The Coffee Grower
It all starts with the grower. The most important element in the production of quality is the human one. While nature defines the parameters for quality potential, it is the farmer who determines whether that potential is translated to the cup. That’s why we created a Direct Trade model in 2003 and have been working directly with coffee growers ever since. These partnerships are based on mutual respect and mutual commitments to quality, transparency and value. We share everything we learn and invest in each other’s success. Our partners work to continuously improve the coffee they deliver to us, and we work to generate the kinds of benefits that allow them to be profitable and continue to reinvest in the process. The length of these Direct Trade relationships, most more than ten years, suggests that the approach is working.
Because our green coffee buyers spend so much time in the field with the growers, we’re able to collect details about every aspect of the farms and its operations. So that you can make decisions based on what matters to you, we make sure you’ll find this information connected to each coffee. We tell you the name of the grower who produced your coffee, the name of the farm where your coffee was grown, the size of the farm - many Less than 1 hectare, how long it has been producing coffee, and the coffee’s production model--whether it is grown on an estate, a single smallholder farm, or an organization of smallholder growers.
Elevation may be just a single farm data point, but it is a singularly important one. It contributes as much as any other single environmental variable to a farm’s potential for producing extraordinary coffees. Why? Because higher elevations tend to correspond with higher diurnal temperature ranges — the spread between the highest temperatures recorded during warm days and the lowest temperatures logged during cool nights. Those cool nights help to slow the process by which the coffee cherry matures, concentrating the sugars from the fruit in the seed and contributing to greater sweetness, fruit acids and complexity in the chemical compounds that give coffees their unique flavors. Elevation is no guarantee of quality, however, and the relationship between elevation and cup quality is not linear. The varieties farmers choose to plant and the way they manage their farms can lead to poor coffee from high elevations and outstanding coffee from low elevations. But generally, coffees grown at low elevation (less than 1200 meters above sea level) have less potential for stunning sweetness and complexity than coffees grown at medium elevation (1200-1600 meters) and high elevations (above 1600 meters), where we find the greatest potential for complexity and sweetness. Ironically, given the way mountains taper to their peaks, the places where conditions are best for producing exceptional coffee are in the shortest supply.
We work with our Direct Trade partners to monitor a number of variables related to how they manage their farms — variables that we have found over the past 20 years to contribute in direct and important ways to coffee quality, farm productivity, or both. These include:
- plant density, or the number of coffee trees planted per hectare: fitting the greatest possible amount of coffee into the available space can increase efficiency and help growers increase yields, but there can be downsides to overcrowding. The decision about spacing between trees is a balancing act that is influenced by cultivar, environment, production style and individual producer goals.
- the type and number of varieties planted: we encourage growers to plant different varieties as a strategy that reduces their vulnerability to disease and increases the likelihood they will produce the different and distinctive flavor profiles that are coded into each coffee’s genetics.
- fertilizing strategy has a meaningful impact on the plant’s health, yields, and ability to access essential nutrients for growth and fruit development. The specific approach to fertilization impacts the cost of production and has important implications for soil health and longevity.
- other products, like fruits & vegetables or livestock, that are grown or raised on the farm: while this variable may not contribute as directly to cup quality or flavor profile as an heirloom variety or a special post-harvest process, they are important indicators of the overall environmental and economic well-being of the farm.
- Orientation: whether a farm has a southern or western exposure influences the amount of sunlight the coffee trees are exposed to.
- Shade trees regulate the ambient temperature of the coffee plant, improve soil fertility by adding organic matter and retaining moisture, and protecting coffee from strong winds.
- Type of shade is important, too, because all shade is not created equal as far as coffee quality and the planet are concerned: it can range from a single species of shade tree in a densely-planted, commercially-oriented monoculture coffee farm to coffee growing in the canopy of a rustic old-growth forest.
Nutrient rich Volcanic soil can make for an ideal growing medium. This is particularly true in volcanically active regions where falling ash continually replenishes the soil’s mineral content. Sandy soils are generally nutrient-poor, and require plants to work harder to thrive. Distinctive Terra Rossa (“red earth”) soils have a clay-limestone composition and are prevalent in regions with Mediterranean-like climates. Terra rossa soils allow for excellent drainage, and are, not surprisingly, coveted for wine cultivation. Clay soils possess excellent water and nutrient retention qualities, making them ideal for farming in arid regions. Each of these soil types imparts unique characteristics on the coffee plant, which translates into the coffee’s distinctive flavor profile.
Precipitation & Irrigation
Water plays an essential role in agriculture, and coffee cultivation is no exception. Too much water can overwhelm the plant’s root system and lead to mold and fungal issues. Too little water leaves the plant without the capacity to produce fully mature cherries. For each coffee we offer, we note the region’s annual rainfall. This becomes even more essential as climate change is reducing the overall level of precipitation year-over-year while also contributing to significant changes in the distribution of rainfall within the year. While some farms can get by on rainfall alone, others increasingly rely on irrigation, primarily through sprinklers or more controlled drip irrigation systems, to provide adequate hydration to their coffee plants.
Timing is everything. Pick a green banana from the produce aisle and you’ll find it is hard and lacks sweetness. Pick one that is spotted or brown and it is soft and cloying. But those uniform yellow bananas deliver optimal firmness and just the right level of sweetness. Coffee is a fruit, and just like every other fruit, harvesting it at its peak maturity is an important part of realizing a coffee’s full potential. Underripe fruit will lack sweetness, tenderness, and flavor, while overripe fruit can present cloying, unpleasant tastes similar to those found in over-fermented coffee. Because coffee cherries do not ripen evenly, even on the same plant, growers and workers need to make as many as six passes or more through the coffee fields during harvest, selecting only cherries that are at peak ripeness. If they pick too soon, coffees don’t develop their full sweetness or complexity. Too late, and coffees can take on vinegar or winey notes. That’s why we’re meticulous about monitoring flowering month, harvest period, harvest month(s), cherry maturation time and the harvest length for each coffee we offer.
If tracking all this farm-level data and mining it continuously for insights that can help us make our coffee even better seems like hard work, that’s because it is. But it is the only way we know to make good on our commitment to source, roast and serve the world’s most extraordinary coffees.