What makes good coffee?



“You don’t have to serve good coffee to all your customers. Just to those who you want to see come back.”—Ted Lingle

The man is witty with an encyclopedic knowledge of coffee facts and history. He has travelled to many origins (an industry term for coffee-producing areas) like India, Indonesia, Central and South America and Africa. But he’s in the Philippines for the first time. He is the Senior Adviser (and founder) of the Coffee Quality Institute, a non-profit firm whose business is to improve coffee quality in over 60 countries.

I got the chance to travel with him for almost a week after the Philippine Coffee Board Inc. (PCBI) and Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) Operations Director Lisa Conway took him on a whirlwind tour of Davao City, Baguio City, and Cavite. We organized stakeholder consultations with academia, farmers and government agency representatives, among other groups.

Best kept secret
In Baguio, the participants took turns extolling their respective origin as producing “the best coffee. “

“Says who?” he whispered to me. His usual follow up question: “Who says it’s the best?”

I learned later that to understand what he meant by Specialty Arabica coffee and Fine Robusta. The producer, seller and consumer must speak a common language — the language of quality.

The author with Ted Lingle of Coffee Quality Institute

The author with Ted Lingle of Coffee Quality Institute

He admitted being mesme­rized by the Baguio pine trees and the Arabica trees he got to see. “Coffee here must be good. How did you keep this place a secret for so long?” he asked kindly. That statement got everyone excited prompting each one to try the taste of coffee from Benguet, Mountain Province, Ifugao and Kalinga.

Cupping and grading
But each coffee sample must be “cupped” by professional coffee cuppers (called Q and R graders) and given a score. A score above 84 is preferred and the closer to 100 a coffee sample gets, the more likely it will command a higher price and increased demand from specialty roasters. Ted Lingle wrote this “language” for specialty coffee in several publications like the Coffee Cuppers Handbook, a bible used by many coffee roasters and cuppers.

A market for every cup
“There is no bad coffee. Every coffee has its own market,” he said.

He explained that coffee is not a true commodity because by cupping and grading it, it can be sold to many various markets. But grading is done when the coffee is green or raw. Not when it has been roasted as is always the mistake of many coffee processors. They send roasted coffee for tasting, and that is not the industry standard at all.

Good trees, DNA and RNA
Start with a good planting material or seed. The DNA of each seed or planting stock determines its potential, while the RNA or where it grows gives the coffee bean or fruit the unique flavor potential it will ultimately have as green or roasted coffee.

A good tree stock will be revealed when farmers learn to “cup” their coffees and then they can expand the variety that cups well. This ensures better incomes for the same effort of the farmer.

So, while we are at the subject of planting coffee, what comes to mind is what we should plant? Arabica for higher elevations (1000 meters and up above sea level) and Robusta, Excelsa and LIberica from 300-600 meters elevation. Besides knowing which variety, it is good to know what the coffees scored in that region and where the stock is from. This is why we need more R graders for Robusta and more Q graders for Arabica. These professional cuppers and graders will be able to tell the farmer which of his coffee scored well above 80. And better yet if the farmer knows or learns how to cup coffee.

So if we must plant, know which variety and where to plant a particular high-scoring varietal. A Geisha may not score as high if not planted in Panama. As a Benguet Bourbon Arabica may not score well if brought to Davao or Bukidnon. It pays to know where to plant what.

As a reminder, know what you are planting.

P.S. It works not just in planting coffee but in planting hardwood species as well. Let’s plant more local species like Lauan, Dao, Narra and Guijo. Not Mahogany. Ask Haribon Foundation where to get seedlings.

Chit Juan is a founder and owner of ECHOStore sustainable lifestyle, ECHOmarket sustainable farms and ECHOcafe in Serendra, Salcedo Village, Podium, Centris QC mall, Davao, Cebu City, Iloilo and Antipolo City. She also is Chair of the Women’s Business Council of the Philippines and President of the Philippine Coffee Board Inc., two non-profits close to her heart. She often speaks to corporates and NGOs on sustainability, women empowerment, and coffee. You can follow her ontwitter.com/chitjuan or find her on facebook:Pacita “Chit” Juan. Email her at puj@echostore.ph


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