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Among the hundreds of coffees we review each year at Coffee Review, a very small percentage represent what we’ve come to affectionately call “big-bean” varieties, coffee from tree varieties that produce beans that are dramatically larger than average. The most common of these are Pacamara, Maragogipe and Maracaturra, though there are some even more obscure varieties whose beans are also exceptionally large. Since 2014, we’ve reviewed only 38 coffees from these three varieties. Remarkably, eight of them landed on our very competitive Top 30 Coffees list in the year they were reviewed.
For this month’s tasting report, we decided to take a closer look at these curious varieties. We asked roasters to send in their favorite “big-bean” coffees, and received 75 samples in all. The vast majority were Pacamaras, and it is this variety that fared best in our cupping (some theories about why below). We review the top nine coffees here, eight of which are Pacamaras, along with one impressive Maragogipe.
A Brief History of Big Beans
Maragogipe, also known as “elephant bean,” was discovered growing in a field near the town of Maragogipe in Bahia, Brazil in the late 19th century. It never took off as a single-origin coffee because, though it adapts well to colder climates, it’s porous and difficult to roast and tends to be woody and flat in the cup. While it originated in Brazil, it’s now grown most widely throughout Central America, though in small quantities. Although its main appeal may be the novelty of its gigantic beans, when grown and processed carefully and roasted sensitively, it can deliver a subtly unique sensory profile that leans toward the sweet-savory.
Pacamara, a hybrid of Pacas and Maragogipe, was the culmination of 30 years of research in El Salvador. Pacas, named after the family that discovered this natural mutation of the highly regarded Bourbon variety on their farm in 1956, is a short, hearty tree that is resilient to wind and climate fluctuations, and tends to produce high yields. Pacamara retains the large beans of the Maragogipe but typically produces a deeper, more complex cup. Pacamara was officially rolled out by the Salvadoran Institute for Coffee Research (ISIC) in the 1980s.
Maracaturra, a hybrid of Maragogipe and Caturra, was developed in Nicaragua by Byron Corrales at Finca Los Pinos, an organic-certified and biodynamic coffee farm. Like Pacas, Caturra is a compact-growing, high-yielding variety that grows well throughout Central America. The Maracaturra was originally offered only through Thanksgiving Coffee, a roaster in Fort Bragg, California known for its pioneering work in sustainability, but it is now also grown in Guatemala and El Salvador and available to consumers by way of a number of specialty coffee roasters in the U.S. and Asia.
On the Cupping Table
Whenever we discover that a coffee we’ve blind-cupped is a Pacamara, Maragogipe or Maracaturra, our interest is piqued. The three of us who regularly cup together have had a running discussion for some time about these big beans, attempting to determine whether they share a common character or overlapping sensory descriptors.
One category of sensation that does often turn up is savory, a basic taste associated with brothy depth. But once we identify it, the questions follow. In a particular sample, is “savory” a positive? (The short answer for us is yes, when it’s juxtaposed with sweetness.) Is the savory element associated with a spice note, an earth-toned accent, an aroma or flavor akin to pipe tobacco? An especially aromatic wood? Perhaps even a non-dessert food or a bittersweet flower? How about fine musk? These are all distinct possibilities when cupping these big-bean varieties.
The samples we received for this report were far more diverse than suggested by our intermittent experience of these coffees over the last few years. Our expectations were not so much contradicted, as enlarged in often surprising ways. The nine coffees we review here, ranging in score from 92-95, are, at turns, sweetly savory, sweet-tart, bittersweet, and spice-toned. All are vibrant and engaging, with nuances in acidity and mouthfeel.
The Top-Scoring Coffees
While about half of the samples submitted scored a respectable 90-91 or higher, a quarter scored between 84 and 89, and the remaining quarter languished in the 80-83 range, close to falling out of the specialty category entirely. In other words, these big-bean coffees are all over the map from a green-quality and roasting perspective. But the good coffees are very good. And in this cupping, the Pacamara coffees were far and away the most impressive.
Only one non-Pacamara landed in the top nine, the 94-scoring Guatemala La Providencia Maragogype (an alternative spelling to Maragogipe) from Bird Rock Coffee Roasters in San Diego. President and director of coffee Jeff Taylor says that, when this coffee showed up on his table, he was surprised to learn it was a Maragogipe, a variety he’d always pigeonholed as papery and flat. In contrast, this La Providencia is an exciting paradox: high-toned yet deep, with both sweet (wisteria) and bitter-leaning (hops) floral notes.
Even when sourced successfully, these large-beaned varieties present challenges for roasters. Tom Chuang, owner-roaster of Small Eyes Cafe, a nano-roaster in Taiwan, whose Nicaragua Mierisch Yellow Pacamara Honey rated 93, says that the big beans are notoriously difficult to roast because of their unusual size and porousness.
