Date: October 2011

Column/Title: From the Transparently Pure to the Creatively Edgy: Twelve Certified Organic Coffees

Author: Kenneth Davids; Reviews by Kenneth Davids with Justin Johnson

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Organic is the oldest and best established of the various certifications – Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, etc. – represented by the little seals that cluster on coffee packaging, all of them intent on reassuring the buyer that something positive has happened with the coffee inside the bag, even though it may not always be clear to the casual consumer what exactly it is or was. With organic certification, however, the basic definition is relatively simple: Organically certified coffees are produced (and substantially processed) without use of synthetic chemical pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. This month we present the results of a rather large (fifty-five samples in all) survey of coffees carrying organic certification. Reviews of the twelve highest-rated appear accompanying this article.

The implied benefits of organically grown coffee point both forward toward the consumer and back toward the producers and their environment. For the consumer, organic coffee may not offer quite the dramatic health advantage that many organic fruits and vegetables do – after all, in coffee production the soft, exterior part of the coffee fruit most exposed to chemical contamination is discarded, the dried seeds are then subject to high temperatures during roasting, driving off volatiles, after which we infuse the dried and roasted seeds in water before throwing them out and drinking the water. Contrast this history of attenuation with strawberries, which we eat whole and raw right off the truck (or plane) from the farm. From what I’ve read, someone who habitually eats conventionally grown strawberries without virtually scrubbing them could be classed as mildly suicidal, whereas someone who drinks conventionally grown coffee appears to be taking at most a very slight, perhaps only hypothetical, risk of consuming traces of potentially harmful chemical residues.

But even if we feel sanguine about drinking conventionally grown coffee, organic growing remains one of the most dramatic and unequivocally positive of sustainable environmental practices. Even though organic growing can be and is practiced on a large, industrial scale, generally it encourages sound environmental practices and discourages unsound practices, like dense plantings of hybrid coffee trees in full sun supported by steady doses of synthetic fertilizer. There is little doubt that organic growing generally, even when practiced on a large, semi-industrial scale, is overall better for the environment and the farm workers than conventional growing.

In coffee, however, organic certification also has functioned as a means of attracting price premiums and establishing presence in the market for small-holding, peasant coffee farmers. Across the coffee world there are entire regions of small-holding coffee producers who are “de facto” organic: They simply can’t afford chemicals for their little plots of coffee trees. The organic movement in coffee was pioneered in Latin America as a way of gaining premiums for such small producers, and cooperatives of small producers continue to provide the backbone of organic coffee production in most coffee-growing countries.

The association of small-holder cooperatives with organic production became even more firmly established with the advent of Fair Trade certification, a certification explicitly focused on promoting social and economic well-being for small producers and their cooperatives. The two certifications, organic and Fair Trade, dove-tail almost perfectly, and as this month’s sampling of organically certified coffees confirms, such dual certification is ubiquitous in the market place: Thirty-one of the fifty-five coffees we tested were certified both organic and Fair Trade; only twenty-four were certified organic without the complementary Fair Trade seal.

The domination of organic coffee production by cooperatives of small-holders is the main reason that many coffee professionals have argued through the years that organically grown coffees are in general inferior in quality to conventionally grown coffees. The argument has nothing to do with the trees or how the trees are grown and fertilized; rather it has to do with the challenge of maintaining consistent quality of fruit removal and drying among the often hundreds of small-holding farmers that make up a typical small-holder cooperative. If only five farmers out of a group of fifty in a cooperative bring in stinky, fermented beans, for example, the overall quality for the entire group of fifty will be compromised.

Contrast this risk with the potential for centralized control of production possible with family-owned small- to medium-sized farms, farms that produce many of the world’s best coffees. Not that cooperatives can’t produce fine coffee; last month’s report on Kenyas certainly confirms they can. Of the thirteen almost sublimely fine Kenyas we reviewed with scores of 92 or higher, eleven out of the thirteen were produced by cooperatives of small producers. Nor is sloppy fruit removal and drying a prerogative of cooperatives; some medium-sized and large farms can and do ship tainted, rain-damaged coffees. Plus coffee production is quite complex and diverse; many cooperatives have centralized mills with excellent quality control, for example, quality control at least as rigorous as exercised by competing privately owned mills.

