Defining Specialty: An Origin Perspective

By Emilio Lopez Diaz, Coffee Producer, Cuatro M Single Origin Coffees

Long gone are the days when coffee was just a commodity, when only big corporations would have access to coffee at origin, and when just a few exporters had access to roasters. There had to come a crash in the industry for many to wake up and realize the potential that remained in coffee. It doesn’t matter what the size of your operation is as a roaster or importer, you can easily get in touch with the producer of your favorite coffees and pay a visit to check out their operation. As a producer, the same holds true, no matter your size, quality opens any possibility to be able to contact and supply the most recognized specialty roasters throughout the world. The pursuit and commitment to quality is what forms and shapes the specialty industry at both ends of the production chain.

Led mainly by young entrepreneurs, the specialty coffee industry has developed into a network of producers, millers, exporters, importers, roasters, baristas, and now the end consumer, all talking and demanding quality coffee, which can only be produced at very specific regions in the world.

But what does it take for a farmer to become a specialty coffee producer today? Is there simply a line drawn between a commodity coffee farm and a specialty coffee one? Does a farm need to go through a transformation process to become a specialty coffee supplier?

These questions are all valid, and are the reality that farmers are faced with when they hear all about the specialty segment. It is probably best if these questions and decisions are discussed from different perspectives.

Considering that the three main variables of production that affect the quality of coffee at origin are a). the location in which the coffee is grown, b). the coffee variety that the farmer chooses to grow, and lastly, c). the milling process the coffee goes through. Within these three variables of production lies the key for a committed farmer to produce an extraordinary coffee at any of the producing countries along the Tropic of Cancer and Capricorn.

Location, Location, Location

This is probably the most important variable of production for any farmer that wants to put his coffee in the specialty segment of the market. For most producers, the location is already a given; for many years their families have been growing coffee in the same land. But for many farmers it is one big decision and a huge investment. Depending on a country’s latitude, specialty coffee can be grown from an altitude of 1,200 mts to an extreme altitude of 2,500 mts in some cases. It really is a matter of how close to the equator line one country is and what microclimate a farm possesses.

Many have insisted that volcanic soil is the main factor for developing positive attributes to a coffee cup. That is a valid statement. From the volcanic region of Sidamo to the Nevado of Huila, it’s pretty evident that volcanic ash and the clay soil of the mountainous regions surrounding volcanoes are what give character to specialty coffee.

So whether the land has been in your family for centuries, or if you are a producer that is about to buy land to produce specialty coffee, the conditions are already a given, but the big decision comes next…

Coffee Variety

The second most important decision for a farmer that wants to produce specialty coffee is the variety he chooses to grow. Red Bourbon, Yellow Bourbon, Pacamara, Geisha, SL28, Typica, and Ethiopia Heirloom seem to be the seven most desirable varieties to the specialty coffee connoisseurs, and there might even be a few more that I’m missing. The point is that there are only about a dozen super high-end varieties.

Whether these varietals are planted at the hillside of Boquete, Pozos de Caldas, Yiergacheffe, Huehuetenago, Sud Yungas, or the hills of the Santa Ana Volcano in El Salvador, one is almost certain that at those altitudes and regions the result should be without a doubt a specialty coffee quality. As simple as it sounds, it really is the case that at any one of these places, if you plant these varieties above 1,200 mts, you are going to end up with a darn good quality coffee. Sounds like a pretty easy decision for a farmer, but there is one key downside for many of them, these are all low-yield varieties.

Until the specialty coffee industry rediscovered these varieties and promoted them as specialty, many countries focused on developing high-yield varieties that were a perfect solution to low commodity prices. With coffee prices again facing a slump and governments wanting to increase agriculture production, the specialty coffee industry is again at risk. It is inconceivable how varieties such as Sarchimor are spreading so rapidly in the best growing regions of Central America. That really should be a red light to everybody in the specialty coffee industry.

Weather patterns are indeed changing, but that is how agriculture has always been. Whether you read the Bible or turn on the television, weather has been a threat to agriculture since the beginning of history. Specialty coffee varieties are definitely more susceptible to climate change, there is no doubt about it, but for a farmer that has an ideal condition to grow specialty coffee, to switch to these hybrid varieties could mean going back to the commodity reality: ten years of bad prices and then one year of good prices.

The communication between the producer and roaster has never been so open. The producer wants a great price for his coffee and the roaster wants a great product. Let’s promote these varieties at the specialty coffee growing regions. Let’s face it, though, coffee is a commodity also, and low elevation plantations probably make up about 80% of the worlds’ coffee production; let’s keep the hybrids at these elevations.

The Milling Process

At origin, however, things are a little more complicated than just choosing the right region and the right variety. Many places have an abundance of water, some have a great lack of it, some places have an abundance of sunlight during harvest, some have humid and cloudy conditions, and really, each producer has his own conditions with which to process coffee.

This is probably the most controversial topic currently in the specialty industry. Is there a right processing method for specialty coffee? Should there be a standard for wet milling or dry processing for any coffee to be considered specialty?

The truth is that there probably isn’t one process that’s better than any other; it really depends on whom you ask. Some may say that coffee needs to be fermented in a tank for hours and then dried on a patio, but some might disagree and say to leave the mucilage on and dry it on a raised bed. Probably both could give you an exceptional cup quality and one might be more desirable for a US roaster than the other. If you asked an Australian, you might end up with your patios full of naturals, and for many that is specialty also.

The key here is to be able to produce and to maintain a quality that is right for your customer, whether your customer is in Portland, Oregon, or Sydney, Australia, your coffee needs to perform outstandingly for them.

The specialty coffee industry is a global one, and as a farmer/miller you’ll find yourself in the middle of different continents, and when it comes to processing coffee, you do have the ability to give coffee a different cup profile.

Defining specialty coffee is no easy task from an origin perspective. There are some general guidelines given by the specialty roasters, but as the industry evolves, so should the farmer/miller. One thing is for certain, though, Location, Variety and Milling Processing are responsible for a coffee’s identity and quality, and the farmer has full responsibility for that.

As farmers, we need to think globally and pay close attention to the different markets and trends. We do have control over our product and we can deliver quality to our customers. We just need to be committed to quality.

Emilio is a sixth generation coffee producer in El Salvador. He is experienced as a grower, managing two plantations, Ayutepeque and El Manzano. He is a miller/exporter and roaster, founding Cuatro M, Single Origin Coffees and Topeca Coffee in 2001. He has been a member of the roasters guild since 2002, and was recently elected to the Roasters Guild Executive Council.  He is heavily involved in researching the variables of coffee production, and their effects on the final cup, titled the El Manzano Project. He is eager to continue these efforts, to better contribute to the roasting community.