Ted Stachura, director of coffee at Equator Coffee (El Salvador Finca Himalaya Pacamara, 92) thinks that the reason Pacamara is cupping better than the other varieties, in general, is because “specialty coffee farmers (especially in El Salvador) have been focusing on this variety for many years now and seem to have dialed in the production process in a way that they haven’t with other big-bean types.”
A second high-scoring El Salvador Pacamara, a black-honey processed Finca El Cerro from Red Rooster Coffee Roasters (93), is cleanly fruit-toned with elegant roasted cacao nib underneath. Head roaster Tony Greatorex says the black honey process, involving drying the beans inside the sweet pulp of the coffee fruit, works well for Pacamara, a variety that can sometimes skew “more toward wild and savory than sweet.” “The black honey process,” he says, “emphasizes the sweetness potential and provides pleasing balance and depth.”
The other Pacamaras we review here are from Guatemala and Nicaragua. The highest-rated coffee in this report is from Fumi Coffee in Taiwan: a natural-processed Guatemala Finca La Hermosa rated 95. Owner-roaster Yu Chih Hao compares this particular Pacamara to Gesha (also spelled Geisha), one of the most expensive coffees in the world. Like Gesha, Pacamara is relatively rare, and he says, “The high altitude at which this coffee was grown gives it a citrusy acidity somewhat like Gesha that adds complexity to the cup.”
Four additional Pacamaras scored 93, two from Guatemala and two from Nicaragua. Augie’s Guatemala Finca Insul is delicate and sweetly spice-toned, while Barrington’s Guatemala Finca Cuxinales impresses with a complex bittersweet balance. Both are washed-process coffees that foreground rich floral tones.
Two Nicaraguas, also rated 93, represent the other end of the sensory spectrum, with sweet-tart fruits leading the way, not surprisingly, as one is natural-processed (dried in the fruit), and the other honey-processed (dried in the fruit pulp after the skins were removed). Kakalove Cafe‘s Mierisch Yellow Pacamara Honey (the same green coffee submitted by Small Eyes Cafe, above), combines richly tart tamarind notes with maple syrup and spice tones akin to pink peppercorn and narcissus. And Toronto roaster Hale Coffee Company‘s Finca La Benedicion Natural centers around a cleanly sweet fruit ferment redolent of raspberry liqueur. The ballast here is creamy cashew butter and spicy sandalwood.
If this sampling of coffees is representative, it seems that the Pacamara is potentially quite versatile in its performance across a range processing methods, including washed, natural and variations on honey.
The Big Bean Appeal
What’s the chief appeal of big-bean varieties for consumers? The novelty of the large bean size? The often distinctive cup profile? Perhaps the enigmatic variety names?
Bird Rock’s Maritza Suarez-Taylor, director of quality control, says that the bean size is definitely intriguing for her customers. She adds that, “The relative scarcity of these coffees also provides an opportunity for us to educate people about new varieties.”
Taiwan roasters Huang and Yu Chih Hao agree that the novelty of bean size is an attraction, but rarity is an even more important factor in the Asian market. Their customers are drawn to coffees not easily found elsewhere. Kakalove’s Caesar Tu, a nano-roaster also based in Taiwan, says he has customers who think big beans are inherently better, but in fact he points out that Kakalove’s Yellow Pacamara has a bright acidity that only a certain kind of coffee drinker appreciates. He chose this coffee mainly for its cleanly fruit-forward presentation.
Barth Anderson, co-founder of Barrington Coffee Roasting, agrees. He likes his Cuxinales Guatemala for its tangy acidity, and he adds, “I hazard that the Bourbon roots of the Pacas portion of the Pacamara varietal add to its complexity and vibrancy.”
Stachura doesn’t think bean size is relevant to his customers, given that Equator’s bags are opaque. Still, he points out that the unfamiliar varietal nomenclature is bound to appeal to the adventurous.
Nevertheless, roasters East and West agree that cup quality and character are most important. We agree, though we acknowledge that the more savory-leaning among the coffees reviewed here may not appeal to all coffee drinkers. Their character may differ a little too dramatically from the more familiar coffee types—sweetly tart, roundly chocolaty, or juicily fruit-toned—we typically reward with high ratings. The sweet-savory structure and suggestions of spice, herb, pipe tobacco, aromatic wood or musk make them one version of what we call “caveat coffees,” coffees to which we assign high ratings, but with the implied caveat that their peculiar style of excellence may not please everyone.
We try to alert consumers to the caveats implied in various coffee styles through detailed reviews of individual coffees. Not all of the big-bean samples we tested were impressive, but the best, including the nine reviewed here, offered exceptional departures from the norm.
