The best thing about the coffee industry is that there are very few rules. In particular, the world of "Specialty Coffee" is so young that we are only now finding out the best way to do certain things. This is most obvious when it comes to how we, as coffee roasters, share coffee information with consumers. Sometimes there's so much to say, and so little opportunity. At other times, we know what we want to say, but we're not sure just how to say it. At Timely, we are not immune to this predicament. From our position, the information we have available is whatever our importers share with us, who in turn, can only share what producers share with them. Oftentimes, this information is not only lost in translation, but misinterpreted at each stage of the supply chain, which leads to a lot of confusion or misunderstandings. With this in mind, we took this chance to rethink exactly how we share information about the coffees we roast.
First, we looked at our existing labels, which included everything from altitude, geography, variety, and process (find more on this on our previous post here). From this, we asked ourselves what was the most important information to share, both from a transparency perspective, but also, deciding what information coffee drinkers can use to decide which coffee to buy. In the end, this is what coffee information should do: empower coffee drinks to make more informed choices and buy coffees which they find delicious more often. This debate lead us to more questions than answers, which we, from our limited western perspective, didn't feel we were able to answer. So, we reached out to someone who knows more than us. With the help of the formidable Lucia Solis (who has an amazing podcast you should be listening to) we were able to refine exactly what we wanted to say, and how we wanted to say it.
The biggest take-away from our consultations with Lucia was the idea that processing terms such as "natural", "honey", or "washed" are not specific enough, and can't be used in any meaningful way to predict what a coffee is going to taste like. Traditionally, these words are defined as:
- Natural: dried with fruit still on the seed, in sun or shade for x amount of time. Fruit removed and seeds prepared for export.
- Honey: some fruit removed, some left on the seed to dry in the sun or shade for x amount of time. Remaining fruit removed and seeds prepared for export.
- Washed: water used to remove the fruit from the seed before drying and prepared for export.
As Lucia pointed out to us, and has mentioned many times in their own writing and recordings, these processing terms don't describe the most important part of coffee production: fermentation. Exactly how the fruit around the seed is fermented (which makes the fruit easy to remove from the seed) has a greater impact on how the coffee will taste than any other human influence. For example, was the coffee fermented underwater, or without water? In sealed containers, or open tanks? At what temperature and for what amount of time? A coffee could be fermented underwater for 10 hours, or fermented in sealed containers without water for 70 hours, both resulting in wildly different flavour profiles, but each being classified as "washed" coffees.
At Timely, we have decided to move away from these terms. We will no longer be referring to "washed" or "natural" coffee (and especially not "anaerobic", but more on this next time). Instead, we'll endeavour to share more, meaningful information on our coffee packaging. You can expect to see fermentation times and conditions on packaging from here onwards. As coffee drinkers, this is a great opportunity to develop an understanding for how post harvest practices impact the flavour of the coffees you love. The learning curve may be steep, but this is a crucial step forward in transparency, education, and consumer awareness.
Until next time,
*the photo above was taken by famous coffee producer Erwin Mierisch in their climate controlled "fermentation room". This coffee is left in sealed containers with a makeshift one-way valve to release oxygen, creating an anoxic environment in which the coffee can ferment. This is a great example of a coffee which clearly could not be described in just one word.