Our coffee buyer, Byron Holcomb, recently visited Ethiopia—also known as the birthplace of coffee—for a very important conference on Natural Process coffees. Here is the second of his journals and observations on the proceedings.
The little handbook with pictures and green grading standards that the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) uses was created by Rob Stephen and a couple others, and took took more than three years of work. Three years for a 20-page book with some pictures of defects and how severely they rank for a coffee to be qualified as Speciality per the SCAA definition. Those standards are based on washed coffee only. For Natural Process coffees, well, there aren’t green grading standards, roasting standards, or cupping standards at all. Everything is based on washed coffee.
So here’s the challenge: how do you build standards that work across the globe for a type of coffee that is more complex, harder to control in processing, slightly different in roasting, and where the rules of traditional green grading don’t apply? That is what some of us would like to start to figure out.
During the four day Natural Conference, we talked mainly about case studies from other countries, Ethiopian standards, Natural Processing and drafted a cupping form for Natural Process coffees. Manuel Diaz drafted the form based on the current SCAA cupping sheet, but changed a few things. Sweetness is now not a “yes” or “no” but is graded like any other attribute. This is because quality naturals can show their character best in sweetness expression. I totally agree with his opinion. I really liked using the form, but are we starting at the wrong end of the equation?
Manuel, in particular, has done an immense amount of actual scientific work on processing especially on Naturals. I was blown away by his ability to bring up scientific papers, presenters and others who could talk eloquently about best practices for Naturals, cupping results, and Brix percentages based on variety, ripeness, and bean weight. A lot has already been done, but how do we tackle this?
Just look at the diversity in Naturals from Ethiopia in terms of the green coffee. When I get a sample of Natural Process from Ethiopia, every single bean looks different in the bag: long berries, short berries, pea berries, different shades of green to yellow, all different sizes and even shapes of beans. Considering that Ethiopia has the greatest number of varieties and about two-thirds of the coffees delivered to the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange (ECX) are all Naturals, that makes this likely the most complex origin in the world in terms of Naturals. Figuring out a green grading system for the Naturals of Ethiopia may apply to other places as well.
We talked a lot with Manuel about the viability of the embryo. Remember coffee is a seed: it is intended to grow a whole new tree. Manuel wants to make a Specialty Natural (we don’t even really have a term for these “Specialty” Natural coffees yet) that it must have 40% embryo viability. This can be checked with a microscope. But we didn’t really make a whole lot of progress on the green grading discussion because we were too busy talking about the processing of naturals and what are the real factors involved in producing them and where they go wrong. It makes sense that people understand them before we create standards around them.
We talked a good bit about the cupping form and roasting Naturals. Starting with the roasting. We can roast to the spec of the Washed coffees in the SCAA and some Naturals work with that. Others just taste sour, and can even show signs of negative ferment. Adjust the curve slightly by extending the roast development time and actually taking the coffee a touch further (I’m talking about 30 seconds and a few degrees) and the Natural will show its true nature of a sweet, balanced coffee with plenty of complexity and some acidity. Here is the thing, the roasting protocol and the cupping form are very closely linked. I could take a washed coffee a bit further and also flatten out the acidity and round out the cup, but should I use the same form for that?
If we all agree that Naturals should be roasted differently, then how? I agree with some that the criteria should be linked to density and sugar content (in a perfect world). Density totally drives how a coffee moves in the roaster and anyone with a tube and an accurate scale can measure density. Did you know that Costa Rica actually includes density in their grading system? We measure it at Dallis for most samples and I’ll roast them knowing their density and moisture. Also how do we measure this, Agtron? Anyone who roasts a lot of coffee knows that some coffees are naturally darker than others, I feel this is because of sugar content in the bean or fertilizers used on the coffee.
In the end, I think we all (a couple roasters, lots of exporters, quality control people, and coffee scientists) had a chance to voice our opinion as to the elements on which we should base Naturals standards. We at Dallis have a lot to offer, from farms to Q Graders, in the whole process. I really enjoyed hearing from Marty Curtis, who had plenty to say about roasting, that each section of the Natural Standards will be shared with people in the industry, evaluated and reviewed before any Standards are put into stone. Imagine standards that only work for a couple countries, or a few companies? Upon launching those types of standards, they would already be invalid.