About the Author: Kim Westerman
Kim Westerman is a licensed Q-grader, a longtime food, wine and travel writer and a certified sommelier. Her work has been published in the New York Times, Forbes, the San Francisco Chronicle, Bay Area Bites, and many other publications. She happily brings her sensory training in wine to the evaluation of coffee in Coffee Review’s Berkeley lab. She also handles communication with roasters and review logistics.
Balanced, deeply rich and sweet. Butterscotch, sandalwood, dark chocolate, dried apricot, lantana in aroma and cup. Appealing bittersweet structure with brisk acidity; syrupy-smooth mouthfeel. The finish consolidates to notes of dark chocolate and butterscotch.
This coffee tied for the third-highest rating in a cupping of coffees from big-bean varieties for Coffee Review’s November 2018 tasting report. Produced at Finca Cuxinales entirely of the Pacamara variety of Arabica. The Pacamara is a big-beaned hybrid of the Bourbon-related Pacas and the huge-beaned Maragogipe, a mutant of the ancient Typica variety. This is a wet-processed or “washed” version, meaning the fruit skin and pulp were removed from the beans immediately after harvesting and before drying. Barrington Coffee is an artisan roaster dedicated to elite coffees, fresh delivery and roasting that foregrounds the coffee and not the roast. Visit www.barringtoncoffee.com or call 800-528-0998 for more information.
The Bottom Line: A deep, chocolaty cup with crisply sweet fruit and floral tones.
Evaluated as espresso. Luminous, complexly layered, impossibly rich. Caramelized pineapple, tamarind, star jasmine, chocolate fudge, myrrh in aroma and small cup. Creamy, vivacious mouthfeel; long, flavor-saturated finish. Close to otherworldly in three parts milk: All the notes from the cup harmonize, and new notes surface: suggestions of lychee, pink grapefruit zest, marjoram.
This blend was designed to celebrate Barrington Coffee’s 25th anniversary as an artisan roaster dedicated to elite coffees, fresh delivery and roasting that foregrounds the coffee and not the roast. Visit www.barringtoncoffee.com or call 800-528-0998 for more information.
The Bottom Line: Barrington’s anniversary blend is worthy of a celebration, brilliantly curated and roasted, and under $15 a bag.
Crisply sweet, chocolaty. Baker’s chocolate, plum, magnolia, cedar, molasses in aroma and cup. Sweet-toned structure with gentle, round acidity; satiny-smooth mouthfeel. The gently drying finish is redolent with notes of baker’s chocolate and magnolia, with a hint of cedar-like aromatic wood.
Produced by La Union de Nariño from trees of the Caturra, Colombia and Castillo varieties of Arabica. This is a wet-processed or “washed” coffee, meaning the fruit skin and pulp were removed from the beans immediately after harvesting and before drying. Barrington Coffee is an artisan roaster dedicated to elite coffees, fresh delivery and roasting that foregrounds the coffee and not the roast. Visit www.barringtoncoffee.com or call 800-528-0998 for more information.
The Bottom Line: A solid Colombia cup: richly chocolate-toned, balanced and sweet.
We received a 96 point score for this coffee in September of 2018 from Coffee Review!
Elegant, intensely sweet-tart, resonantly floral-toned. Passionflower, lemon drop, roasted cacao nib, apricot, tamarind in aroma and cup. Sweet-tart structure with bright, juicy acidity; silky, viscous mouthfeel. The finish is resonant with all the flavor notes promised by the cup, leading with apricot and tamarind in the short, cocoa nib in the long, and sweet florals throughout.
This coffee is available exclusively as a part of the Barrington Coffee Curated Collection, which includes four ounces each of three distinguished coffees for $39.95. Produced at La Berlina Estate from trees of the botanical variety Geisha (also Gesha). With its bold, boat-shaped beans and distinctive floral and crisply cacao-toned cup, the Gesha continues to be one of the world’s most sought-after coffees, and the Esmeralda versions remain among the most authentic. This is a wet-processed or “washed” version, meaning the fruit skin and pulp were removed from the beans immediately after harvesting and before drying. Barrington Coffee is an artisan roaster dedicated to elite coffees, fresh delivery and roasting that foregrounds the coffee and not the roast. Visit www.barringtoncoffee.com or call 800-528-0998 for more information.
The Bottom Line: A soaring Gesha cup: balanced, both delicate and rich, deeply floral and stone fruit-laden.
We received a 95 point score for this coffee in September of 2018 from Coffee Review!
