Coffee Grading Classifications.

We see trucks driving around with “Gourmet Coffee” written on them, we hear commercials andGreen coffee beans see posters of “Premium Roast” being advertised.

What do these classifications mean and how does that affect us?
(Hint: There is no such thing as brewing or roasting in a “premium” or “gourmet” way. That’s just silly)

As coffee became more of a commodity we needed to find ways to classify the number of defects, screen size and cup quality that a particular sample possessed.

Currently classifications are broken down to these four main sections:

  1. Specialty grade coffee – (Must be pretty much perfect.)
    – No more than 5 defects per 300gs of coffee.
    – No primary defects are allowed.
    – Free of faults and taints.
    – No quakers* permitted and a moisture content between 9-13% 
  1. Premium coffee.
    – 8 defects per 300g.
    – Primary defects are permitted.
    – May contain 3 quakers.
  1. Exchange coffee
    – 23 defects per 300g.
    – 5 quakers allowed.
  1. Below standard or off grade coffee
    – 86 defects per 300g. 

Primary defects include;
Black bean, sour or stinkers, cherry, stones. 

Secondary defects include;
Parchment, husk, chipped, insect damage, partial black, partial sour, floater, shell, stones, water damage.

*Quaker is an unripened coffee bean. It often has a wrinkled like surface and they do not evenly change color when roasted. 

Brazil as a different classification scale but it is very similar.

Now go impress your friends next time you drive by one of these claims.


3 things you can do to have a better coffee experience.

I have had the opportunity to introduce many people to their first cup of great coffee. I have 

Photo credit: Joe Driscoll,

Photo credit: Joe Driscoll

been a part of hosting and attending many cuppings from California to Canada. A few months ago the government of Chiapas, Mexico covered all expenses to have me meet with farmers and cooperatives in Chiapas and to be a part of that years coffee cupping competition to rate the best coffee coming out of Chiapas.

Just yesterday I hosted a cupping in Toronto which got me thinking I need to write a blog about how people experience their first cup of great coffee.

The thing is, there is something I experience every time I’m at a cupping table. I admit that it’s my fault, I should probably have created a better explanation on how to approach taste, or I should respect the moments prior to the cupping to get people in the right frame of mind. You can’t just throw people into the “cupping ring” and expect them to come out unharmed. The thing that happens almost every single time I take people in unprepared is at least one individual comes out thinking they hate great coffee!

It’s mind boggling  absurd! And years ago I even thought slightly offensive. Disgusting!? Tea like!? Doesn’t taste like coffee!? Listen to yourself. It’s coffee, in fact its great coffee! (I don’t know about you, but I find great humour in this!)

So I think it’s time I work through my pre-cupping routine, and we’ll do it together as I’m still hashing this out and haven’t tried it on “subjects”. I think both I, and the participants will come out better for it.

3 things you must do before you experience great coffee:

–       Define what constitutes “great”?

When we’re drinking great wine or eating great food we approach it with a different state of mind. We want the experience of grandiose flavors. Does the steak make me want to throw ketchup on it? Maybe it’s just ground beef.

–       Flavor and aromatics are King and Queen.

Exemplary flavor = Sweet, balanced acidity, clean, well-developed body and phenomenal aromatics. Use the tools at your disposal; nose, taste, feel.

What does it smell like? How does that smell alter or complement the taste? How does it feel? Is the weight in your mouth heavier like milk, or lighter like water?

–       Put your preferences on hold.

We tend to approach everything in life through the lens of our culture. Food and drink is no exception. If you grew up with bland food and coffee, chances are you want to neutralize and are put off by any thing that has flavor. Try to put preferences aside as much as possible and approach the coffee by concentrating on what you’re smelling and tasting and not thinking about if you enjoy it or not. 

See how taking 5 – 10 minutes prior to cupping and going through these steps changes your outcome on the experience.

I can already see that when I’m going into a coffee cupping, before my mind and mouth are prepared I get much less value out of the experience. 

It’s ok to dislike certain coffees, foods and wines; the important part is knowing why you dislike them. This will help in your purchasing decisions and you’ll grow by leaps and bounds in knowing your likes and dislikes.

And because your taste buds are on 10 day to two week cycles, you might actually start enjoying that coffee you hated two weeks ago. 

When Adding Salt To Your Coffee Is A Good Idea.

I remember my grandma putting salt in her coffee bed before brewing. This was many years 

This is not my grandma. :)

This is not my grandma.

before I drank or even thought about coffee. I never knew why she did that but it turns out that many people add salt to their coffee to reduce bitterness.

