I started asking questions a few weeks ago about communication standards among Direct Trade roasters. My series of posts on this issue did not generate much of a conversation here, but did prompt some very good offline discussion. One of the best-known and best-regarded roasters in specialty coffee — let’s call this person “Sam” — suggested in an email exchange that I had wandered into a pretty big “grey area” that could use some more clarity.
I started down this path after I noticed that a Direct Trade roaster sourcing coffee from one of the cooperatives we support in Central America is using intimate details about the farm in presenting the coffee. Talking about the landscape of coffee farms is common enough in presenting origin coffees. Except I happen to know that this roaster has not visited this particular farm.
“Sam” doesn’t see a problem with this. Sam reasons that if it is ok for roasters to talk about varieties and post-harvest process in their coffee biographies, then why not shade cover or other (bio-) physical characteristics of the farm? It may sound like a reasonable assessment. But there are still important distinctions in my mind between variables that a roaster can discern in the cup and those she can’t.
Why? Because varieties and processing are factors that have a direct impact on cup profile. All cultivars are not created equal. Catimor is not likely to compare to a Bourbon. And when a natural process fills the cup with berry flavors, or a special selection produces an exceptional cup of coffee, we expect our roasters to explain that since they are our link to the growers.
But the contribution of shade, or the diversity of shade trees on a particular farm, contribute less directly to flavor profile. Even a cupper with an exquisitely calibrated palate can’t attribute a flavor profile to a farmer’s shade management practices in the way she might with a post-harvest process.
When a roaster tells me how lush a farm is, I know it isn’t because she tasted it in the cup. I assume it means she has visited it.