December 4, 2018

The Coffee Pros Debate: What Is a Great Coffee?


Think of the best coffee you’ve ever had: what was it? A Gesha/Geisha? An experimentally processed micro lot? Your favourite blend at your regular coffee shop?

“Great coffee:” it’s something we all strive for, but it’s surprisingly hard to agree on what it means. With that in mind, we spoke to several industry professionals to learn their perspective. From specialty roasters such as Taf Coffee to coffee producers, they all agreed to share their opinion on what makes a coffee truly great.

You might also like: What Is Third Wave Coffee & How Is It Different From Specialty?

A man smells a coffee during a coffee cupping

Cupping coffees in the lab on Finca San Jerónimo Miramar, Guatemala, in order to evaluate their quality. Credit: Finca San Jerónimo Miramar

Is Specialty Coffee “Great Coffee?”

For some, “great coffee” is simple: it’s specialty coffee. The specialty coffee industry centers around the pursuit of quality.

But even here, the definition isn’t so simple. The term was first coined by Erna Knutsen in 1978. The concept, as reported by Don Holly in 1998 and then the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) in 2009, was that “special geographic microclimates produce beans with unique flavors.”

But today, coffees are graded through cupping or tasting sessions. Each coffee is scored on various qualities, such as sweetness or aroma, and then all the scores are added to create one final score out of 100. Those with 80 or more points are considered specialty.

So, even when we look at the definition of specialty coffee, we’re left with a question: is it about the uniqueness of a bean or its overall quality?

A barista brews fresh coffee on a v60

Eirini Daskalopoulou brews coffee from Las Delicias, Finca Mierisch, Nicaragua for consumers at the Amsterdam Coffee Festival. Credit: Taf Coffee

Unique, Distinctive, Exotic: Interrogating The Differences

Next question: how “unique” does a coffee have to be in order to be a “unique coffee?”

If that sounds like a riddle, my apologies. However, it’s an important question to ask. And to answer it, let’s explore two other adjectives we often hear used to describe good coffee and that could be considered synonyms for “unique:” “distinctive” and “exotic.”

On the one hand, when drinking most single origin specialty coffees, you can taste the distinctive characteristics of the origin. Perhaps it’s the bright acidity of a washed East African coffee, the spiced notes of a Central American, or the sweetness of a Brazilian pulped natural.

Discover more! Check out What Is Terroir & How Does It Affect Your Coffee?

However, we also see the ever-increasing popularity of “exotic” coffees: ones with complex and unusual flavor profiles, such as mango, papaya, guava, and Earl Grey tea.

Experimentation, especially with coffee processing and fermentation, and an increased awareness of varieties has only increased this. The Geisha/Gesha variety has become a byword for coffee excellence – and record prices. Honey processing, and all of its variations (red, black, yellow, gold, and white), is both well-known and popular.

Then there’s carbonic maceration, a technique inspired by the wine industry: the coffee’s fermentation process is slowed down by adding carbon dioxide to the tank where the coffee sits, reducing the amount of oxygen. This slows the breaking down of sugars in the coffee fruit. The result? Increased sweetness, aromatics and floral notes. Producers can even control the fermentation temperature and time to accentuate different characteristics, such as complex acidity versus sweetness.

So, is great coffee “distinctive?” “Exotic?” Or something else altogether?

honey coffees dries on raised beds painted blue, red, and yellow

At Finca Sumava, Costa Rica, different types of honey processing are demarcated by different color paint on the raised beds. Credit: Taf Coffee

Exotic Coffees Push The Industry Forward

It’s no surprise that the coffee industry loves exotic coffees. Yiannis Taloumis is Head of Quality at Athens-based specialty roastery Taf Coffee. He tells me, “They offer excitement to anyone involved with them: producers, roasters or baristas.”

He has a lot of respect for the producers he works with who aim for exotic profiles. “Besides the fascinating experiences that these coffees have offered to many of us, they are also the result of brave people that were not afraid to push the boundaries of coffee cultivation and processing as we know it,” he stresses.