Since being in the coffee business, from time to time I still hear about people putting salt in their coffee.

So when should you add salt to your coffee? 

People add salt to their coffee to reduce bitterness. The sodium ion interferes with the transduction mechanism of bitter taste. But interestingly enough, the reasons behind this are not fully understood.

A study done at the University of Munich revealed that bitterness is extracted at the end of a brewing cycle. Over extracted coffee will comprise of more bitter compounds. Also, coffees that are brewed at really high temperatures or high pressure (like espresso.) This is because bitter tasting compounds are less soluble than others.

Caffeine it self is a bitter compound but not the main bitter compound in coffee.

As a blurb on our last blog, the darker the roast of the coffee the more bitter it will become.

Chlorogenic acids are highly present in light to medium roasted coffees, as you roast longer and darker higher levels of phenylindanes emerge by breaking down the chlorogenic acids. These phenylindanes cause a more lingering harsh taste in your mouth.

So the longer you roast the coffee the harsher it seems to get. But getting rid of bitterness in your cup is not isolated to the roast profile.

Some experiments done by a wine connoisseur revealed positive results in reducing bitterness in his coffee and espresso when putting a pinch of salt into the basket. It did however alter the taste of the coffee, it did not taste salty, but it lost some desirable qualities he was getting from the coffee on the brews done before salt was added. Adding salt to coffee is done differently in different cultures. For instance:

–       In northern Sweden there is a tradition of serving cured ham and other meats with their coffee this is believed to produce the same outcome of reducing the bitterness of the coffee.

–       In costal areas where fresh water mixes with salt sea, people are known to simply use that water for brewing coffee.

–       In Ethiopia it is common to serve salted popcorn with coffee.

A study done by P.A.S. Breslin and G.K. Beauchamp in the Oxford Journals showed that there was no consistent degree of bitterness suppression from salt in coffee. Which means that adding more salt won’t necessarily convert into less bitterness.

Salt can do a lot for poor coffee beans, poor roasting and poor brewing.

If you happen to get and consume good coffee, you’ll be doing yourself a big disservice by adding salt to your coffee. (Tweet This!)

 As my chef friend would say – “Ketchup is used to cover up bad cooking.”

On the left we have specialty grade coffee. On the right, your "bargain" coffee brand.

On the left we have specialty grade coffee. On the right, your “bargain” coffee brand.

If you’d like to read up on a few other experiments about molecular gastronomy,  check out, Tasting Salt With Coffee by Tim Windelboe and Martin Lersch.

Alchemy – Inner secrets of coffee.

Coffee goes through many changes from seedling to the displaced gasses that you’re drinking in

Chlorogenic Acid

Chlorogenic Acid

your cup, but according to thermodynamics, “matter is neither created or destroyed, but simply changes form.” Today we want to touch on alchemy as one of coffees top secrets. 

Side note: I’m currently drinking coffee from kong  (near Yirga Cheffe) Ethiopia. Yum.    

Coffee plants produce lots of organic acids and other compounds in their lifetime. (“Organic acids” are any acids that contain carbon in their molecular structure.) (Check out the Calvin CycleAll of which remain trapped inside the bean at harvest.

As we know, altitude plays a big role in physical characteristics such as bean size and density but it also alters the chemical composition. Higher altitudes tend to produce higher perceived acidity.

For every 100 meters gained in altitude we can expect 0.60 degrees Celsius drop in temperature and for every 300 meters – 10 percent increase in sugar production (sucrose.) Which equals higher acidity.

For countries that lack the elevation necessary to maximize the beans potential they rely heavily on shade to slow down the speed in which it takes the plant to reach ripeness, increasing sugar production and ultimately cup quality.

Arabica contains almost twice the amount of sucrose as Robusta.

Roasting plays a very important role and is responsible for the amount of perceived acidity and sweetness that you experience in the cup.

Chlorogenic acids amount for the majority of organic acid found in coffee. Making up about seven percent for Arabica and ten percent for Robusta. Although it might not appear to be much, the relative content to caffeine is about eight times higher.

During a Medium roast, almost half of the chlorogenic acid is decomposed, where as in a Dark roast we experience about an 80 percent loss. The chlorogenic acid that is decomposed is used in the production of quinic acid. The acid that is responsible for giving you a bigger mouth feel and higher astringency (dry mouth.)

So the darker you take your roast, the more sweetness and perceived acidity you will lose and the higher mouth feel and astringency you will gain.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Are you looking to taste more, or feel more? Your preference will guide you.



