Do Origin Countries Make Sense?

Do Origin Countries Make Sense?

Before coffee was sold by the name of the source country, it was listed by the nearly mythic names of the port city from which it shipped. Names like Mokka or Kalossi or Rio or Mandheling were not where the coffee was grown, nor was the name of the country the primary identifier.

Contrary to modern concepts of "waves" in coffee innovation (as if pouring water from a kettle through a paper filter was just discovered), for me the most monumental shift in the coffee trade developed in the trading house of C.E. Bickford and a handful of others, where instead of evaluating the quality of coffee by where the ship came from and what it looked like, they began to "blind taste" coffee. Suddenly, the value order of coffee became intrinsic to the substance itself, not a matter of provenance.

But even in the 1920s the Tea and Coffee Trade Journal offering ads from brokers would list an extensive list of origin countries. Coffees like Mokka and Java that had sold for 5x to 10x a Santos Brazil coffee dropped in value. The fetishism behind aged coffee, which would include all the distant origins that traveled largely by sail, slowly faded away. And refreshingly, Hawaiian "Kona" coffee was listed as a reliable mild, a good blender. And a new appreciation was born for the Hard Bean coffees of Central America.

But as I look at our offering list now, and see that, by following cup quality where we truly find it, we end up with a lopsided listing, I start to wonder if the logic we inherited has much merit. For me, it's no longer about whether Guatemala is a better coffee than Costa Rica or Honduras. Who cares? And who in the world can compare a Copan coffee versus an Ocotopeque coffee, or a Fraijanes versus a San Pedro Necta coffee? They stand as distinct as their flavor profiles, and the coffee shrub has no concern if it's roots are in El Salvador or Panama or Chiapas or Cuilco.

Should a roaster care if all their coffees at a given time come from Africa, because that is where all the good samples came from? Or their entire menu is from, say ... Guatemala and Colombia? When customers ask for coffee from Bolivia, do they just want to chat, or show off what they know? Or do they actually know the flavor profile of Bolivia and believe they cannot find that from somewhere else? Right now we have an amazing list of Rwanda coffees, sparkling fresh. Does it matter that Rwanda is no where near Central America, or is it more important that in the landscape of taste, you can find compelling relationships in these coffees?

I was video chatting with Dan and Schooley and that's the thoughts that percolated up from our conversation. I would like to hear yours. -Tom



#1 great topic. as a beginning

great topic. as a beginning coffee roaster, I found associating specific flavor profiles with specific origins to be helpful to ensure I was giving that coffee its proper due in the roast to bring out the special characteristics. for example if my Ethiopian had fruit sweetness I know I did ok. but to think that only Ethiopians can be heavily fruited and oh so so sweet is a big mistake. just as it would be boobish to think that only centrals are clean and sweet. your Rwandan and Sulawesi selections put to bed any thoughts that an Indonesian or an African could not be mistaken for a central. its all about which farm is producing the specialties that make us wake up every morning to our favorite coffees like a kid on Christmas. and if that means just a few origins in a given time are putting them out then so be it. having a laundry list of single origins from every country on a menu is nice for the coffee drinker bucket list in all of us but give me a few selections that really stand out and ill give u my money! keep up the aweome work tom and company, im a very happy repeat customer. - eric

#2 Comments from Facebook

Since this is a topic that we would very much like to get some conversation going on about, I thought it would be nice to share some of the comments from our link to the article that we posted on Facebook.

Marshall Hance says - wonderful food for thought. ultimately, we are selling experience, so whatever info we choose to share should support that experience. depending, "Peru" may, or "caturra" could, and even "bold" might. but "1,900 masl"? j/k, it's all possible. I think a variety of intentioned perspectives will most richly color the coffee market's landscape. thank you for sharing.

Wendy DeJong says - This is THE question, isn't it? And since this is coffee, it has a lot of answers from many different angles. I hope this sparks some interesting conversation. I'll just speak from my own personal experience, and not attempt to cover all the angles that I know have their own merit.
Thinking about flavor and where I could get it at different times of the year has always been the most challenging and inspiring thing to me as a buyer. In the US as well as Australia, our customers want a product that performs to expected parameters. This is as old as the hills, as old as coffee even. This is what makes our jobs so fun, and this is how my job maybe is different from yours. As roasters I think we get the best of sourcing coffee from all over, (with help from all the many players that make all this work) for flavor and performance, cash flow and inventory, and we also get to showcase little diamonds that pop up from wherever we may find them, and sell them on their own. So we get to do both. We get to talk about what is unique and special from many different places, and we get to just go on blind flavor quests to find exactly the right fit.

Jeremy Raths says - I agree. It is all about the cup. Now a days with so many origins experimenting with different processes it is conceivable to offer amazing diversity of experience from one origin. And that is before we add roasting development and brewing preferences. Many, many variables to make coffees very exciting, even from one origin.

and I said - It becomes easy to attach a certain significance to an origin and when it's available as opposed to when it first landed or otherwise. Honestly this goes way back to arguments I've made against the use of the term "seasonality" when speaking about coffees because I think it's lazy. If late summer arrival coffees are well prepped and well taken care of AFTER arrival, they can still be exceptional coffees in January. You shouldn't not offer a Central because it's "out of season" you should only not offer it if it does't taste good only. Beyond all of this, there's the whole point that as a roaster you can really shape coffees in so many ways, and buying coffees that give you more versatility is a smart move for sure.