And what’s more, he sees them as helping to inspire the entire coffee industry, “since they are generally a challenge, thus a motivation to overcome our self-defined limitations and to engage more with research and education.”

honey coffee dries on raised beds

Honey processed Catuai is dried on Beneficio Santa Rosa, Tarrazu, Costa Rica. This lot has tasting notes of toffee, black cherry, and agave, with a delicate acidity and silky mouthfeel. Credit: Taf Coffee

Coffee producer Francisco Mena of Exclusive Coffees in Costa Rica believes that the rise of “exotic varieties” has had a huge impact on the industry. “There is a big mark before and after all these exotic varieties.

“They have brought education, they have brought a lot of knowledge, have brought satisfaction and have, I’d say, capitalized the passion of the producer that is producing it and experiencing the rewards: a good economic income and the reward of understanding that their coffee tastes spectacular.”

He’s not the only person who thinks exotic coffees are beneficial for producers. Eleane Mierisch, Manager at Finca Mierisch in Nicaragua, tells me, “It opens more opportunities for small producers to venture into a market where the price of coffee is valued for its special or exotic attributes.”

a barista pours filter coffee into two cups

Pour over coffee for two. Credit: Taf Coffee

Greatly Unique vs Consistently Great Coffee

Of course, not all coffees can be “exotic.” But does that mean they’re not great coffee?

First of all, there are plenty of specialty coffees that, while not exotic, are still high-quality and delicious. Should we disregard the 85-point, well-balanced coffee with good acidity and mouthfeel just because it doesn’t have guava notes?

Christopher Pyatak, Head Roaster at 802 Coffee, Montpelier, USA, tells me, “For those of us who are in the coffee business, as well as the real die-hard connoisseurs, wild and exotic coffees are always exciting and new and help us push the boundaries of both our craft and our palates.

“But the pitfall of that excitement is that we can easily lose sight of the fact that, for the vast majority of coffee drinkers, even those who prefer (and will go out of their way for) really good, freshly roasted, specialty coffees, coffee is a deeply habitual, even ritual, relationship.”

In other words, many customers aren’t looking for a unique experience. They’re looking for a great coffee, yes, but one that is consistently great – one that they can experience time and time again.

Yiannis, while he loves the excitement of exotic coffees, also tells me that consistently delicious coffees are important.

“Those are the kind of coffees that we in Taf try to find,” he says. “A higher-quality coffee grown with care, attention, good practices, and consistency in processing which will create taste potentials, stored and transferred following official guidelines, skillfully roasted and properly brewed can be a great coffee.

“Those kinds of coffees are already amongst us, it’s just that sometimes they are overshadowed by the exotic ones,” he adds.

a barista pours steamed milk into a latte

Pouring a specialty latte. Credit: Taf Coffee

Not Every Coffee Can – Or Should – Be Exotic

Roasters and producers may also see the benefits of working with coffees that, while still high-quality and delicious, aren’t “exotic.”

From a roaster’s perspective, Christopher tells me, “I think it is important to have a few reliable, consistent offerings, which free you up to get a little more wild with some other coffees… There is a mutual trust [between roaster and consumer] that demands not only excellence but consistency.

“Not infrequently, it is these coffee lovers who, when that trust is established, will be willing to take recommendations on what we roasters consider to be more exotic or exciting offerings. Sometimes they will stick, and sometimes they won’t. But they’ll know that they can always go back to that one blend or origin that you have all year long.”

And Francisco, as a producer, points out that different coffee varieties behave differently in different microclimates. Despite his admiration for exotic varieties, he’s aware of their more challenging aspects.

“You know, I cherish the exotic coffees, I cherish their roasts, I cherish their aromas, but there has to be a balance,” he stresses. “Generally, the exotic varieties are high maintenance. They are very critical towards strong weather conditions, to very windy conditions in cool temperatures.

