Sourcing Diaries: Grading Naturals in Ethiopia, Part II

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.

Cupping Naturals with people from all over the world. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

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.

Cupping aprons for Naturals fans.

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.

Reject coffee. Photo by Byron Jackson Holcomb.

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.