Despite jet lag and the six hour time difference, he held court for well over an hour on the topic “The Road to Better Coffee.” His matter-of-fact account of the myriad challenges coffee farmers, processors, and roasters face in improving their product were interspersed with wry observations to punctuate his points. The lecture was geared towards the coffee industry, but certainly accessible enough for those on the other side of the counter who are mostly unaware of the tortuous path to a nuanced cup. The event concluded with an extensive cupping of a dozen different coffees, a rare opportunity for most who aren’t coffee buyers.
Here are ten lessons, directly stated or implied, from the master himself.
1. Sound growing and processing practices will have a greater impact on the taste of coffee than the grind, how it’s brewed, or even how it’s roasted. This was the main point of the lecture. Unless, Wendelboe points out, it’s roasted by “Charbucks”.
2. Of the well over 100 different coffee species, only two are used commercially with any regularity: arabica and robusto. By the way, all the coffee you drink is or should be Arabica.
3. There are thousands of cultivars of coffee. They’re located primarily in East Africa, with only a couple hundred in Central and South America.
4. East Africa is truly the home of the world’s best coffee, i.e., Ethiopia, Kenya, and Rwanda. And “Colombia is the Africa of the Americas” in terms of coffee quality.
5. The labels “fair trade” and “direct trade,” while in abstract concept are admirable and make us all feel really good when we see them, are overemphasized. The improvements that Wendelboe and others describe regarding farms, coffee processing, and labor rates are rooted in sustainable methods, but are not designed to fulfill a checklist. For instance, who do you think actually pays the 10 grand for fair trade certification? Yeah, not the buyer nor the roaster, nor government subsidies to improve the lives of those in the industry. The farmer pays it.
6. Coffee picking sucks. After two hours in the field, Wendelboe amassed a little over three pounds of beans — that’s half of what a good picker can achieve (coffee pickers are paid by weight). However, those three pounds, when roasted, will reduce to significantly less. How much should we pay for the labor?
7. Coffee processing is mostly manual, back-breaking labor, especially for the farms and co-ops which sell to specialty roasters, because they don’t have the automation that giant farms can employ.
8. If you want to understand coffee better, think about the wine industry — the care taken in the vineyard and in production, the importance of climate and geography, and terroir. And all that aerating when tasting the final product.
9. Coffee is a perishable product, so proper storage is necessary at all stages, including after roasting. Maintaining a proper environment, including ventilation and temperature control, adds expense.
10. And finally, yes, we still generally pay too little for specialty coffee. It’s a laborious, timely process with considerable risk for farmers — every investment in improvements whittles away a large share of their income.