“And then, there are varieties that are not as exotic but still are very competitive: Caturra, Catuai, Villa Sarchí. They are good in the cup, solid in the cup, they have good productivity, and they respond to aggressive weather conditions, and they have a bigger and very strong root system.

“So, I really think it’s a balance. I think that we, as producers, should have highly productive varieties that bring us production and a good cup. And then have some lots of exotics.”

freshly picked ripe cherries next to a coffee seedling

Freshly picked ripe-red coffee cherries; this lot is part of the Taloumis Family Limited Reserve. Credit: Taf Coffee

Consistency Can Be as Challenging as Experimentation

Yet even while consistency is key for customer satisfaction, Eleane tells me that achieving it takes a lot of work. Factors such as the weather and diseases can negatively affect production and quality. What’s more, they can be difficult to predict.

She stresses the importance of picking cherries at their optimum level of ripeness, keeping the wet mills in great condition, ensuring a slow and steady drying phase, having rest periods prior to export, and maintaining good standards in the storage areas. All of this requires hard work from producers.

Francisco has a similar opinion. “Consistent ideas, consistent practices, consistent behaviors, consistent passion,” he emphasizes. “So, consistency is about consistent practices at the farm and mill level…

“If you are consistent with your plots, if you are consistent with your agronomical maintenance and research, with your billing, if you are consistent in cupping every one of your lots and you try to achieve that [extra] point that you hadn’t last year, or two years ago, that’s where you can develop in the future.

“Now, there are years when you have very aggressive weather conditions that affect ripening. It’s very aggressive weather conditions that affect fertilization, it’s very aggressive weather conditions that affect nutrition, spraying… So, these are factors that we as producers do not handle, do not manage, and can affect our consistency.

“So, we need to always be reevaluating, rethinking and re-planning if we encounter those aggressive weather conditions.”

young coffee trees grow in rows on a mountain

Finca San Jerónimo Miramar in Guatemala, harvests more than 40 different varieties such as Caturra, Catuai, Heirloom Bourbon and Pacas. Finca San Jerónimo Miramar

Long-term relationships with buyers, and good communication within that relationship, can help farmers to produce consistently high-quality coffee – and to then improve it.

Yiannis heads up Taf Coffee’s Direct Relationship Program, in which he visits the company’s producer-partners. “They always get feedback on their coffees so that they can know what they do well and what they can do better,” he says. “Ultimately, for us, the key is to focus more on the relationship rather than just following a stiff trade policy.”

Eleane tells us that they invite Taf every year to visit their farm in Nicaragua. “He [Yiannis] has gotten to know how we work and we have learned what he likes,” she tells me. “This creates a strong commitment in our relationship.”

a coffee farmer rakes drying coffee on a patio

Drying coffee on patios at Finca San Jerónimo Miramar in Guatemala. Credit: Finca San Jerónimo Miramar

So, What Is a Great Coffee?

It’s time to return to the original question: is a great coffee “exotic?” “Distinctive?” “Unique?” “Consistent?” Or simply something the consumer loves and will come back to time and time again.

Perhaps, depending on the coffee and the consumer, it could be all of these – and more.

Giorgio of Finca San Jerónimo Miramar, Guatemala, tells me, “A great coffee cup is by nature fruity, floral, juicy, and has a super clean and sweet aftertaste. A great coffee is all of that, plus all the practices and people behind it that were cultivating it, with a sustainable philosophy.”

And Yiannis adds, “Ultimately, a great coffee for most of us is something subjective, created by a combination of personal preferences, coffee education, and previous experiences…

“We believe that a great coffee is a coffee that can offer a unique, positive experience, a coffee that once tasted is remembered and can stand out from other coffees. It has a combination of intense flavor, balance, consistency, a profile out of the ordinary – a coffee that once someone tastes it, they want to taste it again.”

You might also like: What Is Third Wave Coffee & How Is It Different From Specialty?

Feature photo credit: Taf Cofee

Please note: This article has been sponsored by Taf Coffee.  

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