A Behind The Scenes Peek Into The Discovery of Coffee Excellence

In Part I of this series we talk about the lifelong search for coffee excellence that many coffee lovers seek but rarely find. In this segment, we pick up where we left off in our talk with Jeff Ericson, Boss at the Camano Islands Coffee Roasters in Washington State.

Jeff starts off by telling what must happen to achieve coffee excellence during cultivation.

First: Equatorial Growth Matters

When Jeff talks, he tries to cull out those with no potential for coffee snootery from the crowd. He starts out by telling us, “… If you want to go out and buy your cardboard box of wine, then go ahead and buy your Robusta coffee. The quality is about the same for each product.

But if you’re the sort of person who wants a really good quality wine, you’ll probably want a good quality coffee…”

Jeff’s position is, when you know your coffee, you take a step into a larger world of informed and refined coffee drinking.

Jeff tells us coffee is an equatorial product. Ok, we know that. None of us think about coffee growing in Alaska. But how coffee is grown is what determines that wonderful nuanced flavor and surge in energy and mental acuity we crave.

The reason the best coffee stems from equatorial regions is because the temperature is critical to growth. Coffee needs an equatorial climate to thrive.

Second: Elevation Matters

Jeff tells us you can grow coffee near the equator but still end with less than great tasting coffee. Why? Elevation matters.

When you grow coffee above 4,000 feet and just below the frost line, there’s less oxygen for the coffee beans to absorb. Less oxygen = more density. More density = more concentrated flavor. Flavor, of course, matters and is one reason we coffee lovers love coffee.

Third: Shade Grown Matters

Coffee must be shade grown. Why? Too much sun breeds coffee that is hyper acidic and hyper-caffeinated.

The big commercial coffee companies increase the exposure of their coffee crops to the sun. Why? Their coffee crops grow faster. Jeff says too much exposure to the sun is akin to growing coffee on steroids.

Commercial coffee growers cultivate large crops at the lowest price. They increase the exposure of their coffee trees to the sun to trigger quick, large yields. These companies sell to the mass consumer market. Volume matters. Their ability to grow large volumes of coffee faster and buy it cheaper drives their business model to sell their products to you. You get the top 3% of all coffee beans harvested in the world at the coffee houses because of this mass production.

But the downside of mass production can be two qualities none of us coffee lovers want: hyperacidity and hyper caffeination. The big companies sell you coffee that balances cost with these negative qualities — the sweet spot of commercial coffee delivery in the marketplace.

Shade grown coffee has 20% of the acidity of “regular” sun-grown coffee. Jeff reminds us of the importance of acidity with this question: “… What’s the problem with our food supply in America? It’s acidic. Cancer thrives in acidic environments…”

Drinking top-notch coffee, the top one half of one percent of all coffee from the harvest, matters to your health. This is especially true if you drink a lot of coffee.

Fourth: Soil Matters

Is the coffee you drink grown in volcanic soil? If the answer is no, it won’t present the complex, nuanced flavor you seek.

Why? Volcanic soil provides the best nutrient base for coffee trees. These trees are among the most absorbent plants on Earth.

Eighty percent of the Earth is volcanic. The combination of fresh, new, rich volcanic soils along the explosive equatorial and mountainous regions of the world are known for their enormous nutrient dense qualities that feature the water and drainage in which coffee thrives. Clay and sandy soils are out for coffee growing.

And what about that complex, nuanced taste we crave? Coffee trees pull in the nuances in the dirt. If you plant a tree in soil that shares an area with blackberry bushes, you’ll get a coffee with wisps of blackberry flavoring. This is why soil is critical to produce the most flavorful coffee with endless subtle derivations of flavors.

Fifth: Organically Grown Matters

Is the coffee you buy organic — meaning pesticide free? If not, you’ll taste and swallow those pesticides with the coffee.

So, how can you tell if a coffee is organic? Look for these labels on bags before you buy: Organic, shade-grown, bird friendly, Audubon Society, Rain Forest Alliance, Volcanic soil grown, or fairly-traded movement coffee.

Up next: I’ll pass on Jeff’s tips for buying quality coffee. Preview: you get what you pay for.  Stay tuned.

Until next time …