I was hoping for more linear progress to be made at the conference, but simply defining the areas in need of review and talking about broad strokes of suggestions took four days. Imagine how long the next steps will be. My guess is 5 years minimum before anything can be final drafts can be published.
Stay tuned for Part III of Byron’s trip to the Naturals conference.
We’ve been talking a lot about natural process coffees on these pages, but not everyone reading our blogs may know quite what the ruckus is about. Isn’t coffee coffee, and all of it delicious? Yes and no. And maybe.
So-called “Naturals” have a bad rap in coffee. But first, what is a “natural”? Coffee starts as the seed of a fruit. Before it can be roasted, it must be processed. There are two major ways to process coffee. The first is washed process, wherein coffee is picked, the skin of the fruit removed, a natural fermentation happens, the remaining sugars are removed and the coffee is dried. The other is natural or dry process. The coffee is picked and dried (often on big concrete patios). Natural process is by far the simplest procedure, pick and dry.
Naturals are notorious for being inconsistent and/or over-fermented. Because of this, often, natural process coffees are discarded as low quality simply because they are naturals. But several years ago some people in distant corners of the globe started to use the natural process with incredible dedication and attention to how the coffee was dried and managed.
Nowadays there are fantastic naturals, but there is no grading system for this particular kind of coffee, and therefore no separation of these “super naturals” from the low quality naturals that have always existed. The biggest challenge with natural process is control. Each bean is its own universe. When processed correctly, they can produce sweeter and more complex coffee than washed. Who doesn’t want rich, sweet complex coffee?
We don’t know either.
Happy holidays from all of us at Dallis Bros. Coffee!
We can’t wait to celebrate the new year with you, and if we hadn’t mentioned it lately, our birthday is coming up. We’ll be 100 years old. And we can’t think of a better city than New York to grow old in.
With warm wishes from all your friends at Dallis Bros., enjoy the season!
Our coffee buyer, Byron Holcomb, recently visited Ethiopia—also known as the birthplace of coffee—for a very important conference on Natural Process coffees. Here is the first of his journals and observations on the proceedings.
This is my third trip to East Africa. It is different. I honestly belive that everything started in East Africa: humans, coffee, the garden of Eden. The point is that I’m beyond excited to go to Ethiopia again.
Usually when I’m going to origin, it’s for chasing the best beans that a county or region has to offer. What is pulling me to Easth Africa this time is actually a conference about Natural Process coffees, or “Naturals”. A friend of mine is a brilliant coffee person and has invested an incredible amount of time and energy trying to understand Natural Process coffee. Being from Mexico, and a scientist by trade and a full time coffee consultant, he understands coffee more intimately on more levels that almost anyone I know. His name is Manuel Diaz. I met him in Uganda several years ago, just before the first Natural Conference happened in Yemen. I am on my way to the third Natural Conference right now.
We will be spending a lot of time cupping Naturals and discussing Natural standards. Here is the thing: most all specialty coffee (grading, scoring, purchasing, marketing) is based on our criteria for “Washed” coffees. Now, in the world, there is a small percentage of Washed coffees. There is a much larger percentage of Naturals produced out there. Some roasting companies refuse to purchase them. Naturals are risky business.
But they are also very very important. Look at the amount of water used in any washing mill, hundreds of liters per 100lbs of green coffee in some cases. Look at the consumer market: they aren’t nearly as sensitive as coffee buyers to coffee that tastes “fruity”&emdash;the hallmark of Natural process. I find that well roasted Naturals go over very well and can be an incredible source of sweetness in blends. I won’t say any names, buy I can think of at least four roasting companies that refuse to buy Naturals simply because they are Naturals. We at Dallis love brilliant coffees that will bring the daily customers of the cafes and restaurants we sell to coming back every day for a great cup, regardless of the process.
