Water: The Invisible Driver of Coffee | A Look Back at SCAA Symposium

KEIBy Hanna Neuschwander

Water: It’s everywhere. It makes up 99% of a cup of coffee, 55% of human body mass, and 71% of the Earth’s surface. We can only survive three days without it. Yet, especially in a city like Seattle, where any tap will deliver unlimited qualities of clean, safe water on demand, it’s easy to overlook its importance.

On Wednesday, April 7, Symposium attendees had the opportunity to hear four perspectives on water—one of the most critical and underappreciated drivers of specialty coffee. The session, “Water: The Invisible Driver of Coffee” was hosted by Kim Elena Ionescu, coffee buyer and sustainability manager for Counter Culture Coffee. Ionescu opened the session with a provocative idea: That water is both essential to specialty coffee, and that specialty coffee is essential to water.

PHPaul Hicks, Water Resources Coordinator for Catholic Relief Services, presented a 30,000-foot view of the role that the specialty coffee industry can play in ensuring watershed health in the coffeelands. Hicks believes that water will be the primary sustainability issue facing coffee in coming years. According to an analysis by Centro Agronomico Tropical de Invetigacion y Enseñanza (CATIE) in Costa Rica, over 9 million people in Central America get their drinking water downstream from coffee farms. If coffee farms manage their water poorly it can have devastating impacts on local people. This was the case in Matagalpa, Nicaragua in 2013 when a coffee mill spill rendered the city’s water undrinkable for two weeks. But Hicks also pointed out that there is huge potential for a positive impact, too: “There is no agricultural system more effective at managing a healthy water cycle than shade grown coffee.” Shade-grown coffee ecosystems are effective at trapping rainwater for use by plants and storage in aquifers. Hick’s suggestions for how the specialty industry can capitalize on this opportunity include helping producing partners to focus on soil management, working with certifiers to make sure farms aren’t contaminating drinking water sources, and buying coffee processed with water-saving technologies.

Hicks helped Symposium attendees see that coffee has a clear impact on water. But what about water’s impact on coffee? Keith Flury, Head of Coffee Research at Volcafe,suggests that water drives the C market in unexpected ways. Brazil has the largest coffee production in the world. As a consequence, changes in Brazilian output have an outsized impact on the global commodity price of coffee. When Brazilian coffee yields decline due to weather, the C price often goes up as a short-term response to the supply dip. Flury made a clear case that in Brazil, drought is the dominant new driver of production changes. More and longer droughts are expected to be the norm. As Flury pointed out, “drought is the new frost.” Why does it matter? When coffee prices go up, coffee farmers all over the world plant more coffee. This coffee takes 3-5 years to mature, usually well after the price has fallen again. Brazilian droughts are exacerbating the boom-and-bust cycle of coffee all around the world, creating more volatility and less stability for producers.

IMG_0248Moving from the C market to the mill, Flavio Borem, a coffee researcher at the Federal University of Lavras in Brazil, challenged specialty coffee leaders to rethink assumptions about wet and dry-processed coffee. Traditional washed coffees use an astounding 1,240 liters of water per bag to produce. New technologies have helped reduce the water requirements for processing coffee to as few as 89 liters per bag, but nothing beats natural processing, which requires zero liters per bag to process. Yet natural coffees are often perceived to be of lower quality and lesser consistency than wet processed coffees. Using beautiful microscopic images of coffee tissues, Dr. Borem explained that the most important factor in any coffee’s consistency is the integrity of cell membranes inside the coffee beans. Natural coffees, he said, are more sensitive to cell membrane damage than washed coffees. Damage can lead to an oily taste or faster fading. But naturals are not inherently less consistent or lower quality than washed coffees; they just need to be treated right. This means drying coffee slower at lower temperatures, between 35 and 40 degrees C. With the right drying temperatures and drying rate, natural coffees are capable of great beauty and consistency.

MCDThe last speaker, UK Barista Champion and WBC competitor Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, finished out the session by bringing it all back to the cup. Colonna-Dashwood teamed with a scientist at the University of Bath to try to understand a mystery: Why his coffee tasted all wrong when the standard industry metric for water quality—total dissolved solids, or TDS—said the water was all right. It turns out that TDS is an imprecise way to measure the most important components in water: Calcium, magnesium, and bicarbonate. Each of these minerals has a different effect on coffee’s taste. Two waters can have the same TDS reading but wildly different quantities of these individual minerals. So the same coffee brewed to exactly the same specification, but using different water could taste profoundly different. The implication is big: Without realizing it, coffee roasters have been creating roast profiles that are suited to their particular water terroir. But, as Colonna-Dashwood said in closing, “I’m interested in the terroir of the coffee, not the terroir of the water.” His findings point to a possible opportunity for the specialty industry to explore water standardization.

The session’s talks were augmented by opportunities to taste coffees influenced by the afternoon’s ideas. The sensory lounge featured selections of Brazil’s top natural processed coffees, including this year’s Cup of Excellence winner. In addition, participants could experience firsthand the effects of water on coffee by tasting the same coffee brewed with three different water recipes: high in calcium, high in magnesium, and distilled (no mineral content).

Hanna Neuschwander writes for Portland Monthly, The Edible Magazine, The Oregonian, and is the author of Left Coast Roast.