filler coffees if anyone you respect is going to put it to their lips. Worse still if your brand will be associated with it.
Most of what we buy, our bread and butter if you like, is beyond the quality moniker. It is micro-lots from the best farms exhibiting gorgeous sweet acidity and nuances of flavour.
And that is how I define quality. It doesn’t need a label. It needs a cup and quiet reflection.