Updated: Sep 28, 2021
There’s a whole story behind a cup of speciality coffee. Bean Smitten founder Darren Tickner shares the narrative, from bean to cup!
What is speciality coffee? Well, there’s a huge difference between speciality and commodity coffee. It’s more diverse. It’s richer. There’s an explosion of flavours there at the start of that first sip, such as chocolate, nuts, citrus, berries, the flavours are endless. The mouth-feel is usually smoother, cleaner. It’s on a whole other level than commodity coffee, and there’s a lot that goes on to make it that way. Let’s start at the beginning…
The Coffee Tree
You need a very specific set of conditions to grow a coffee tree if it’s to survive and thrive. This is where the coffee belt comes in. The coffee belt is the area of countries that sit around the equator. Its location is special because there is sufficient rain with distinct dry seasons; the climate has moderately sunny days with cool and stable temperatures; there are high enough altitudes for the coffee plants to thrive; and the soil is fertile.
While the growing conditions are similar between the countries within the coffee belt, the variations in soil, temperature, rainfall and altitude all greatly affect the flavour of the beans that the coffee tree produces.
Typically Arabica coffee which originated in Ethiopia, is used for speciality coffee. Arabica coffee contains almost 60% more lipids and almost twice the amount of sugar than Robusta. These play an important part in not only the flavour, but the aroma and body of the coffee. Sweeter, with a cleaner mouth-feel and less bitterness.
The Coffee Farmers
Quality coffee starts with the producer. We source from small family run farms, estates, or a collection of individual landowners who work together as a cooperative. Their dedication, passion and expertise, has been passed down through generations, developing and perfecting their methods and traditions for coffee growing.
They’ve effectively separated themselves from the commodity market, by increasing their focus on quality, really taking time to get a continuous cycle of improvement in that coffee and always seeking out how they can make it tastier and set it apart.
Coffee growing conditions are paramount and the farmers are experts in this field. They usually live on the farms, living and breathing the coffee trees all year round. They know these plants inside and out and the importance of altitude, soil conditions, sun/shade and how much water to give them in order for them to grow to their maximum potential.
The time taken by the producers at this level of production is all about highlighting the different aspects of a particular coffee, either through altitude, processing method or the soil and what that changes about the coffee in the cup.
At harvest time, only the ripest coffee cherries get picked, usually by hand. The cherries then get hand sorted, picking out any defects. The farmers would only want the cherries of a certain size and quality.
The processing is carried out with great care and the way that particular bean is processed is done purposefully. For example “naturally processed” (the picked cherries spread thinly on “drying beds” to dry naturally in the sun), ends up with the coffee being very flavourful, fruity, whereas the “washing process” washes the cherries in a machine that removes all the cherry pulp and tends to have more acidity.
After processing, the coffee gets assessed pre-shipment and even packed differently to commodity coffee. The hessian coffee sacks have an inner lining, quite often it’s a grain-pro, a green plastic sack that keeps the air from getting to the coffee and helps control the humidity as well. This way it arrives at its destination in a much better state.
Generally you pay more for speciality coffee because all of that extra care and attention to detail comes at a price. The farmers typically earn at that better price, and there's a general desire among drinkers of speciality coffee to keep that farmer producing coffee at the same level or even better. Therefore, these people and families who work in speciality coffee are paid a price that enables them to have a decent standard of living.
The Green Coffee Buyer
There’s that human touch to speciality coffee. A lot more face to face contact between the farmers and the green coffee buyers than there is commodity coffee. People go and see each other, they build relationships, and it's all documented. You can relate the coffee back to the farms, whereas commodity coffee can be mixed from different farms and you’ve lost that link back to the producer.
The green coffee buyers and farmers relationship goes beyond just buying and selling coffee though. Friendships are forged; trust and understanding are at the forefront. We’ve previously highlighted investment projects and sponsorships that are created by the buyers and producers, to help develop the farms, surrounding villages and their communities, such as Girls Gotta Run.
Our buyers are great believers of this, and Bean Smitten are supporters of these projects and help raise money for them via coffee sales and roastery open days.
There is of course a technical aspect to speciality coffee. It has to score over 80 out of 100 in the SCA scoring. The buyers will have a very distinguished palate and will be able to identify coffee quality via “cupping” (coffee tastings).
Through cupping, the coffee buyer can assess a coffee's SCA score and determine whether it is speciality grade quality. With the producers information and “cupping” scoring, they make decisions on which coffees they will buy and draft the initial tasting notes for the coffees. This, along with the origin information (what farm it was grown at, the altitude, how it was processed etc.) will then be communicated to the roaster.
On arrival in the UK, the green coffee is graded and reassessed by our importers, with all the information that comes with it, so it’s not just a sack of coffee, it has all that information on how it was grown, processed and who’s behind it all, accompanying it.
And we end up with all that as a roaster, the full package – really high quality beans that have been carefully stored and effectively come with a handbook, telling you every last thing you might want to know about it.
From all the information we can then request samples of that coffee, for us then to “cup” and grade ourselves.
Therefore everyone is checking the quality the whole time. And once it arrives with us, the roaster, we decide on what approach we will take to roasting the coffee. We will look at the information, from origin: altitude, what bean type it is, how it was processed, then try to translate that across to a roasting profile that will suit that coffee.
For example, higher altitude coffees are denser, they’re a harder bean, they are more stone like and tend to need more energy during the roast. One variety of coffee might need a different approach than another. A natural process coffee tends to need more gentle roasting.
So it's not just sticking it in the roasting machine. It’s “Ok, what does all this information that the producer’s giving me mean, and how will that help me get the best from the coffee? How does it help me develop a profile?” We would typically do test roasts and “cup” them, then decide whether to tweak or select that profile. Then when that's relayed to the customer at home, they get tasting notes with the coffee and the background of where and how that coffee was grown, they've got all that source and traceability with it.
Some people say coffee roasting is an art. My view is that roasting coffee beans is 50% craft and 50% science. It certainly requires a high degree of knowledge and experience to produce speciality level roast profiles.
Typically the coffee then goes to independent coffee shops with well-trained baristas who will take time to dial in the coffee on the grinder, to basically get the best out of it they can.
They could just put the coffee beans in, make an espresso and serve it, but there’ll be an optimum recipe, in terms of how much coffee you use, how quickly that coffee extracts into the cup and what water temperature to use - a higher temperature that’s going to extract and highlight the acidity of an African coffee for example or do you use a lower one that's going to suit a softer bean from local Brazil or a South American coffee?
And then there’s the presentation to the customer in a coffee shop, it may be some little snippets of information about this back story of that coffee or it might just be the extra time taken to produce some latte art, or even coffee pairings.
The coffee could also go directly to the consumer at this stage, for bean to cup machines and general home use and we are increasingly finding that consumers want to learn how to make coffee just like the barista at their favourite coffee shop.
It’s the coffee drinker who concludes the story by actively seeking out and choosing speciality coffee. They choose to drink better coffee.
When you’re taking the time to find a local coffee house or roastery that is dedicated to quality, or taking an extra moment to learn from the barista about the people whose hands and passion produced that cup of coffee, you’re demonstrating not only a commitment to a higher standard of quality of taste and flavour, but also a commitment to a higher standard of living for every person who contributed along the way, especially the coffee farmer.
If you want to read about what happens behind the scenes here at Bean Smitten, read our blog A Day in the Life of Bean Smitten Coffee Roasters