Coffee and Sustainability: Direct Trade vs FairTrade (Part 3)

Fairtrade coffeeHave you ever wondered what the difference is between Direct Trade and Fair Trade?
Our friend Joel Jeschke is taking us on a three part mini journey to educate ourselves a bit more on the subject.

The first week we had an introduction to each which you can find here. In week two we touched on some of the failures and drawbacks to the FLO. (click here to read that)
This week we are introducing the Direct Trade model and how it complements FT and how it differs from it.

ENTER JOEL————————————————————————————————————————————– Direct trade provides a way to pay farmers higher and more sustainable prices. Not unlike fair trade, direct trade cuts out the middleman in order to work directly with farmers. Direct trade differs from fair trade in several areas.

First, direct trade does not require participating producers to be members of co-ops, which, in turn, allows smaller farms to benefit from the higher prices.

Secondly, direct trade pays based on the quality of the beans picked rather than a set price like fair trade offers.

Part owner of Edmonton-based direct trade practitioners Transcend Coffee Roasters, James Schutz, states, “we’re after the very best quality and want to pay sustainable prices to the farmers, so we’re willing to pay the higher prices”. Dennis Macray, former director of global sustainability at Starbucks Coffee Co. also acknowledges the new direct trade model:

“The model for sustainable coffee that was popular five years ago has changed quite a bit. Years ago it was common practice to just go out and buy certified coffees and check the box; and today it’s about integrating sustainability and transparency into your supply chain. Companies are making it a core way of doing business”.

In 2012, Starbucks says they paid an average price of $2.56 per pound of green coffee. In 2013 Transcend is paying an average price of $4.82 per pound of green coffee. Paying nearly double the price of the already ethical and sustainable practices of Starbucks, Transcend provides an example of how much more sustainable buying direct trade coffee can be.

Although coffee producing organizations and import/export companies play a huge role in the economics of the coffee industry, it is ultimately the consumer who decides the price and sustainability of the product through his/her purchasing habits. Since the fair trade movement began in the late 20th century, awareness of the affects of coffee purchasing has increased significantly. According to Fair Trade USA, the percent of American households aware of Fair Trade coffee went from nine percent to fifty percent in the year 2005 alone. Representatives from major brands such as Starbucks and Green Mountain Coffee Roasters also report a growth in the interest of consumers in transparency of socially responsible business practices. In the research paper, Do Consumers Care About Ethics? Willingness To Pay For Fair-Trade Coffee, published in the International Journal of Consumer Studies, the researchers concluded that, “A substantial number of surveys showed that consumers value the ethical aspect in a product”. With coffee consumers’ increasing awareness and apparent interest in ethical buying, they must now determine how to best support sustainability in the coffee industry.

Direct trade coffee purchasing currently seems like the best way for consumers to support sustainability in the coffee industry. Although fair trade has done much to provide stability in prices for cooperatives as well as raise awareness for coffee farmers amongst consumers, it is ultimately not as effective as direct trade. This is because direct trade pays higher prices and is a more inclusive system in which the only requirement is providing a high quality product. In an industry that has a history of massive price fluctuations, the fair trade movement provided a push for more ethical practices that led to the development of direct trade, which, ultimately, is the best model for sustainability. It is now up to the consumer to determine whether or not, and to what extent they will support a sustainable model to ensure the future, of this beloved commodity.

Neither model is proven perfect and I doubt we’ll ever reach that point but there is great satisfaction in the growth and achievements of Fair trade that allowed Direct trade to come along and even more satisfying than that; and I believe the only thing that gives this product hope, is the consumers constant demand for better sustainable practices by the purchasing chain.

Coffee and Sustainability: Direct Trade vs FairTrade (Part 2)

Fairtrade coffeeHave you ever wondered what the difference is between Direct Trade and Fair Trade?
Our friend Joel Jeschke is taking us on a three part mini journey to educate ourselves a bit more on the subject.

Last week we had an introduction to the FLO, that you can check out hereand this week we will touch on some of FairTrade’s failures and drawbacks.

ENTER JOEL————————————————————————————————————————————–Though the fair trade model has done much to improve the standards of sustainability in the coffee industry, it is not without its drawbacks. One important situation where fair trade fails to live up to its goal is the current dilemma facing the farmers of Mountain Coffee Exporters (MCE) in Peru. Currently Peruvian based producers selling to MCE are earning $175 dollars per sack of certified fair trade coffee while their break even price is $180. This hardly exemplifies a fair system for coffee buying. 