Bright, crisply sweet-savory. Black currant, honeysuckle, ripe tomato, spearmint, cedar in aroma and cup. Equal parts sweet, savory and tart in structure with lively acidity; plush, syrupy mouthfeel. Notes of black currant and honeysuckle carry the resonant, flavor-saturated finish.
This coffee is available exclusively as a part of the Barrington Coffee Curated Collection, which includes four ounces each of three distinguished coffees for $39.95. Despite grower discontent and urban encroachment on prime coffee lands, Kenya continues to produce some of the world’s most elegant and distinctive coffees. Produced by members of the Othaya Cooperative from trees of the SL28, SL34, Ruiru 11 and Batian varieties of Arabica. Barrington Coffee is an artisan roaster dedicated to elite coffees, fresh delivery and roasting that foregrounds the coffee and not the roast. Visit www.barringtoncoffee.com or call 800-528-0998 for more information.
The Bottom Line: A confident Kenya with a classic cup profile: bright, juicy, with prominent fruit and floral tones grounded by a resonant current of umami.
We received a 92 point score for this coffee in September of 2018 from Coffee Review!
Sweet-toned, richly savory. Baker’s chocolate, hazelnut butter, narcissus, date, fresh-cut fir in aroma and cup. Sweet-savory structure with rounded, gentle acidity; satiny-smooth mouthfeel. The finish consolidates to baker’s chocolate and aromatic wood notes, with a hint of narcissus-like flowers.
This coffee is available exclusively as a part of the Barrington Coffee Curated Collection, which includes four ounces each of three distinguished coffees for $39.95. Toarco (TOraja ARabica COffee) is a coffee project in the famous Sulawesi coffee growing region of Toraja developed and financed by Japan’s Key Coffee Company and its Indonesian partners. Toarco coffees are processed by variants of the orthodox wet or washed method, giving them a brighter and cleaner profile than Sulawesi coffees processed by the locally traditional wet-hulling method. Barrington Coffee is an artisan roaster dedicated to elite coffees, fresh delivery and roasting that foregrounds the coffee and not the roast. Visit www.barringtoncoffee.com or call 800-528-0998 for more information.
The Bottom Line: A chocolaty coffee animated by rich nut and floral tones.
From time to time we have positions available on our team of coffee professionals. When available we post them here. Click on the links to see the job descriptions and contact information.
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A festival of flavor, culture and exploration!
FREE ON LARIMER SQUARE | DENVER | JULY 13-15, 2018
BUT, if you can’t be here in person, please tune into our live video stream of the summit panels! This is the first time we’re livestreaming the festival, and we hope you take some time this weekend to Slow Down with us.
Slow Food Nations LIVE Schedule
We have a dynamic lineup with Massimo Bottura, Raj Patel, Deb Eschmeyer, and many others. It’s going to be a weekend of rich learning and engaging conversations.
The Future of the Food Movement
Friday, July 13, 12:30pm – 2:00pm
Farming for the Future
Saturday, July 14, 11:45am – 1:30pm
When Disaster Strikes
Saturday, July 14, 3:30pm – 5:00pm
The Buzz About Biodiversity
Sunday, July 15, 11:45am – 1:30pm
Waste Not, Want Not
Sunday, July 15, 3:30pm – 5:00pm
We received a 93 point score for this coffee in June of 2018 from Coffee Review!
Delicate, complex, chocolate-toned. Dried mulberry, dark chocolate, fine musk, pipe tobacco, pink peppercorn in aroma and cup. Sweetly savory structure with juicy acidity; plump, smooth mouthfeel. The finish, which consolidates to notes of dark chocolate and dried mulberry, is confident and flavor-saturated.
This coffee tied for the third-highest rating in a cupping of coffees from the Great Lakes region of Africa for Coffee Review’s June 2018 tasting report. Produced entirely of the Bourbon variety of Arabica and processed at the Buraza Community/Mahonda Washing Station. Burundi is a small, landlocked country in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. Benefiting from ideal growing conditions and large plantings of local strains of the heirloom Bourbon variety of Arabica, it has recently emerged as a premier Africa fine coffee origin. This is a wet-processed or “washed” version, meaning the fruit skin and pulp were removed from the beans immediately after harvesting and before drying. Barrington Coffee is an artisan roaster dedicated to elite coffees, fresh delivery and roasting that foregrounds the coffee and not the roast. Visit www.barringtoncoffee.com or call 800-528-0998 for more information.
The Bottom Line: A chocolaty Burundi coffee with richly crisp notes of dried mulberry and an especially appealing acidity, bright and juicy.
We received a 96 point score for this coffee in March of 2018 from Coffee Review!