Let me define what I’m talking about: super-naturals. I like that name because it makes it very clear that we are not talking about commercial-grade-last-picking-rejects: the vast majority of naturals fit into that category. But here is the thing: imagine a farmer who doesn’t have water access or financing access to wet-mill his coffee, what hope does he have for quality? None, unless he can produce a quality natural. I personally have had totally different natural process results from my farm: three years of ok, one year of rejected coffee, and last year was incredible. Why? Same farm, same drying methods. If we as an industry could start to better understand Natural processing I think we could positivly affect more lives than probably any other coffee project out there. So yes, I’m excited and I know it will take years, but I’m patient.
Dallis Bros. Coffee is thrilled to announce that this Sunday, December 9, we’ll be operating our very own pop-up cafe at the Joe Pro Shop from 9-5. This will be an opportunity for us to share great stories and greater coffees from recent trips to Brazil and Ethiopia, and for you to sample and buy exclusive Dallis coffees for yourself or gift-giving.
We’ll be serving and selling the following coffees: Honduras Los Popitos, El Salvador La Encantada, Brazil Nossa Senhora Aparecida Yellow Bourbon Natural Process, Finca Buenos Aires Tablon #11, Finca Buenos Aires Tablon #11 Dallis Special Process, Ethiopia Gatira, Ethiopia ARDI, Kenya Lenana, Kenya Kiambu, and, as espresso, New York Espresso, Ethiopia Kochere Single Origin Espresso, and Brazil Cup of Excellence #5 Single Origin Espresso.
Join us anytime from 9am onward for tasting and talking, and stick around at 7 for a latte art throwdown party, with (of course) free libations of the non-coffee variety!
We can’t wait to see everyone there as we celebrate the holidays with this one-day cafe!
Our own John Moore reports in from last night’s event at the MIST Theatre in Harlem, New York.
Immense congratulations are in order for a number of remarkable people that came together in Harlem last night to celebrate a few unique projects in Rwanda.
My Image Studios (MIST Harlem) hosted a special screening of scenes from Sweet Dreams, the newly released documentary film by sibling filmmakers Lisa and Rob Fruchtman. MIST is a new venue not even yet open to the public that will integrate performing arts space, film theaters, restaurants, and serve as a hub for pan African and Latino cultural exchange in the heart of Harlem.
Sweet Dreams documents the story of Ingoma Nshya, Rwanda’s first Hutu and Tutsi female drumming troupe, which also founded Inzozi Nziza, the only locally owned ice cream shop in Rwanda.
Founders of the award-winning Brooklyn based, organic ice cream business, Blue Marble Ice Cream, Alexis Miesen and Jennie Dundas played a major role in Inzoz Nziz. The duo made numerous trips to Rwanda to train, prepare and mentor the women on how to run a business.
The film really does an amazing job of setting the stage for the viewer to fully appreciate the magnitude of what these women have accomplished. Somehow this group of women have achieved all of their dreams despite the tragic history of genocide that plagues Rwanda.
The film is incredibly moving and powerful, but the drumming of the three women from Ingoma Nshya was more powerful still. The joy and purity of the music shared with the audience was extraordinary. They were followed by New York City-based all femaile drummers Akalande, and when the groups jammed together at the end of the show it brought the house down.
The event was also the venue for the public’s first glimpse at a wonderful new coffee project, Grace Hightower & Coffees of Rwanda (www.coffeeofgrace.com). Grace engaged two incredibly accomplished coffee professionals, Tom and Patty Mitchell, to help bring life to her vision and this new brand. We were all fortunate to taste some delicious coffees from Rwanda at the end of the evening.
Complimentary samples of Blue Marble Ice Cream would have been served but the ice cream warehouse had no power thanks to Hurricane Sandy. The coffee had to be brewed off-site because the space is not yet completely finished. Having been in Kigali airport when the entire place went dark and power was lost, it all seemed perfectly appropriate and all the more authentic. Despite the challenges, a remarkable experience was enjoyed by all.
Dallis friends and customers: we’re relieved and lucky to say our coffee factory is fully intact after Sandy. However, due to the huge hit to infrastructure that NYC has taken on all fronts, our technological abilities within the factory itself are somewhat limited.
