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101. More on where quality comes from

I recently shared the perspectives of a pair of Q-grader cuppers on where quality comes from — perspectives that left out most of what coffee farmers do.  Their perspectives are informed, but are not the only ones on an issue around which there is no real consensus.  Today, a different take on the issue that attributes more of the quality of your coffee to how farmers grow it.

Our friends at CIAT in Colombia have done excellent research in recent years on the sources of coffee quality.  This impressive and sizeable body of work looks, among other things, at the relationship between dozens of field-based data on one hand — elevation, average annual rainfall, soil type, exposure to sunlight, average annual temperature, dew point, etc. — with the results of lab-based cuppings on the other.  The research team included some very innovative scientists on the CIAT side and at least one celebrity palate in the cupping lab.  The results of CIAT’s research create a more balanced view of what accounts for coffee quality.

CIAT identifies three categories of factors that determine coffee quality, two of which farmers can control — agronomic practices and post-harvest processes — and one they can’t – environmental factors.

  • Environmental factors.
    These are generally speaking the fixed variables in the quality equation — things farmers can’t change over the short to medium even if they wanted to.  They include elevation, average annual rainfall, soil type, etc.
  • Agronomic practices.
    Here, of course, the farmer has total control – varietal selection, plant densities, soil and water conservation, soil fertility practices, integrated pest management, shade management, pruning, etc.
  • Post-harvest processes.
    Here again, the farmer is in control, but the processes are fundamentally different — depulping, fermentation, washing, drying, sorting, transport, storage, etc.

CIAT does not — in the research I have seen, anyway — make any kind of generic weighting of these factors, but suggests that they interact in different ways in different places.  The result is a technology-driven approach to quality that can generate site-specific prescriptions for agronomic and post-harvest practices based on a rigorous and site-specific analysis of environmental factors.

The point I am trying to make here is that there are expert perspectives out there that attribute a significant measure of quality to the hard work farmers do before the harvest.

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