Quality, traceability, direct trade, fairer prices, exotic profiles, experimental processing: these are just a few of the positive things associated with single origin and micro lot coffees.
But, behind the wonderful reputations, some questions remain: what does “single origin” really mean? What’s the difference between single estate, micro lot, and nano lot? And how do producers ensure that a micro lot isn’t mixed with other coffees?
To find out, I spoke to Ubion Terra, Executive Director at O’Coffee Brazilian Estates, which produces single origin, single estate, micro lot, and nano lot coffees.
You might also like: What Is a Coffee Cooperative & How Does It Support Producers?
Yellow Bourbon at the back, and Red Catuai cherries are sorted before being dried on raised beds. Credit: O’Coffee Brazilian Estates
Single Origin Coffee: It’s Not as Simple as It Sounds
“Single origin”: a coffee that originates from one single place. Yet the closer we look at this, the more variations we discover:
Single country or region: A single origin coffee could come from a single country or a specific region within that country. In fact, historically, having a coffee that was Colombian rather than a Brazilian-Colombian blend was unusual and indicated quality beans.
Today, however, some people might argue that a Colombian coffee like this should still be considered a blend. After all, there are marked differences between coffees from Huila and Caquetá.
You may also hear a coffee from a specific region described as a macro lot: it still represents the flavour profile of the area, but it’s not as distinctive as a micro lot would be (more on those to come).
Single farm/estate: This is a coffee sourced from one single farm. It’s usually a high-quality, and consequently more expensive, coffee with a distinctive flavour profile.
Single cooperative: Sometimes, single farm coffee isn’t possible. In many countries, especially ones in Africa, there are farmers who produce only a few bags of coffee each harvest. Their crop might be no bigger than a few coffee trees in their garden.
In these cases, the local cooperative may process all the coffee together to produce a single lot out of many farmers’ hard work. Some cooperatives have strict quality requirements and regulate their members’ production and harvesting methods.
Micro lot: A micro lot is a coffee sourced from a single plot of land in a farm (or, in the case of very small farms, sometimes from a group of producers living nearby).
When coffee is harvested and processed on such a small scale, costs increase and so the sale price also has to rise to cover these. For this reason, micro lots are normally only coffees of excellent quality. Terra tells me that O’Coffee’s micro lots cup at 87–89 points and are up to 40 60-kilo bags in size.
Nano lot: The clue is in the name. A nano lot is very much like a micro lot but even smaller. Terra tells me that O’Coffee’s nano lots are usually 90+ and just one or two 60-kilo bags in size.
Field monitoring for plant caring and traceability system. Credit: O’Coffee Brazilian Estates
Why We’re Turning to Single Farms & Micro Lots
So, is “single origin” no longer a good thing? Does a coffee have to be a single farm, micro lot, or nano lot coffee to be high quality? And what about micro lots that are from multiple farms: how do they fit into the picture?
As the third wave grows stronger and stronger, and information flows from farm to consumer, we’ve begun to realise just how important origin really is. The soil type and quality, climate, production choices, and processing methods all have a dramatic impact on the quality of the coffee.
That’s why we’re moving away from simple country or even region descriptors. As Terra tells me, saying a single origin is from Brazil is meaningless: Brazil produces more than 30% of the world’s coffee. Even saying it’s from a specific Brazilian state becomes pointless when you realise that the state of Minas Gerais produces more coffee than any other country in the world. (Yes, that’s country, not county.)
Terra tells me, “We are in Alta Mogiana.” Alta Mogiana is a region in the state of São Paulo, which lies next to Minas Gerais. “But,” he continues, “we go further. We need to know the farm [the coffee came from]… But we go even further, knowing each area of our farm that each coffee comes from.”
O’Coffee Brazilian Estates is a group of six farms with 1,000 hectares of land dedicated to coffee. Each of these farms has then further divided its land, to reach a grand total of 50 specific lots. These lots can vary dramatically in size.
The data surrounding each lot – farm description, area, elevation, soil, climate, etc. – determines how the coffee is produced and processed. The bigger lots typically produce coffee with a consistent profile and a score of 80–84 points. The smaller lots are used for their micro lots and nano lots, which make up around 1% and 0.1% of their 35,000 60-kilo bag harvest.
On the other hand, in some countries, such as Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda, one farmer might produce less coffee than is in a Brazilian micro lot. (And of course, even in Brazil, some farms will only produce 20 or 30 bags per year.) This is why a micro lot from, for example, Tanzania could include coffee grown by multiple members of a cooperative.
Ultimately, the more information we have about the coffee’s source, from the local climate to the producer’s harvesting and processing preferences, the more we know about the coffee itself. And that explains why the industry is moving towards terms such as “single farm”, “micro lot”, and “nano lot”.
Part of O’Coffee Brazilian Estates and its wet mill. Credit: O’Coffee Brazilian Estates
Is Smaller Better?
There’s a reason behind this trend towards smaller, more specific lots and origins – or, to be more precise, four reasons.
