Steve Leighton and his wife Sarah Leighton are proprietors of a successful internet-based coffee roasting and home-roasting products business Has Bean based in the UK. They started the business to fill the gap that existed in the specialty coffee market in the Staffordshire area. Steve talks to us here about the inside scoop on specialty coffee.
Specialty coffee is gourmet coffee that is grown for the specialty market. It differs from coffees grown for the instant market in price and quality. The coffee crisis is at the bottom end of this market. It fetches low prices in the Futures market. Gourmet specialty coffee is bought by conscientious importers and roasters who care about the sustainability (of course this is a broad brush and there are some unscrupulous buyers) of the product they are buying. If a fair price isn’t paid then it ceases to exist.
Specialty coffees differ from one another for a variety of reasons, including the way in which they are grown, the area where they are grown, the altitude, the soil, even the way in which the farmer cares for his crop, for example whether they are organically grown etc.
Like fine wines, specialty coffees will vary from country to country, region to region, and year to year. The way the roaster treats the coffee to will also have a big impact on the final taste.
Arabica coffee beans are the most sought after beans in the specialty market. They receive special care and attention throughout the process of growing, milling and roasting. Arabica coffee usually grows at high altitudes (above 3,000 feet). This type of bean provides us with the best tasting coffee.
Robusta coffee is a cheaper variety of coffee which is grown below 3,000 feet altitude. It is also a poorer quality bean. Traditionally, this has bean used to produce cheaper blends and is used to cut a blend containing Arabica. Drunk on its own it tastes poor, with a slight taste of rubber. This is not to say we should dismiss Robusta out of hand; many roasters use Robusta to perk up a blend. Indeed for the masters of the espresso, the Italians, this is a very common practice and used correctly it can add to the crema (crema is the silky froth on top on an espresso) and indeed the taste. But used incorrectly it can ruin a good coffee and spoil the taste in the cup.
The trend of late is to name a coffee after the farm or region it comes from. A coffee will be sold not just as a Kenya AA for example (AA is simply the grade of the bean) but it will be named after the farm it has come from, or after something particular to the region where it is grown. This is important, as we have already noted that region, soil and altitude are important to the final taste. Naming the farm allows us to trace the history of the bean. The name can also gives an insight to the process the coffee has gone through during milling and the variety of coffee plant it has come from.
There are also Maragotype and Peaberry coffees. Maragotype is a giant bean that is much larger in size than normal grade coffee. It is a commonly held view that this coffee can be more flavoursome and produce a better tasting brew. Peaberries are coffee cherries that have produced one rather than two beans. Peaberries are smaller and rounder than typical beans, and they too may have a more flavoursome taste.
Ultimately the consumer sets the standards. If coffee isn’t good enough it won’t sell. There are associations who help set the standards broken up into different areas. For Europe where I am based there is the SCAE (Specialty Coffee Association of Europe) of which I am a member. There goal is to raise awareness of specialty coffee and improve education. There are many other associations like this for different areas of the world.
Fair trade is a difficult area to cover. The idea is good, but when it is not tied to any quality guarantee then every one from the farmer to consumer loses out. As a matter of principle I won’t stock fair trade, as I don’t think all of the money made goes straight to the farmer. Two years ago, the Fair trade organization spent 1 million pounds on re-branding their logo - how did that benefit the farmer? There are other organizations (relationship coffees) that work with farmers to get a fair price but tie that to quality and sustainability. We do sell relationship coffees as this sits well with us.
Organic coffee has had a raised profile over the past few years. The benefits to the farmer are: he has an increased price and the consumer has the knowledge that the bean has had extra care during the growing process. Organic coffee is nothing new as most coffee is grown high in the mountains there wasn’t much pesticide etc taken up there. It becomes organic when it becomes certified but much has been organic for many years.
In conclusion, the world of specialty coffee can be quite daunting for the newcomer. However by buying from a quality supplier and taking the right advice from the many sources available via the Internet, it can be a very rewarding journey around the continents, experiencing the many and varied tastes that specialty coffee has to offer. The jargon and complexity used by some of the industry should not deter you from diving in to this caffeine loaded elixir, and enjoying it to its full.