Customers, wholesale and otherwise, seeking to place orders should try doing so online and over email first, and use our temporary storm phone number, (646) 558-5862, as a backup method. Note that we are operating on fewer phone lines and with diminished network abilities in general, so kindly be patient with us while the entire city’s grid rebuilds.
Coffee is still being roasted and shipped, you just might need to try a few different ways to reach us.
Your friends at Dallis Bros.
Our coffee director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, is not just a buyer but a farmer himself. This is his third dispatch from a recent trip to visit his own coffee farm, Finca La Paz, in Los Frios, Dominican Republic, where it is harvest time again.
I went to visit some friends in Bani who sold us a great lot of coffee last year. One of the larger farmers in the area was talking about the rain and quoted an ex-president of the Dominican Republic, Balaguer: “The best coffee farmer is the rain”. When the rain comes at the right time, often the coffee produces well. We had a pretty extensive conversation about a couple farms that used to cup in the 84-85 range and now were cupping closer to 81. They were saying the coffee had lost a lot of its body on the cupping table and they attributed that to what used to be 8 months of rain and now they have irregular rains and less rain during the whole year.
Then I took off to Santo Domingo to see about a new grass cover crop and a fungus distributor. I’ve been looking for a quality grass to plant on the farm that could provide appropriate ground cover for areas that need shade. I actually found it in Brazil. Brachiaria brizantha should fit the bill, it can grow under shade, it is nitrogen fixing, it has short rhizomes (horizontal underground stem), and isn’t so aggressive that it can’t be controlled with a diluted dose of Round-Up. I found a distributor in the DR so I visited his warehouse to pick up some samples to test on Finca La Paz. I’m most excited about the fungus. There is this insect killing fungus called Beauvaria bassiana. It is a natural predator of the Coffee Bean Borer or Broca in Spanish. I found a guy who sells it in a dormant state by the kilo. We put the “sleeping fungus” in a solution (milk, humic acid, sugar and water) to have it multiply and applied it with a backpack sprayer. This should bring the Broca infestation down to reasonable levels. I’m really hopeful for both of these.
On Saturday I went from Santo Domingo to Santiago and back. Our export partner there still has some really stellar coffees for sale and I wanted to check in on a few things. We cupped a table full of great coffees (actually there were 2 that were pretty rough). I have samples of my favorites.
Over all I’m hopeful for coffee and agriculture in the Dominican Republic. It is an uphill battle and so far I don’t see a lot of support from upper political levels. For example, the Banco Agricola (National Agriculture Bank) charges 18% interest on loans to farmers. Of course there exceptions, I’ve heard of numbers of 3% as well. Put that against countries that have no support and I sound like a whiner.
One of the biggest challenges is that there is a history of incredible support for coffee but not in an accountable way. In the time of Balaguer, here farmers were given fertilizer (or provided a subsidized rate, everyone has a different memory), farmers were provided with a brigade of men to clean the coffee farms, farmers were given pruning shears to prune the coffee, etc. Farmers talk about that time as “the glory days of Dominican Coffee”. But look at the economics, their cost of production was almost zero! Ok they had to pay people to pick and process the coffee but some of the biggest costs of coffee production are cleaning and fertilizing coffee. Removing both of those from the cost of production means they didn’t have to pay much to produce the coffee and what they sold was theirs. The system has changed but the mentality hasn’t. Last year I was calling hardware stores in San Juan of the DR to try and find a some pruning saws and couldn’t find a single one. So this year I brought 3 saw blades for each bow saw that we have on the farm. I can’t find anywhere that sells grow bags for coffee saplings in the DR. So I went to a large nursery to see if they had some, they said, “I wish you asked 5 months a go because I we had some, but now we only sell them… ” (As opposed to giving them away for free!)
“Perfect, please sell me 5000 of proper size and gauge plastic”, was my immediate response.
To a large extent, I know that my tiny farm is an unrealistic example for most other Dominican farmers. Paying about $60 USD for some grow bags is a lot of money to a small farmer with only a mule to his name. I would never say that I could figure out how to change the mentality of anyone or figure out a better system to support Dominican farmers without becoming paternalistic. At the very least, I hope to show some alternative ways to do things and produce some great coffee at the same time.