Nevertheless, the fifty-five certified organically grown coffees we tested for this month’s article did represent something of a sensory adventure. One of the striking aspects of the coffee turnout for this cupping was the relatively disproportionate number of dried-in-the-fruit or “natural” coffees nominated by roasters. This coffee type, which tends to be fruity, sweet, and often brandy-toned (but also difficult to produce with any consistency), is currently popular among smaller and trendier roasting companies and their consumers. Perhaps that is the reason why so many examples of this still relatively rare coffee type turned up this month. On the other hand, perhaps the simple, low-tech approach represented by dried-in-the-fruit processing (pick ‘em and dry ‘em) particularly appeals to some cooperatives of small producers.

At any rate, we received fourteen such dried-in-the-fruit, “natural” coffees, with the remaining forty-one samples representing more conventional wet-processed or “washed” coffees, meaning coffees processed by removing the fruit from the seeds or beans before drying. In conventional coffee wisdom, the beauty of wet-processed coffees is their potential for transparency and purity. The thinking is, get rid of the soft, sweet fruit before it can ferment or mold and you are more likely to achieve a perfect expression of the natural character of the coffee itself, conditioned only by tree variety and terroir.

From such a purist point of view, the wet-processed coffees we tested did not overly impress. By my judgment, only two of the forty-one wet-processed coffees we cupped expressed a discernibly and absolutely pure wet-processed profile: the Ethiopia Yirgacheffe from Café Tierra (92) and the Ethiopia Sidama from Bard Coffee (92). Both in differing ways expressed the lyric floral, citrus and cocoa potential of native Ethiopia varieties of Arabica without apparent interference from processing idiosyncrasies or flaws.

The Johnson Brothers Guatemala Quiché Chajulense (91) and the Bird Rock Costa Rica Finca Santa Lucia (91) also were wet-processed, and also were attractive and pleasing coffees. In my view, however, neither came across as completely pure and free of the impact of processing. Rather, both showed a richness and cedary pungency that is quite appealing, but that typically derives from the impact of slight, perhaps deliberate, processing idiosyncrasies. It is possible that additional wet-processed coffees in the cupping also expressed transparency in profile, but darker roasting may have made it impossible to register that transparency free of the sensory impact of the darker roast.

The dried-in-the-fruit or “natural” coffees we tested showed a rather similar range of response to processing variation. With dried-in-the-fruit coffees at least a hint of sweet-toned, brandy-like fruit is part of the appeal of the type, and this flavor note certainly derives from a mild and hopefully controlled fermenting of sugars in the fruit as it gradually dries around the bean. The trick, as I’ve indicated in earlier articles on the subject, is promoting a sweet, clean, very slightly fermenty fruit character, but one free of other, less attractive taints, like mold or mustiness, salty bitterness or composty over-ferment.

The Doma Costa Rica Las Lajas Natural Process (93) and the Kickapoo Ethiopian Natural Worka Coop (92) both appeared to pull off this balancing act well. The Doma Costa Rica was particularly impressive: lushly fruit-toned yet delicately pure. The Bard Ethiopia Sidama Oromia (91) came very close to a similar balance, as did the Olympia Ethiopia Gedeo Worka (91). But with the exotic Bali Kintamani from Wicked Joe (89) and the sweetly over-the-top Guatemala Finca Santa Isabel Natural from PT’s Coffee (89), we enter the realm of exuberant, explicitly fermented fruit, hearty but rather rough-finishing. Nevertheless, those who enjoy extravagance and intensity may well prefer these wilder coffees to the purer, more balanced profiles higher up on the rating scale.

In any event, the twelve coffees reviewed this month do present an exciting range of sensory possibility, from the pure and transparent to the fruity and edgy, with some very pleasing intermediate stops between. Perhaps it is a tribute to organic producers that such a dramatic range of sensory expression moved from their fields and mills to our cupping table. Certainly we weren’t bored this month.

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