It’s been more than 3 weeks after the national coffee competitions. After all the intensive training, late nights, endless roasting and adrenaline rush, life is almost back to normal and we are on the road now in a tiny town, called Ocotal, in the Nueva Segovia region of Nicaragua. As we slow down our pace, we reflect back on what we did this year for the Brewers Cup and how we could have done better and what did we achieve post comp. For those who did not have a chance to head down to MBS to catch the performance, we presented a topic this year on ‘Sustainability’. It’s a big word and encompasses many facets of what we do and how we live. When applied to coffee, our thoughts are tied to how we as coffee buyers, roasters, baristas can help to maintain sustainability in specialty coffee.
In the recent years, we have read that with climate change, growing coffee is getting a lot more challenging and less arable land is suitable for coffee production due to increasing temperatures. Coffee diseases are harder to control, threatening many producers and leading many to abandon their farms, or changing to grow other crops. At the same time, coffee competitions around the world have also put the spotlight on a few rock star coffee producers. These producers do an excellent job in growing high quality in some rarer varieties and invest in special processing methods to alter the cup profile. No doubt they are mainly microlots of Geishas grown in Panama or in a village within Ethiopia.
Looking at the trend of past champions in coffee competitions, one would think that to increase the chances of winning, one would probably have to compete with a Geisha variety from one of the famous producers. This would also mean one has to be prepared to pay a very high price to secure a small quantity of these micro or even nano lots. But does rarity and high prices definitely translate to high quality? The measure of quality can be quite subjective. The audience and people who read about these winning coffees might interpret that these rare and expensive represent the world of good specialty coffees. Unconsciously, we as an industry might end up creating a ‘bubble’ effect, inflating prices for these rare and exclusive coffees. To us, this is a risk as we end up encouraging producers to start growing certain varieties or place all their limited resources on these varieties despite their land is not suitable for growing them. Further, there is a potential risk that these varieties tend to be less disease-resistant. Actions as such make coffee farming less sustainable. Geishas can taste great if grown in the right climate, suitable terroir and processed well, but growing it indiscriminately might have detrimental effect in terms of cup quality and yield. It is also a concern when production is overly concentrated in certain varieties as less diversity in the genetic pool might lead to higher risk of widespread diseases that attack a certain variety.
Hence for the Brewers Cup, we were adamant that thou will not compete with a Geisha variety. This is not a demonstration of negativity against this variety but rather a message that we would like to bring across to many that we should not be blindly chasing after that rare and exclusive coffee variety, leading coffee producers to grow something which might not be sustainable for them in the long run. Some producers, especially the smaller ones tend to be more focused on short term gains, and looking at how crazy prices can be for Geishas, it will only drive them to plant more of this unconventional variety at the expense of something which might be more suitable for their land in the long run.
On the other hand, we are very happy that we managed to clinch 2nd place in the Brewers Cup competition. It was the fruit of the many hours of hard work of the team. We are even more thrilled that our barista Deborah chose an Ethiopian coffee, Kayo Natural, from our regular coffee offering, which she did amazingly well to get very high scores. We also roasted for our friend, Mervin, from One Man Coffee, using a Colombian Castillo variety from a very young producer, Hujo Trujillo, whom we visited last year. Mervin definitely charmed the judges on his way to a final 4th placing. These results have definitely encouraged us that we might be making some inroads to our goal. We are comforted knowing our message has reached some individuals, making them think more about the current state of specialty coffee. Are we, as part of the specialty coffee chain, doing our part in sustainability, or are we moving further away from it?
Coffee for thought...