More to come…
Our coffee director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, is not just a buyer but a farmer himself. This is his second dispatch from a recent trip to visit his own coffee farm, Finca La Paz, in Los Frios, Dominican Republic, where it is harvest time again.
After spending a few days on the farm, I left to do some of my usual networking and running errands. I think this is one of the most productive trips for me in a few ways: I was really prepared for all the odds and ends that come up during harvest and pruning, I was able to apply some of the biological controls that I’ve been after for the last 3 years for the terrible bean borer (broca), and I think I finally have a concrete plan to see me through the next 5 years.
It was exciting to see the coffee cherries turn from yellow to red over the few days that I was on the farm. What’s interesting is the maturation wasn’t exactly how I wanted it to happen. Everyone in Los Frios was complaining because they lost their first crop of pinto and black beans (short-cycle bush bean crops) because there was not enough rain at the right times. Now they were into the second-cycle bush bean crop and again there was still not enough rain. Per how that affects, coffee I wasn’t worried because I prefer a light rainy season during the harvest because it slows and controls the maturation of the cherries from green to red. Here is the real crux: not all red cherries are truly ripe (in my opinion).
When I arrived at the farm on Monday, there were some scattered red cherries around the farm and a fair number of yellow cherries and lots of green. Every day in Los Frios after I arrived it rained hard in the afternoon. On Wednesday the yellow cherries were already red. As usual, I like to taste the red cherries and see if I can correlate the environment and variety with the flavor, yes I am a super nerd. Some of the cherries were really sweet and showed a fair amount of mucilage (clear fleshy coffee fruit). Some of the cherries were only vegetal and kind of flat without much sweetness or mucilage. They showed a zucchini or bell pepper flavor. Why? Coffee cherries that are allowed to ripen slowly turn from green to yellow to red over the period of a couple weeks, furthermore they can show both green and red on the same cherry (pinta’o or pinton in Dominican Spanish). A lot of cherries went straight from yellow to red in about half the time that I expected.
Trees are water pumps. They bring in water through their roots and expel it through their the underside of their leaves in openings called stoma. Coffee doesn’t respond well to water during the harvest because it does a few things to the cherries: 1) it causes them to ripen without developing the sugars, 2) it causes the ripe and unripe cherries to fall off the tree to the ground, and 3) it can even cause the cherries to “explode” (the cherry skin actually splits open). I found a lot of the first had happened to the yellow cherries. I haven’t done any cupping of these false red cherries to see if it really affects cup quality but I’m sure it does have some effect. To counteract that, we are going to wait a few more days before we start the picking to allow the cherries to get actually ripe.
The first picking will be the smallest so I’m not worried about the overall cup quality of this year’s coming harvest. I just hope the rain behaves for the drying of the coffee.
More to come, including a visit to the neighbors…
Our coffee director, Byron Jackson Holcomb, is not just a buyer but a farmer himself. This is his latest dispatch from a trip to visit his own coffee farm, Finca La Paz, in Los Frios, Dominican Republic, where it is harvest time again.
The world is strange. First of all it is 9:41pm and it is past my usual bed time here, but I feel like writing. I’m in the lumpy bed that is comprised of 4 mattresses laid cross ways with 3 separate pieces of foam on top. It works for sleeping. What is strange is the mosquito net. 9 years ago when I was here as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I only used a mosquito net for the rats. There really weren’t any mosquitos to speak of. There are areas in the DR that demand mosquito nets (and they sell very fancy nice ones). Here in Los Frios a few years ago the mosquitos arrived. Just like Nairobi Kenya – Los Frios had the elevation and average temperature (maybe wind too) to not let mosquitos really be pests. Now, just like Nairobi, mosquitos are a problem. Hence, I’m writing this from under a net designed for mosquitos and tonight it is for both, mosquitos and rats.
I knew this was going to be a good trip. The farm has been progressing and I have been better as a manager to push for results and networking. This year I’ve been able to make more things happen than normal. I finally found a greenhouse supply company that could custom cut the right plastic sheeting in a size that I could check on a plane. I found a distributor for Beauveria bassiana – a fungus used in Broca control. We just planted 100 grafted lime trees. We are fully stocked on saws for the pruning. Lots of great things. But what really makes a great trip isn’t just checking off the to-do list.
