To find the world’s most incredible coffees, we look to some of the most remote places of the Earth. But even when environmental factors in these regions yield perfect growing conditions, there are an infinite number of critical human factors that play a role in the quality of coffee.
Most coffee does not come close to achieving its full potential due to a severe lack of resources to finance quality operations, insufficient technical knowledge at the farm level, and sub-standard infrastructure. Together, these setbacks cause major quality losses between harvest and shipment.
To help unearth each coffee’s greatest potential, we work closely with farmers and millers in producing countries on an ongoing basis. Our Buyers and Quality Assurance team travel around the Coffee Belt to collaborate with farmers and examine quality from harvest to export. As a result, we’ve formed meaningful, long-term relationships with growers in over twenty countries and will continue to develop remarkable coffees with them for many years to come. It is the ultimate paradigm of mutual advantage—better coffees for consumers, and better prices for growers. We consider it an honor and a privilege to be the catalyst that allows this dynamic to exist.
From our years working in a highly politicized trade and navigating the ups and downs of agriculture, we saw firsthand the need to improve working conditions in producing countries. That’s how we first identified the need to adopt Direct Trade practices, and became the first in the industry to do so.
The premise behind Direct Trade is simple: Engage producers in the quality process from tree to port. Make it all transparent. And pay prices that reward outstanding results. As a result of buying straight from growers and cutting out the middlemen, we’re able to set our own high standards in Direct Trade.
While it’s ultimately the farmer’s job care for his or her coffees, we take an active role in helping them succeed. This means regular communication, feedback, advice, pre-financing, and training. It means being an integral part of the whole process. We typically spend time at source before, during, and after harvest in order to impact results. On our end, Intelligentsia Buyers are well versed in the art of coffee brewing, cupping, and roasting to broaden their perspective when visiting producing countries.
When the possibilities are well defined and trust is established, producers make real progress in not only advancing their income, but also improving upon their technique for harvests to come. When it all comes together, we’re able to offer coffees that positively rewrite the definition of specialty coffee.
Because coffee is such an incredibly complex beverage with so many intricacies, attaining excellence on a consistent basis requires constant attention to detail and relentless quality control. That’s where cupping comes in. Cupping is our process for ongoing study and evaluation for every coffee that comes our way.
Standardized by the coffee industry, this protocol allows for consistent assessment of coffees in an environment where the variables that can affect flavor are controlled. We use consistent water temperature, grind, and weights (doses) with every cup measured individually within a precise amount.
Over the course of 40 minutes, each coffee is evaluated on the basis of fragrance (dry grounds), aroma (wet grounds), and a number of sensory traits including acidity, body, flavor, and finish. While we follow these standardized guidelines to the greatest possible degree, we have since added our own placeholder for sweetness quality–a factor unique to Intelligentsia scorecards.
Of course, human senses determine coffee quality and taste to some degree is subjective. While we can control elements like temperature and measurement, sensory analysis is a more elusive endeavor. While sensitivity levels are genetic and variable, becoming a skillful cupper requires years of training, practice and fine-tuning the palate.
In order to unlock the many nuanced flavors that lie dormant in raw coffee beans, we roast them to perfection in our specialty GotHot roasters. Equal parts art and science, roasting coffee requires the creative know-how to transform beans into a caramelized state that can be ground, brewed, and enjoyed in the cup you know and love as Intelligentsia coffee.
Over the course of a roast, Intelligentsia roasters respond collectively to the machine and the beans. They are constantly checking gas levels, time, and temperature, as well as the color, sound, and aroma of the beans. A few minutes (or even seconds) too long and a bright, medium-bodied bean can lose its distinct blackberry flavor notes. A temperature too low and the oils necessary to give the coffee its flavor will not come to surface.
Just as each coffee is treasured for its own specific traits and qualities, every roast is tailored to the individual needs of the coffee that is being roasted. A typical roast takes approximately 12-15 minutes to complete, and a number of chemical reactions occur during this process as the beans change to their final deep brown color.
Refurbished from the 1950’s, our cast-iron and steel roasters work by spinning green coffee beans in a large, continuously turning drum. First heated to around 400 degrees Fahrenheit, the drum’s temperature immediately drops to 200 after the green beans are added. Over the course of the roast, the temperature is gradually brought back to around 400 degrees, and soon the first “crack”, or pop, occurs. This is caused by heated water vapor rupturing the cellular structure as it leaves the bean. Aromatic oils continue to work their way to the surface of the bean, and a few minutes later, a second “crack” is heard. Finally, the beans are skillfully guided towards a delicate balance of acidity, body, and flavor. When the coffee reaches this elusive pinnacle of development, the beans are released onto the cooling tray to halt the roasting process.
After traveling from origin by boat, green coffee arrives at our Roasting Works located across the country in specially insulated burlap bags, designed by our R&D team to ensure complete freshness. Green coffee can be stored in this state for up to a year, though we make a commitment to offer In Season coffees that are 9 months or less from harvest.
When creating a blend, our QA team expertly combines the most appealing characteristics of coffees from different regions, varietals, or plots. The result is a complete cup that offers tremendous complexity and depth, with the added advantage that as coffees change and mature over time, the blend can be reconfigured or fine-tuned to maintain a consistent flavor profile.
After each coffee is roasted and cooled, the beans are placed in food-grade bins and marked with their country of origin and date of roast. Because such fresh coffee continues to chemically react and release carbon dioxide, each of our bags is equipped with a valve to vent this pressure. The bags are heat-sealed, rolled down and taped or tin-tied shut. Our coffee is roasted to order and shipped that same day.
If everything goes according to plan and we accurately account for demand, we have very little surplus roasted coffee. We deliver and ship to coffeehouses, upscale markets, cafes, and restaurants several times a week. Currently, we have wholesale customers in all 50 states, Canada, Korea and the Cayman Islands. This year, we will roast approximately three million pounds of coffee, but you can be sure that every ounce in every bag you purchase was roasted just for you.