Lush, vibrant; intricate and balanced. Fine musk, dried jasmine, passionfruit, bergamot, dark chocolate in aroma and cup. Complex, richly sweet structure with bright acidity. Buoyant, silky mouthfeel. The resonant finish fulfills the promise of the cup, carrying all of the flavor notes, including a hint of white sage, well into the long.
This coffee is available exclusively as a part of the Barrington Coffee Curated Collection, four ounces each of three distinguished coffees for $29.95. This selection is produced by Desta Gola, a member of the of the Adame Gorbota Cooperative in the celebrated Yirgacheffe growing region. Southern Ethiopia coffees like this one are produced from distinctive traditional Ethiopian varieties of Arabica long grown in the region. This is a wet-processed or “washed” version, meaning the fruit skin and pulp were removed from the beans immediately after harvesting and before drying. Barrington Coffee is an artisan roaster dedicated to elite coffees, fresh delivery and roasting that foregrounds the coffee and not the roast. Visit www.barringtoncoffee.com or call 800-528-0998 for more information.
The Bottom Line: An exceptional, vivacious Ethiopia coffee in which high-toned floral notes, sweetly tart fruits, and rich chocolate tones harmonize.
We received a 92 point score for this coffee in March of 2018 from Coffee Review!
Crisp, richly and sweetly tart. Candied apple, magnolia, cashew butter, sassafras, pomegranate in aroma and cup. Sweet-tart in structure with juicy acidity; velvety-smooth mouthfeel. The richly drying, subtle finish centers around notes of nut butter and sweet florals.
This coffee is available exclusively as a part of the Barrington Coffee Curated Collection, four ounces each of three distinguished coffees for $29.95. This selection is produced by Francisca and Oscar Chacon at Las Lajas farm from trees of the Caturra, Catuai and Villa Sarchi varieties of Arabica and processed by the red honey method. With all honey processing methods, some sweet pulp or fruit flesh (“honey”) is allowed to adhere to the beans during drying. In the red honey variation, all or almost all of the pulp is allowed to dry on the beans, rather than only a portion of it, as would be the case with yellow honey. Barrington Coffee is an artisan roaster dedicated to elite coffees, fresh delivery and roasting that foregrounds the coffee and not the roast. Visit www.barringtoncoffee.com or call 800-528-0998 for more information.
The Bottom Line: A honey-processed Costa Rica cup expressing equal parts sweet and tart: think candied apple and pomegranate wrapped in rich, creamy cashew butter.
We received a 90 point score for this coffee in March of 2018 from Coffee Review!
Delicate, crisply sweet-savory, roast-rounded. Dark chocolate, orange blossom, almond, sandalwood, tamari in aroma and cup. Savory sweet in structure with gentle acidity; crisp, satiny mouthfeel. The finish is rich with notes of dark chocolate and almond in the short, with savory-sweet hints of tamari and sandalwood incense in the long.
This coffee is available exclusively as a part of the Barrington Coffee Curated Collection, four ounces each of three distinguished coffees for $29.95. This rare Nepal coffee is produced by Mingma Dorji Sherpa at Lekali Coffee Estate from trees of the Caturra and Typica varieties of Arabica. This is a wet-processed or “washed” coffee, meaning the fruit skin and pulp were removed from the beans immediately after harvesting and before drying. Barrington Coffee is an artisan roaster dedicated to elite coffees, fresh delivery and roasting that foregrounds the coffee and not the roast. Visit www.barringtoncoffee.com or call 800-528-0998 for more information.
The Bottom Line: The first coffee from Nepal ever rated by Coffee Review, and well worth seeking out for its confident savory-sweet cup.
Indian Coffee: Made In The Shade
by Barth Anderson
They grow coffee in India?
Ever since my first sip of Indian coffee I have been deeply fond of its incredibly smooth, comforting character and refined sense of balance. After years of working with these beautiful coffees and the people who grow them, I have come to discover the rich and complicated past that has shaped Indian coffee. One of the most surprising things I have learned in the process is that Indian coffees have a history that predates all but the first movement of coffee out of Ethiopia to Yemen.
Thanks to the seed smuggling efforts of the mystic sage Baba Budan who traveled to Arabia in the late 16th Century, India is the third oldest coffee producing origin since coffee’s heirloom roots in Ethiopia moved up through Yemen and eastward. Coffee has been actively cultivated there ever since. Yet I continue to ask myself why are so many people in North America still unfamiliar with Indian coffee?
Beneath the tree canopy at Kalledevarapura Estate, Chikmagalur
Modern day mystics
What I do know is that my introduction to Indian coffee is due to the explorations and innovations of one individual in particular who opened up this door to me in 1996 when I called him on the phone at his California home. I saw an ad in what was at the time just about the only periodical within the coffee trade. It was, and still is, The Tea & Coffee Trade Journal. The small ad at the bottom of the page said something to the effect of “Josuma Coffee — Importers of Specialty Coffee from India”. By the mid 1990’s I had already spent more than a dozen years exploring coffees from around the globe, yet I had never even heard of coffee from India. I just had to make the phone call.