I missed the check-in for the first flight by minutes. I thought it was a 956pm flight so I showed up just over an hour before check-in, to find out they had already closed the flight which was actually at 942pm. Wow, there is a first time for everything. Lucky for me there was an 830am flight the next day and I got to sleep in my own bed. I arrived at 1230pm to Santo Domingo to incredible heat and humidity and this really moldy carpet smell that the airport walk way plane connector thing always smells like. I took the bus from Santo Domingo to San Juan to pick up the Beauveria bassiana and swing by a hardware store for supplies to build a level for planting coffee. I had arranged for a truck to pick me up and take me from Guantio to Los Frios that same day. To make the pick up time I took a taxi from San Juan to Guantio. The driver was recommended by a friend. He played really great reggaeton and seemed like a cool dude. While this new reggaeton was bumping we pulled up to the gas station and he had them put $0.50 cents worth of gasoline in the yellow mini van. While the gas was pumping a kid no more than 13 years old walks up with a stack of CD’s. “Look, I got MP3’s, this one has 150 songs of all reggaeton, this one has 200 songs of bachata, and for you. . . 100 pesos”. The driver offered 50 pesos for the 200 song MP3 CD. The kid nodded. By this time the $0.50 cents worth of gasoline had been pumped. The driver digs through his loose change and pays the kid 45 pesos. The kid was pissed and just said something vulgar. The driver turns to me and says the kids here all hustlers, but they have to be that way to survive. We both laughed but it wasn’t funny.
Leaving San Juan we were waved by a Police check point to stop. I never get stopped at these points so I assumed the worst. He stopped us to ask if his two lady friends could get a lift to Guantio. Sure. We take off in a bright yellow van that clearly has acceleration problems, so it is more like we tumbled off. The driver slips in his new CD and some new Aventura (a Dominica bachata band that I won’t admit how much I enjoy the music) song comes on. The two ladies in the back of the taxi know every word and belt out the next 3 songs like they were on Dominican Idol (not that they could sing well… just that they sang with spirit). There were clouds high and low, a really light rain coming down and the sun was about an hour from setting. It was really a beautiful moment to be alive and I can’t imagine it happening in any other country.
Once I arrived in the DR everyone wanted to know what I thought about the coffee market. “Will we get the same prices as last year?” A lot of people missed the peak of the last big market rally and still are sitting on coffee. Everyone was sure that the price would come back and the prices just kept falling. I had someone offer us some 20 bags of “perfect coffee”. Interesting considering the harvest has barely started. The coffee had a musty smell, it wasn’t perfectly washed and the humidity was 19%. Humm – maybe in Sumatra this is perfect. Here in the DR this is old crop coffee. I gave everyone the same advice. Don’t hold coffee, sell it where you can make money, the market is really crazy right now.
On Finca La Paz some good things are happening and some bad. The coffee in the upper section is doing really well. The area is responding really well to all the attention. The Broca seems to be more under control than usual. The grafted lime trees are all looking great and Antonio did a great job planting them at a healthy distance. Overall things look great. There are always one or two things that fall in the negative category.
There is this really awful fungus that is attacking the coffee in the whole region. It is this terrible vicious thing. It seems that it attacks the new growth, then kills the branch as the coffee matures. So the green cherries look fine except for the terminal leaves turning yellow and the stem black. Then as the coffee matures, they turn from green to black and some just fall off. I have pictures to ask my agronomist friends about this specific issue. Climate change? Or is this just the initial picking Cabrilla as it is called?
The only other mega-negatives are all the horror stories of violence being told. One of Antonio’s sons had a few days of vacation from work in Santo Domingo and was here in Los Frios with us. The stories he told involving people he knew were worse than the 5 o’clock news: murders, people selling drugs, rape, violence, all with details like he was there. He even had a word for getting shot: plomo – lead. The DR has always been violent, but to hear the stories told by a kid in a neighborhood that I’ve stayed in in Santo Domingo hit a little close to home.
More tomorrow from the farm.