“Nobody wants a coffee that they have no idea where it comes from…” says Terra. “I think the more details you have, the more connected you are to the origin of this coffee, and [you know] even if it’s been sustainably produced. It’s also important to know if the coffee is certified, the name of the farm is certified, so you know that you are drinking a sustainably produced coffee and connecting people.”
With smaller lots, in theory, traceability becomes easier. You know where the coffee was grown, you know what conditions it was grown under, and you know how this affects both the coffee itself and the local environment. You start to learn more about the lives of the people growing the coffee and, in an ideal world, buyers and producers can work towards more sustainable prices.
Every element of how a coffee was produced and processed has an impact on its flavour – good or bad. And some coffees have a very distinctive profile.
“All the coffees that we do here are single origin,” Terra says, “because there are specific characteristics of each coffee.” One might have a more floral profile, another a sweeter one.
If these coffees were blended, their notes would be drowned out by those of all the other coffees. Instead, by only selling these coffees as individual lots, their distinctive flavours are preserved and highlighted.
A cupping table is prepared for a session at the O’Coffee Brazilian Estates quality lab. Credit: O’Coffee Brazilian Estates
Of course, if a coffee is low-quality or mediocre, there is little point trying to preserve its specific profile. Single origins, single estates, micro lots, nano lots… these coffees tend to be quality coffees. What’s more, by working with smaller lots, it’s easier to both identify quality coffee and work to further improve it.
For example, at O’Coffee Brazilian Estates, the process begins with field mapping. They analyse the potential of each lot on the farm to predict the coffee’s quality and identify potential micro and nano lots.
“We do the mapping just to be sure of that, and that we are not investing time and money on the wrong areas of the farm. So, we do a pre-cupping. We harvest, dry, roast, and cup the coffee just to be sure, before harvesting, that we are going to invest our efforts on the right areas in the farm that is going to bring the best potential for that lot.”
Once the lots with the highest potential have been selected, the team does selective harvesting followed by electric sorting, dries the coffees on raised beds and in parabolic troughs, and then hulls the beans separately. They could not selectively pick all 1,500 hectares of their coffee-dedicated farmland – but, for the lots with the highest potential, it is worth the investment.
Yellow Bourbon and Red Catuai micro lots dry in a parabolic greenhouse. Credit: O’Coffee Brazilian Estates
Additionally, as Trevin Miller, owner of Mr. Green Beans in Portland, Oregon, tells me, “Small farm lots do give [the roaster or buyer] more control over the factors that do affect quality. If you or the importer have the ability to visit or build a relationship with a producer, you can communicate and understand where exactly the coffee comes from and how it is produced.”
With single estate and micro lot coffees, it’s easier for both producers and buyers to build long-term relationships with each other. In turn, this allows them to provide feedback, make requests, and work together towards the ideal coffee and contract for both parties.
Terra agrees. O’Coffee Brazilian Estates does direct trade with buyers from more than 15 countries. He tells me, “It helps a lot in maintaining the quality or even improving the quality if you are connected directly… It helps both parties in this process.
“It is better for the producer. They can be aware of if the quality they are delivering is good and how they can improve or what the customer’s needs are.”
Yellow Catuai coffee in fermentation tanks during washed processing. Credit: O’Coffee Brazilian Estates
How Do Producers Ensure Lots Aren’t Mixed?
When producing any form of single origin coffee, ensuring the lots remain separate is crucial. Any contamination will have an impact on the flavour, quality, and purity of the coffee – and the smaller the lot, the more noticeable it will become.
“It is important for us to have the historical data,” Terra says. “We always know exactly where this coffee came from. There is no mixing from different farms.”
Producers have to invest in good processes in order to achieve this, especially if they are producing micro lots and nano lots. Tracking information and the coffee location is key. An organised farm and mill are also important. The coffees need to be harvested separately, processed separately, and stored separately. All identifying information (such as lot name or number, variety, processing method and progress) need to be kept attached to the coffee at all times.
At O’Coffee, for example, they have computerised much of the information. This helps them monitor the coffee and also to reassure buyers. After the shipping sample is approved, they frequently share codes with their buyers that contain information about the coffee, a copy of the contract, ways to track the shipping progress, and more.
Workers selectively pick Red Acaia coffee cherries on Fazenda Nossa Senhora Aparecida. Credit: O’Coffee Brazilian Estates
Single origin coffee: simple? Not really.
The more we learn about single origin coffees, the more complex we realise this label is. There’s a large difference between a single estate and a single country, a single region and a micro lot.
And it also takes a lot of hard work to ensure the purity of a single origin coffee, especially if it’s a nano or single farm lot.
But one thing is clear: the more information we have about where our beans come from, the more tools we have to work towards sustainable, high-quality coffee.
Enjoyed this? Check out What Is a Coffee Cooperative & How Does It Support Producers?
Want to read more articles like this? Sign up for our newsletter!