September 12, 2017

Coffee Quality: Rethinking Seed Selection for Better Trees


Good coffee trees are vital, especially if you work in an environment where the better cup tends to pay better – like we specialty farmers do. And every year, we have to replace trees that die or must be removed, which means selecting new trees or seeds. This seed selection represents the future of our farms.

Could we change how we select coffee seeds to ensure stronger, healthier, more productive trees? Could a practical approach result in real differences in cup scores and coffee prices?

I believe so. Allow me to share with you my theory – and practical steps for putting it into practice.

Spanish Version: Reconsiderando la Selección de Semillas de Café

coffee sprouts

Coffee sprouts. Credit: Damarli Estate

Seed Selection: The Traditional Way

From my experience, most farmers procure new trees in one of three ways: they buy seeds from a vendor, they buy the plants from a vendor, or they use their own seeds.

If you want to acquire a new variety, you’ll usually buy either plants or seeds from another vendor. However, if you already have the desired variety, most farms will take a portion of their crop in order to get seeds.

SEE ALSO: Geisha vs Bourbon: A Crash Course in Coffee Varieties

However, these methods typically leave out an important factor: the constant improvement of cup quality.

coffee cherries

Green coffee cherries. Credit: Damarli Estate

Quality-Oriented Seed Selection

It’s important to remember that every seed is different. They come from different plants within a farm and not all are equal: some are stronger, some produce more fruit, and some produce better fruit. You could make the case that some individual trees should cup higher than others, solely because of their genetics.

I propose – and am currently testing – a different seed selection method: one based on obtaining seeds solely from your farm’s best trees. It will take me a couple more years to judge the results of this experiment, but I believe it will offer me even better crops in the future.

coffee cherries

Ripe coffee cherries. Credit: Damarli Estate

How to Select Seeds From Your Best Trees

If you want to try my method, the first step is to narrow down your desired variety. Then, you should select trees that you believe have ideal traits: high yield, resistance to disease, fast growth, etc. I recommend starting with just ten to twenty trees to begin with, so that you can judge the results without investing too much effort. You’ll also want them to come from the same area of your farm.

Harvest the crop from these trees at optimal ripeness and then wash process (if possible) each tree separately – tree lots, essentially. Drop the coffee moisture of the majority down to 18%, ideal for planting later, and then bring the rest down to your normal standards. There must be enough of this smaller selection to sample roast and cup.

SEE ALSO: How to Improve Quality When Drying Washed Coffees

After two to three months of resting – keep the beans in a cool place with a steady temperature and away from odors – you can conduct a seed selection cupping session. This is where a small sample roaster like the IKAWA professional can be very useful because you can conduct the same curve each time and you only need about 50 g of beans.

On the cupping table, some samples may stand out more than others. These are the trees that you should mark on your farm so that you can gather seeds from them for next year.

A quick note: throughout this process, your aim should be to eliminate as many variables as possible. From the processing through to the final cupping, you want consistency. This will ensure that, when cupping, you taste the differences in tree quality rather than farm location or drying.

coffee cupping

Coffee cupping at Damarli Estate. Credit: Damarli Estate

In specialty coffee, quality matters. And if my theory works – which I believe it will – you can repeat this year after year. Eventually, you’ll have a selection of trees that produce superior seeds and can improve your crop’s cup quality.

Perfect Daily Grind

Want to read more articles like this? Sign up to our newsletter!