#3 Keep rockin

Only lower quality coffees make the list 'lopsided'

The only problem I have with the shrubs offering list is that I cannot buy them all - seriously. It is a great learning experience to roast a few different coffees from the same origin. Most importantly I think consumers benefitted most because they were able to focus on a few origins and the differences between farms. I never once heard can you switch it up. Instead I heard, those coffees are awesome, too hard to decide which is better - both are great, I liked that one better because it was a little sweeter, crisper acidity, citrusy, or better balanced. Seasonality - ha. I immediately breakdown my order into batch sizes and nitrogen flush/seal in a chamber vac. Every now and then I get you still have col/guat/salv/etc followed by an odd facial expression - yea, I really wish you would just taste it first.

Keep it up. There are always great coffees available here and I really appreciate the hard work.

#4 Clarity

I am confused what the point of this blog is. Are you inferring that roasters are purchasing coffee based on origin rather than cup quality?

#5 darren124, the conversation

darren124, the conversation that spurred this post was around buying practices and that there are definitely a lot of roasters looking for coffees from particular countries, regions, or even estates. WHether this is because of the idea of "seasonality" and roasters are learning when certain coffees land fresh or it's because they've associated a specific profile to those coffees is a questions we ask.

And this isn't even necessarily about quality, it's more about a certain profile. Yes, there are origins whose profiles are very distinct and replicating them is tough. But there are a lot of coffees out there that share many characteristics that come in at different times of year that could be used for the same purposes in a roaster's line up, even swapping Rwandas for certain Central American coffees.

There's also the consideration, which I alluded to that there are many roasters who have latched onto the idea of "seasonality" and therefore won't pick up coffees from a certain region even after as little a time as 3 months after they've landed. This is before even tasting the coffees. There are many factors which lead to the degradation of a coffee, not just time. We have a number of late arrival Central American coffees up that we would not be offering if the cup quality wasn't there.

Mainly, what we're trying to ask is, do you need a Peru or do you need a specific profile?

#6 Makes sense

Ah...ok, I understand. It makes sense that roasters stick to what they know and trust. We have all had a bad coffee experience and had an aversion to that origin. Also we tend to want what we see other roasters working with. Monkey see monkey do. Sometimes customers comment about certain coffees and other ones are kind of meh. That kind of sways our buying decisions. I'm glad you guys are here to take the guess work out of it and I trust every coffee purchase I make. I buy without sampling from you guys and I dont do that with anyone else. Luckily my customers like variety and aren't hung up on one origin. I think it boils down to trust and communication between the broker and roaster.

#7 Darren, your last sentence

Darren, your last sentence is spot on, but I would extend that trust from the roaster to the drinker too. You go to such and such shop because you know that roaster is putting out their best, buying their best and handling it with care. We ask for that trust, and that's why it's also of the utmost importance to us that we hear all of your feedback, good and bad. That trust means a great deal to us.

#8 country origins are important

Country origins are important and needed at least for consumers. To those in the trade, country origin provides information too general. But to the consumer, it is very important. I run across folks all the time that think CR or Guats are the absolute best. But as you point out, Centrals can be pretty similar. I favor Ethiopian DPs, but usually not Harar. Sure you can occasionally find a DP fruit bomb from other origins, but rarely. So while the flavor profiles that cuppers value is precise, the origin names are generally helpful to prosumers. I'm thankful for both the cuppers and the folks that just want their favorite origin.

#9 Stop with the "origin" talk!

Some of the replies here, while engaged and lovely and laudable, possibly unknowingly perpetutate the issue: we should reconsider (and abandon) use of the shorthand "origin".. In terms of the level of language precision and conveyance of meaning that most of us aspire to, it is a sloppy anachronism. Let's rather talk about producers (providing certain lots composed of "x" varietal(s) with "y" processing and within a particular country's region if that is meaningful) and in terms of flavour and performance in the cup. I'm not saying hide the country, I'm saying just don't put it out there like it's sufficient, or primary. And it's not an "origin", it's coffee from a producer, from a place! Using "origin" to sell coffee is irresponsible as it serves to perpetuate not only consumer ignorance but producer's ignorance about what quality and cup qualities consumers want (and hence roaster's buy), and this is an issue of widely and deeply felt effect.

#10 Origins or profiles

Quality is what is tantamount for me. Fill my profiles, make customers happy in what they want, give coffee drinkers joy.

For the most part I try to fill overall profile, from bright, citrus, tannin, to woody, smoky, chocolaty with all the coffees on hand.

What I want or desire isn't necessarily what I have on hand. The effort is to not be too one sided in either profile or origin. I need to be exited, my customers need to be excited.

It has to taste good.