I came to learn that in the early 1990’s, then Nuclear Physicist, Dr. Joseph John, first connected with Indian coffee growers who were interested in improving the quality of their coffee. As his reputation for working with coffee producers grew, the Indian government eventually reached out to Dr. John to ask if he would help establish India as a world class specialty coffee producer.
Dr. John accepted the request and, in turn, became so captivated with Indian coffee that he left the field of nuclear physics. Together with his keen and charismatic wife, Urmila, they founded the Josuma Coffee Company in San Francisco, CA and began importing coffee from India to the United States in 1992. The samples he sent to me after we spoke on the phone that day marked the beginning of my deep fondness for Indian coffee.
Dr. Joseph John and Mrs. Urmila John
The curious case of coffee cultivation in India
With its long lived history of cultivation on the heels of the Middle Ages, Indian coffee endured a period of tight governmental control from the 1940’s through the early 1990’s. During this time, coffee farmers were fully subsidized by the Indian government for their farming efforts regarding the production of coffee. These subsidies included the development of infrastructure, roads, provision of coffee seedlings, access to processing equipment, fertilizer and more.
While under cultivation, the coffee was the responsibility and property of each farmer. There was a catch, however. The moment the coffee cherry was plucked from the tree, it became the property of the Indian government. Upfront governmental subsidization belied an unsustainable economic cycle which offered no financial return for a coffee farmer’s harvest.
The governmental focus on coffee became based entirely upon increasing coffee volume for export. Coffee from each farm was pooled together and homogenized so that shipping containers could be filled. Coffee quality took a back seat to quantity. In turn, producers had absolutely no incentive to produce quality coffee as they were offered no remuneration in return.
Picking coffee at Kerehuckloo Estate, Chikmagalur
Amidst this profitless cycle, how could coffee farmers make a living farming coffee if their harvest was not actually theirs? Somehow through a combination of intellect and sheer effort, an approach emerged for Indian coffee farmers despite the regulation. It became clear to farmers that crops cultivated alongside coffee could benefit from many of the same subsidies provided for coffee growing. If another product could be harvested along side the coffee, a farmer could have a crop to sell. This simultaneous cultivation of crops in close proximity to one another is the foundation of what agronomists call polyculture. Indian farmers call it sensible. This kind of farming has become the norm throughout India’s coffee lands.
While this diversified approach to growing crops provided a compelling incentive, numerous other challenges of polyculture farming emerged. Not only did farmers have to learn how to cultivate a variety of plants in and around their coffee trees, they also had to provide each plant with their own particular requirements for growth. In addition, they had to figure out how to stagger harvests to accommodate for the labor intensive nature of harvest time.
Learning how to schedule the timing of various harvest cycles is particularly tricky. But when successfully executed, multiple harvests throughout the year help to ensure year round income. This is rare in coffee cultivating cultures. It is more often the case that each years’ coffee harvest must support a farmer for the entire year.
Devon Estate, Mertiparvata (Coffea arabica, Piper sp. vines, Silver Oak, Solanum sp.)
Each of these challenges proved worthy of the struggle for innovation, largely because the harvest of the companion crops belonged to the farmers. Despite governmental ownership of the coffee itself, the most complex, shade grown, polyculture farming system in the world was born.
Managing the shade
Coffee trees grown close to the equator and at high altitudes need too be protected from the sun to survive. Shade is required by a coffee tree to flower and produce fruit. Growing at different altitudes and along different geographic exposures initiated a selective scheme for planting canopy trees for different uses as well as with varying rates of maturity. Fast growing trees like Silver Oak provide a more rapid cycle for the production of wood pulp. Slow growing trees like Teak produce structurally sound wood for the building industry.
Sandalwood trees produce the highly valued, and now incredibly ecologically vulnerable aromatic wood used for ornamental objects and incense. Rubber trees which prefer lower altitude are tapped for their latex. Water loving Areca trees grow well through riverine areas and produce Areca nuts valued for their psychoactive effect. Each of these tree canopies provides a shaded understory within which to cultivate an enormous variety of other crops.
In addition to shade, canopy trees provide a structure on which to grow other kinds of crops. Peppercorn vines are one of the most successful and their cultivation throughout the Indian understory has become another highly valued Indian product.
