So you mentioned that coffee gets graded and scored. How does that all work?
Grades are based on the size and quality of the beans. You have grade A, AA, B and on down the line to peaberries, which are the smallest.
Coffee beans are really seeds that grow on a bush, inside a fruit which is called the cherry. There are two coffee beans in each cherry. If the fruit is picked at the right time and in the right way, you get the biggest possible beans and those are the highest grade. If they’re picked before they’re really ripe, or if they come from a different variety of coffee plants, like the robusta, they’ll be smaller. Sometimes the coffee beans end up gnarled and small and don’t separate – those are called peaberries and they’re considered the lowest quality.
Scoring is different than grading. Scoring is based on the flavor profile. Those Q graders I mentioned are the ones who score coffee. The certification process for Q graders is really demanding. It’s complex stuff and it takes many many hours of study to get certified. There are Q graders wherever there’s coffee. We have a Q grader here at Crop to Cup.
You need to have Q graders at every step along the coffee supply chain – at the washing stations that are the first stop for coffee beans once they leave the farm, at the exporters plants, at the importers, at roasters and distributors. If you’re involved in the coffee trade, you want to have a Q trader to taste and score the coffee at every stage to make sure you’re getting what you’re supposed to be getting. Quality control is really important because the supply chain is so complex – most coffee passes through a lot of hands before it makes it to the cup.
There are like ten different layers of flavor that Q testers evaluate – things like acidity, fullness, balance, finish etc. So coffee is scored at pretty much every stage of the cycle. If you’re working with a really experienced Q grader, they can taste a coffee and tell you that it’s from this specific region in this specific country, and was picked two weeks before it should have been…that kind of detail. It’s been amazing to me to learn how complex it all is. It absolutely matches or surpasses wine in the degree of complexity.
So can you tell us about how that coffee supply chain works? How is it actually grown? You mentioned washing stations – what are they all about? How does the coffee get from the farmer to an actual cup in Brooklyn?
Sure. I’ll use Uganda as an example because that’s where we do most of our sourcing.
Uganda is a fascinating place. One minute you’ll be in lush rainforest and the next you’ll be in dusty windy desert. Up in the mountains where we get our coffee, all the coffee is grown on really small family plots. Before I started working here I assumed coffee was grown on plantations. It’s not.
On those small farms it doesn’t even grow in rows. It grows in lots mixed in with avocado trees, plantain trees, papaya trees and lots of other things. And that actually helps to give the coffee a really complex flavor because by sharing the soil with those other plants, you get a really complex mix of nutrients. All that adds really distinctive qualities to the bean – it really enhances it.
The farmers we work with all have a very natural, traditional approach to growing coffee. We always work with them to educate them about natural remedies for things like keeping out red ants or other insects that might harm the plants, and to help them to understand how to grow and harvest in order to produce the highest quality beans. And we work with them to help them understand the value of growing the highest quality beans – the better the beans they’re able to produce, the more money they can make for their work.
Farmers often work in local groups – they’ll sell their harvest in group batches. They usually sell their harvest to local washing stations. In coffee growing areas there are washing stations every five or ten miles. Washing stations are the first stop in cleaning the beans – they remove the fruit and the casings. The stations are usually gravity powered – the coffee goes through a whole process of being washed by cold water and then dried on big screen-like racks. The washing station grades the beans after washing them and buys them from the farmer at a price based on the grade of the beans.
Washing stations are usually run by exporters. The exporter has the job of doing the preliminary cleaning at the washing station up in the mountains, and of then bringing it down to bigger processing plants which are usually in bigger towns or cities at lower elevations. Those plants are much bigger operations. They’re pretty mechanized and computerized. They use big machines to grade the coffee again. They de-stone the beans – a lot of the coffee coming from the stations has pebbles, twigs and all kinds of little things mixed in that need to be removed. They test for defects – if any of the beans have specks of fungus or rot, they’re weeded out. After everything is cleaned and graded again, the beans are bagged in big burlap sacks for export.
Not all coffee in Uganda goes through the washing stations. Some farmer groups hand wash their beans, and what’s cool is that that results in a totally different flavor than the washing station coffee. It’s not better or worse – it’s just different. And that’s kind of exciting. We work with both washing stations and farmers groups.
Anyway, after it’s all been cleaned and packaged in big sacks, it’s loaded into containers based on orders from importers in places like Brooklyn, loaded onto a big ship, and sent across the ocean. Now you can track your container through GPS, which is pretty cool. You can see exactly where the ship and your coffee is as it makes its way around the world.
When the ship arrives in New Jersey, the containers are unloaded and go through the whole process of clearing customs which can take anywhere from three days to a month.
Once it clears customs, all the coffee here goes to a place called Continental Terminal just outside the port. They’re one of the biggest coffee warehouses in the country. They store coffee for everyone from Folgers to Starbucks to Stumptown to us. It’s huge – like three football fields long. It’s like a giant hangar full of coffee piled to the rafters – huge shipments for the big guys and of course we have this little pallet in the corner! We always drive over there in a zip car. We’ll be surrounded by tractor trailers there for pickups and we’ll be like, “Can we pick up five bags?” They’ll like roll their eyes…haha!
Hey we like it that way!
We always like to go out when it’s time to open our container for the first time. It’s just kind of an exciting moment when you’re standing there, and you know the farmers who grew your coffee halfway around the world, and you know all the steps in the journey your beans have made, and you open that container up and the smell of the coffee and the place it was grown just washes over you. You can really smell Uganda when you open that thing up, and that’s kind of awesome.