Roasters on the Road
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Keith Tomlinson, Peace Coffee Staff
In early September, as part of grant work with Cooperative Coffees and Catholic Relief Services (CRS), I traveled to Oaxaca City, in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. Traveling with me was Brad from Larry's Beans, Joe from Third Coast Coffee and Monika with Cooperative Coffees. The work that we were doing with Catholic Relief Services involved several days of workshops followed by two days of visiting coffee farms in Oaxaca. Peace Coffee for the last year has been roasting coffee from the Michiza cooperative in Oaxaca, Mexico. We have in the past carried coffee from another organization called Maya Vinic located in Chipas, Mexico, the state directly east of Oaxaca. Maya Vinic, as you may remember, is the cooperative to which we donated the Probatino roasting machine that my team won at the Roaster's Guild Retreat three years ago. The three days of workshops all took place at Michiza's offices. Maya Vinic as well as two other organizations affiliated with CRS were in attendance. The purpose of the workshops was to offer advice, dialogue and demonstrations in the areas of roasting, quality control and marketing. Each organization has endeavored to pursue roasting and selling their own coffee in local markets, and we were there to provide our collective experience on the roasting side of things.
The first day was a pretty typical beginning to a meeting; we all went around the room explaining who we were, where we were from, and what we do. From there we went on a tour of the dry processing facilities that Michiza use. We looked at different packaging and roasting operations and would use those later as reference in our discussions. It was really the second and third days that we were able to really explore what we do best. On the second day, Joe from Third Coast Coffee in Austin, Texas, led a demonstration of defect grading for green coffee. Each of the four coffee producing organizations that were there submitted a sample of the green coffee that they are roasting for their local market. Because all of the top grade coffee is exported in the specialty market, the coffees that remain are second tier. While domestic roasting projects are a good source of extra income, the farmers would ultimately lose money if they were to roast their top grade coffees. This makes the aspect of green sorting and grading especially important, since a full sour, severe insect damage, or a full black bean can easily ruin a cup of coffee. We had prepared packets beforehand that included the SCAA green grading manual in Spanish, as well as some roasting materials that I had prepared. After we picked through the green, we added the defects back in and Joe sample roasted each one. A sample roast, as oppose to a production roast, is a particularly light roast of coffee that one uses to evaluate the inherent quality of the coffee. In a production roast, a roaster can use a variety of methods to enhance the good of the coffee and cover up the negative. With a sample roast, the coffee is essentially naked. Then we took the time as a group to cup and evaluate each of the roasted samples. The overarching goal was not one of criticism but of exploration, to take a moment to understand the impact that a few defects can have in an end product. The end product was the next task that we tackled.
Essentially, roasting can be reduced to some very simple terms: Don't burn it, don't bake it, don't start a fire! Of course, from there, there are a million nuances that we expend all of our energy into understanding and using to our advantage to make the best cup of coffee possible. But, if you aren't getting those first three correct, you're not going to make it anywhere. The most common mistake that I see with producer groups roasting their own coffee is the tendency to bake the final product, leaving it flat, tasteless and boring. This invariably comes from putting too much coffee in the roaster, resulting in roasting times sometimes reaching into the hour and a half zone. Too much coffee in the roaster also results in too much coffee in the cooling tray, overloading its capacity pushing the cooling time anywhere between fifteen to twenty minutes. A typical roast at Peace Coffee last around fifteen minutes with a four to six minute cooling time, so in order to illustrate the difference, their head roaster and I together roasted three batches of the same green coffee. The first batch was twenty kilograms and took forty-five minutes, the second sixteen kilograms in twenty-four minutes, and the final was eight kilograms in eighteen minutes. We weren't able to drastically change the cooling temperature because the motor running the cooling fan was barely functional. I think ultimately the optimal batch size would have been six kilograms, but our intention was to leave everyone with the tools to figure those things out for themselves. And since the ultimate feedback loop is to taste the coffee that you roast, the next morning we set up a cupping of the three different batches of coffee. Everyone was in agreement and astonished at the major jump in quality between the twenty kilogram batch and the eight. It was lively, nutty, cleaner and had some pleasant chocolate notes as oppose to the flat wet cardboard flavors of the baked coffee.
In the moments of teaching, and learning as well, the goal is simply to provide new pieces of the puzzle, and this is hopefully what we did; bring a new set of eyes to a process that is very familiar to us. Next month I'll get into more depth about the Michiza cooperative itself and the trip that we took to see some of the farms and some of the great obstacles that they face, how they are dealing with them, and what support we will continue to provide. One last thing to mention, as it pertains to CRS and a project they helped provide financial and technical support for, is the seedling nurseries that Michiza recently constructed. These simple structures are shelled in black plastic netting and have their own irrigation system that maximizes the use of rain water but protects them from getting too much water during the recent rains. Each structure, there are now three of them with plans for more, holds 30,000 seedlings. Currently in order to address low yield issues, they are sprouting the Typica varietal of coffee exclusively, as it has higher yields and is more disease resistance, but has a shorter life span. Ultimately, they will be incorporating the bourbon varietal which has a longer life cycle and lower yields, but will be creating a more diversified and stable farm.
We left with several projects in the works that are just in the brainstorming stage, and with the promise of a return trip in the works. The follow-up trip will focus mostly on the marketing and cost of production side of roasting. As with every trip I go on, it was an honor to participate, and I send out my greatest gratitude for the hospitality and energy put into such a valuable endeavor.