Coffee Talk: Sorting

Screen Shot 2015-01-23 at 11.55.50 AMBy Danny Pinnell, SCAA

We had the honor of hosting Portola Coffee Lab’s Jon Paul Doerr (pictured) at our last staff meeting, who graciously volunteered to come down to SCAA headquarters and make coffee for everyone in the office, bringing the coffee he plans to use in the U.S Barista Championship next month. He screen-sorted this coffee post-roast.

Processed with VSCOcam with t2 presetOn the counter of the conference room, there were seven cups, each filled with coffee beans of different sizes that were sorted out after the batch had been roasted. This showed the different screen sizes that were present in the same coffee.

Jon told us that, even with great processing, you will likely end up with beans of different screen sizes. “Because there’s going to be different densities, they’re going to operate differently in the roaster. This is why, after the roast, I can screen-sort it and get a variety of different bean sizes,” he said. “They’re going to taste different, so what I’m focusing on a lot is doing that last sorting method, to affect flavor for the better.” He is doing this post-roast sorting because even though he knows that the green coffee is very well processed, he can still explore how the different screen sizes taste different and how they are operating differently in the espresso machine.

Processed with VSCOcam with t2 presetChris Schooley, SCAA’s coffee design and experience coordinator, led this week’s coffee talk based on the coffee that Jon provided. “I feel like this is one of those elements of processing that is a huge piece of the specialty coffee puzzle,” he told us during the coffee talk. “Specialty coffee begins at selection, a type of sorting in and of itself, where only the ripe cherries are picked from the tree. That’s the first level of sorting that happens – that careful selection.”

However, sorting can happen at many different stages throughout harvesting and processing the coffee. A producer’s ability to create something truly new and special is almost directly correlated to levels upon levels of sorting. Sometimes that’s done immediately after harvest with hand-sorting, to ensure ripeness of cherry. A lot of times, sorting begins during processing, at the mill. This is one of those things that really speaks to which processing style you use and how it impacts the quality of the final product.

Processed with VSCOcam with t2 preset“An important point that Jon brings up is that some of these variances do not materialize until they’ve been roasted, and it’s at that time that some variance in density or even size can become more noticeable,” Chris noted. “By sorting his coffee by screen size post-roast, he’s able to achieve what he feels is a much more tailored and uniform cup. This does not mean that what he’s removing is poorer quality, but that these ‘different’ beans impart different characteristics that he’d like to separate from the cup. It can be a very eye-opening experience when one sorts coffee in this manner, if you also taste what was separated out in order to determine what is being removed from the profile.”

With the dry/natural process, we’re missing the initial layer of sorting: density sorting. What this speaks to is the importance of water in processing for coffee quality. Traditionally, dry/natural processed coffees come from are areas where access to water is much more difficult. Water aids this process – not just in labor, but also in creating levels of sorting.

Sorting is one of those key elements to coffee quality and can definitely be tied directly to water and the availability of water, but also to processing – a producer’s ability to create sorting opportunities.

Chris shared this video that shows a mill receiving coffee, then the cherry going through a Pinhalense siphon system which washes and sorts the coffee cherry. Some of that coffee is then separated and processed as a dry/natural, and then some of that coffee is pulped and fermented, or dried as pulped natural. This is a great video to watch to learn about sorting – check it out!