Open air market, Balehonnur
This understory has also proven to be ideal habitat for growing nutmeg, cinnamon, tea, cardamom, and a bountiful supply of fruits, herbs, seeds, spices, drupes, grains, pepos and countless vegetables and root stocks. Indian farmers cultivate them all. The moment you step into an Indian marketplace, an exotic world of vegetables, fruits and spices reveals itself. While many of these products have grown in India for millennia, it has been through the ingenuity of the Indian coffee farmers that a seemingly unsurmountable challenge posed by a controlling government was turned into a true success. And since the release of governmental control of coffee, coffee too has become a valuable product for each farmer at long last. Coffee quality has been incentivized in no small part due to the efforts and directives of Dr. Joseph John.
Polyculture breeds a healthy ecosystem
This broad diversity of plants is hugely supportive of the avian communities, mammals, marsupials, reptiles and insects that dwell in the strata within and below the canopy. As a living canopy rains down upon the terrestrial ecosystem, the greatest benefits of this system become concentrated in the life of the soil.
Farm owner, Prem Kurian admiring the vibrant soil at Badnekhan Estate, Mertiparvata
The microbes, insects and mycorrhizae that dwell in the dirt break down all of this energy and return the nutrients back to the plants that have fed them. The activity in this soil is so vibrant it smells of life itself. In turn, the overall health of the nutrient cycle in an Indian coffee farm is ensured by the farmer’s commitment to the complex methodology of polyculture.
Modern day climate change and resiliency through polyculture
The requirements of Indian coffee farmers to innovate to unlock the intricacies of their farms’ microclimates have been of critical importance to their success. Historically the challenges farmers faced fell largely upon their capacity to coordinate, manage and harvest each crop. Today as we face new environmental challenges which appear to be the norm in the 21st century, the conversation among Indian coffee farmers is more often centered around the very measurable effects of global climate change and how climate change affects the nature of arable lands. The steady increase of mean global temperature and the extremes around that mean have already had a profound impact on where coffee can and can’t grow. Moving crops higher and higher to avoid increasing temperatures has its own limitations; the ancient mountains in Indian coffee territory top out at just over 4000’. On many farms, they are already growing at their highest altitudes.
The intensity of recent global storm events presents yet another set of challenges from furious wind storms and flooding to periods of incessant heat and no rain. The frequency and ferocity of these storm events exceed those in all recorded history. The fact that these events are highly unpredictable and continue to be on the move only compounds the situation.
Despite the perpetual struggles that every individual involved in agriculture must face, Indian coffee farmers have protected themselves by engineering ecological resiliency into their farming methods. For a century and a half, their global commerce based farming systems have become more and more based upon biodiversity, soil health, and the synergistic relationships between a multitude of organisms living together in a managed natural environment. It is these biologically diverse farming systems that provide the most resilient environments in the face of climate change.
Oddly enough, after all of the effort spent managing nature, Indian farms have come to emulate what was once a native jungle ecosystem. The difference is that this jungle has been designed by the farmers themselves.
I now understand that what I experienced in my first sip of Indian coffee is deeply rooted in an intricate web of relationships between farmers, the living earth and the complex cultural history of India. Ingredients that have come together in an ever changing world to make an incredibly beautiful cup of coffee.
BCRC’s Barth Anderson will speak at this Harvard University event on October 13th. Register early before it fills up!
Coffee & Chocolate: Climate Change, Sustainability, and Gender Equity
With coffee consumption at an all-time high in the United States, we’ve rounded up 11 of the best coffee cities in the country worth visiting.
America’s Best Coffee Cities
From the historic streets of downtown Boston to the coastal neighborhoods of Santa Cruz, we’ve highlighted 11 of the best coffee cities well-known for their caffeinated brews. Each of these places boasts gourmet coffee shops on almost every corner, making it an impossible task to mention all of them. But we’ve featured our favorite in each city so you can sip more and search less! Whether you’re looking for coffee by the cup or beans by the bag, we think you’ll like these cities a whole latte.
After you decide which destination to visit, opt for a vacation rental from FlipKey to save money during your trip (we know how quickly those specialty coffees can add up!). Enjoy the benefits of extra space and full kitchens—many rentals even have coffeemakers, so you won’t have to leave the house without a cup of coffee to start your day. From modern city apartments to spacious vacation homes, FlipKey offers a variety of rentals to fit every budget and travel style.
While you’d think that Austin’s roasting temperatures might curb visitors’ appetite for java, Austin’s coffee scene is booming. And, as new coffee shops are popping up all over town, one continues to stand out: Caffé Medici. Austin’s original specialty coffee shop, Caffé Medici has been perfecting the art of pouring a cup of joe for more than 10 years. From well-balanced, classic coffee to sweet and fruity espresso with a chocolaty finish, the menu here has something to please all palates.
