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David Donde: On sourcing the best coffee

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The great thing about coffee for me, besides the pursuit of the perfect cup, is the international coffee community. As with any geeky pursuit, the experts tend to be a small community – in some industries, living in competition with one another, and in the best, like coffee, trying to learn from one another.

Sometimes, these connections allow pearls of wisdom to be noticed. The seminal moment for me was a contact with an Australian barista and barista trainer. Her insight? “You can’t polish a turd”. And in that moment a deep philosophical shift occurred in how I bought green coffee.

With coffee as indeed with agricultural products in general, the moment of harvest is critical. From then on it is mostly downhill. If the product, in our case the coffee cherry, was farmed correctly on the correct soil type  in the correct region, all the stars are aligned and it is picked neither under- nor over-ripe, it is at its maximum potential.

Never forget that. There is no way to improve upon it from there. No clever roasting or master Barista is ever going to add flavour. That is short of a certain American-owned chain – let’s call them “Charbucks’ for easy reference – adding sickly sweet, utterly synthetic caramel or cinnamon or pumpkin spice flavourants. But I digress.

Roasted flavour has been discussed before in this column. But to re-iterate, dark roasting is just going to add a bitterness and reduce body and flavours. Light roasting, grassiness and under-developed flavours.

No. For the perfect coffee, the roaster and, by extension, the barista or café needs to buy well and try their hardest not to stuff it all up.

The bidding board at the Nairobi Coffee Exchange.
The bidding board at a coffee auction.

The terroir and potential of the bean are there at harvest. The buying of coffees in large-scale and anonymous coffee auctions, as is sadly the norm in my industry, is part of the problem. “Don’t worry,” they say, “there are flavour and tasting notes available from the auction house”. This is tantamount to choosing which movie to see on date night  by picking a random move critic on the internet, and rolling with your new-found expert’s advice. Good luck with that.

Far better for me has been slipping down the rabbit hole of relationship coffee, farm visits and the bridging of distance and building of friendships. Oh, and paying more. I want the good stuff. And that elusively perfect cup of coffee.

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