May 27, 2016

Regulating Cherry Ripeness: Why You Should Think Like a Sommelier


What would you do if you wanted to improve your coffee? To infuse the beans with natural sugars and complexity that will be reflected in the final cup?

Standing in the middle of a beautiful sun-kissed vineyard in Catalunya, Spain, conferring with sommeliers, an idea came to me that would allow me to do exactly that. And one year later, that idea has transformed my direct-trade specialty coffee business, Gold Mountain Coffee Growers. Our (already high) cupping scores have soared, and roasters from Ohio to Asia to the Middle East have taken notice.

The idea? Applying the quality control checks of wine to coffee.

Lee este artículo en español Madurez de la Cereza: ¿Por Qué Pensar Como un Sumiller?

coffee beans in a leaf

Refractometers and bracelets: the key to cherry ripeness. Credit: @goldmtncoffee

What Can Coffee Learn from Wine?

Coffee and wine have a lot in common: they’re both a processed fruit with profiles affected by the varietal, the processing method, and the place of origin. But we also know that coffee has an even greater complexity than its alcoholic cousin. And that means it deserves just as much, if not more, investment in controlling its flavor.

Just like with good wine, to produce good coffee you need to pick the fruit at its optimal ripeness point. We work in Nicaragua, where an exporter or importer will probably tell you that coffee cherries are picked at “peak ripeness” and that they’re handled with care. No doubt you’ll hear the same at most other coffee origins.

But how do they know that these cherries are picked at “peak ripeness”? Without enforcement and verification, it’s rare that a farm will actually be able to achieve this – as the sommeliers of coffee, Q graders, will notice while cupping.

See also: Coffee Science: How Can We Identify & Improve Cherry Ripeness?

ripe and unripe coffee cherries

Which cherries would you pick? Credit: @goldmtncoffee

How to Regulate Coffee Ripeness

So with the help of an agronomist with his own vineyard, I adapted wine’s quality control checks to develop a technique suited to the coffee production industry.

Our solution is a “ripeness police force”: a team armed with the tools to measure coffee cherries’ sugar content so that they only pick those cherries that are at optimal ripeness. Our “police” are equipped with refractometers and, our most innovative tool, a special ripeness bracelet the exact same color as a ripe cherry. And they stand there, day after day during the harvest, often in the rain, while partner farms pick perfectly ripe coffee cherries.

ripe coffee cherries from gold mountain coffee growers

Coffee bracelets: simple but effective. Credit: @goldmtncoffee

The Impact of Using Coffee Police

So does it work? Yes. Data from the refractometers and other observations are meticulously logged, allowing them to filter down from the mountains to our inventory systems. We then correlate cupping scores with refractometer readings, and the results are unequivocal: higher refractometer levels translate into higher cupping coffees.

Not all farmers want to work to the rigorous standards that we impose, and so we no longer do business with those that can’t keep up. Do we feel bad? Yes. Is this strict way of doing business and verifying quality necessary for our social enterprise to be economically viable? Certainly.

We owe it to ourselves, our employees, and our customers to produce the best coffees possible – and if that means rejecting unripe cherries, that is what we’ll do.

coffee beans and ripe coffee cherries

High-cupping coffee comes from cherries with a high sugar content – regardless of the processing method. Credit: @goldmtncoffee

There are many other, equally rigorous, steps that we take to achieve high-quality coffee – but the use of refractometers has helped catapult our social enterprise from having good specialty coffee to having excellent specialty coffee. We’re talking about coffee that’s winning competitions and attracting the attention of Q graders, roasters, and baristas. And all because of a trip to a vineyard in Catalunya.

For additional photos of Gold Mountain Coffee Grower’s quality control, see here.

All views within this opinion piece belong to the guest writer, and do not reflect Perfect Daily Grind’s stance. Perfect Daily Grind believes in furthering debate over topical issues within the industry, and so seeks to represent the views of all sides.

Perfect Daily Grind.