With long, cold winters and a massive student population, Boston is a city that insists on high levels of coffee consumption. While there are plenty of places throughout the city to fuel up for the day, Barrington Coffee Roasting Company offers some of the best in Boston. It was founded in 1993 out of two friends’ mutual love for everything coffee. Today, the self-described “power-coffee duo” prepares some of the finest coffees from around the world at their Roastery in Lee, MA. The coffee is then delivered fresh to customers and served at their two cafes in downtown Boston.
Known for a different kind of brew, too, Minneapolis is happy to share its local coffees all across the country. Case in point: Spyhouse Coffee Roasting Co., which supplies its Orion blend to Caffé Medici on our list. With four cafes throughout Minneapolis, Spyhouse Coffee is a hub for students, professionals, and people of all walks of life. This independent coffeehouse serves an exceptional cup of coffee while educating customers about the sourcing, roasting, and brewing processes, from origin to consumption. Looking for something unique? Try the Spygirl, a latte with lavender and honey.
Philadelphia gets coffee fanatics’ stamp of approval—even Ben Franklin’s, a known coffee enthusiast and one of the city’s founding fathers. For some of the city’s finest brews, check out Joe Coffee, a family-owned shop with locations in Philadelphia and New York. The shop has both single-origin and blended offerings on the menu, which they roast in-house. Whether you take your cup on the go or lounge at the cafe, a flawless brew from Joe Coffee will perk you right up.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania | Commonplace Coffee Roasters
Looking to try the local java in Pittsburgh? Then head to Commonplace Coffee Roasters in Pittsburgh. Since its founding in 2003, multiple locations have opened throughout Steel City, all of which offer a “hug in a mug” with their flavorful brews. Get a boost of energy from a cappuccino or indulge your sweet tooth with a chocolaty mocha. You can’t go wrong, no matter what you order!
A foodie city in its own right, Portland is also a hub for coffee drinkers with Coffee By Design adding buzz to this coastal destination’s downtown. This combined micro-roastery and coffee bar brews a selection of coffees from exotic grinds, single-origin coffees, and rich roasts. With the smell of freshly brewed coffee wafting in the air, you won’t be able to walk by without stopping in for some liquid joy in a cup.
With sweet “coffee milk” the state drink of Rhode Island, it’s no surprise that Providence makes the cut as one of the best coffee cities in the U.S. Get a quality cup of coffee—hot oriced—at Bolt Coffee Company in the heart of Providence’s historic district. This local purveyor of artisanal coffee expertly pours a precise and intense cup of coffee with each order. From unique carbonated coffees to double shots of espresso, the baristas here take great pride in their product and service, and it shows!
Santa Cruz made our list of the best coffee cities in America because of one-of-a-kind roasters like Verve. Whether you’re starting your day, searching for an afternoon pick-me-up, or need a caffeine fix before tackling the surf, this hot spot has something for everyone. While the shop’s roots remain in Santa Cruz, Verve can be found in cities across the world from Los Angeles to Tokyo. Can’t make it to one of those cities, but want to wake up to Verve coffee aromas every morning? Subscribe and have freshly roasted coffee delivered to your door!
What’s a list of the best coffee cities in America without Seattle? Home of the original Starbucks, there are also a multitude of lesser-known local coffee shops throughout the city. One such favorite is Convoy Coffee. For the perfect start to your morning, stop in for an espresso and a Salmonberry Goods pastry. Heading to Seattle for a weekend getaway? You won’t want to miss the weekend Ballard and University District Farmers Markets, where Convoy Coffee sets up a shop with bicycle carts. With its ever-growing rotation of single origin coffees, we recommend visiting often to try them all!
Home of PT’s Coffee Roasting Co.—the standard-bearer for small-batch specialty coffee—Topeka holds its own among the best coffee cities in the country. This local coffee shop’s mission is simple: roast and brew an amazing cup of coffee from the freshest of ingredients. It specializes in serving Direct Trade coffee and espresso, but its diverse menu features options that will satisfy all tastes. From an afternoon meeting over lattes to an evening study break for coffee with Baileys, PT’s Coffee Roasting Co. is a must-visit in Topeka.
Washington, DC’s coffee culture continues to expand year after year. The city has more than 1,000 coffee shops and cafes—meaning a jolt of caffeine is never out of reach. One such spot with rave reviews is Peregrine Espresso, a neighborhood cafe that prides itself on offering quality coffee with friendly service. Whether you’re in the mood for a sweet mocha with a dollop of whipped cream or a bold, flash-brewed iced coffee, you can bet Peregrine Espresso has it on the menu. Want to learn about what’s in your cup? The owners—Ryan and Jill Jensen—also love sharing their coffee knowledge with customers through monthly classes about coffee brewing and espresso.