Another flaw in the fair trade model is its inability to reach the poorest of the poor in the coffee farming community. The poorest members of the coffee community are the laborers who harvest the coffee cherries. In fair trade cooperatives, labor standards are implemented, however, in order to be part of a cooperative, one must own land. The workers who do not own property, therefore, do not receive fair trade benefits. Paul Rice of Fair Trade International argues that, “Yields are so low on a small farm and it’s basically family run, the migrant labor issue is not as relevant”. This claim does little to increase the credibility of Rice’s company in light of their many failures.

Sarah Lyons suggests a more important drawback to the fair trade model that threatens the sustainability of the coffee industry, rather than working to better it. Lyons states that, “More fair trade coffee is produced than is currently sold, challenging the market’s ability to meet the needs of the many smallholders who do not have access to fair trading conditions”. Many farmers and producers may lead more sustainable careers as a result of fair trade, however, this is not true in all cases. More importantly, when the amount of product produced exceeds demand, fair trade can actually threaten the livelihood of the farmers it set out to support.

James McWilliams published an article on Costa Rican coffee farmer Kenneth Lander and the experiences Lander had with fair trade co-operations. McWilliams claims that, “fair trade is fair, but evidently not fair enough” (McWilliams). Over the past decade, many farmers, buyers, and roasters have found that fair trade is not enough to ensure a sustainable future in the coffee industry.

In response to this instability, the method of direct trade was implemented.
Next week we’ll look at the Direct Trade model and how it complements and differs from FairTrade.

Coffee and Sustainability: Direct Trade vs FairTrade (Part 1)

FairTrade CertifiedHave you ever wondered what the difference is between Direct Trade and Fair Trade?
There are many initiatives dealing with sustainability in coffee but two of the most popular that I hear talked about would be Direct Trade and Fair Trade.

In the next three weeks we will be diving into it a little bit further thanks to our social media friend Joel Jeschke who just wrote a piece on it for a university paper.

ENTER JOEL———————————————————————————————————————————–The production of coffee bares varying levels of significance to different social groups.  For many North American consumers, coffee is a simple commodity. To the corporations that import and export it, coffee is a product from which profit is gained. To farmers and producers, coffee is their livelihood. The relationship between consumer and producer is reliant on this ever-popular product. The fluctuating nature of the coffee industries’ prices and production techniques results in an unstable market. This makes coffee farmers’ income inconsistent and unreliable. At the opposite end of the spectrum is the consumer who ultimately purchases the product and determines the price of the good. The sustainability of the coffee industry is therefore reliant on the purchasing habits of the consumer. Consumers have become more informed of their buying habits and how they impact the farmers who produce coffee. As a result, many consumers want to know how they can help support more sustainable practices. Purchasing coffee through direct trade methods better supports producers and the sustainability of their livelihood than that of fair trade.

Fair trade is a complex term with a simple concept.  In response to the instability of the coffee market, Fair Trade Labeling Organizations (FLO) International formed in 1997. FLO defines fair trade as “an alternative approach to conventional trade based on a partnership between producers and traders, businesses and consumers” (Fair Trade International 2013). Fair trade for coffee producers is a method in which co-operatives are offered a floor price for the coffee beans they produce. This floor price ensures a consistent income for the farmers within the co-ops. Farmers benefit from this because their livelihood is no longer at the whim of the consumer market in western countries. The simple concept behind fair trade is that all producers are offered an equal and stable price. To summarize, fair trade is an alternative to conventional trade practices in which all participants receive a set price.

Fair Trade use and support has grown consistently since the FLO’s inception in 1997. Just six years later, in 2003, international fair trade sales for the US totaled more than $500 million. This represents an annual growth rate of thirty percent, with the amount of fair trade certified coffee roasted in the US showing a ninety-one percent increase from 2002 at over 18 million pounds. Based on information from Sarah Lyon’s 2006 study, the number of fair trade coffee producing organizations has risen from zero in 1997, to one-hundred and ninety-seven. One hundred and sixty-five of these organizations are located in Latin America.

Farmers from Latin America are not the only coffee producers benefiting from fair trade co-ops. The Ketiara Coffee Cooperative is a fair trade certified coffee producer from Indonesia. Ibu Rahmah, chairwoman of the cooperative, has this to say about coffee cooperatives:

“As coffee farmers, we want to secure a better life for the future. In the past, we sold our coffee to a middleman. A middleman keeps the prices very low. That’s why we established a cooperative, to increase our income from the coffee” (“The Unshakeable Ketiara Coffee Family”).

The growth of fair trade has had obvious benefits to both coffee consumers and producers.
Though the fair trade model has done much to improve the standards of sustainability in the coffee industry, it is not without its drawbacks which we’ll talk about next week.