You may have noticed that Mad Goat, among other places, offers coffees from one of a few different "origins." You may have heard talk in the shop or other places about these origins, heard "single-origins" discussed, and perhaps even heard some discussion on the flavor characteristics of these origins. Which probably led you to wonder, "Why the heck is everyone talking about coffee origins?"
Have no fear! We're here to tackle that very question on this edition of Mad Goat University.
From whence coffee came.
Coffee is an agricultural crop. So, when we talk about origin what we're really talking about is the region on the globe in which a specific coffee is grown. This is in contrast to a blend, which may have multiple coffees from several origins, or a roast, which is the way in which raw, green coffee is transformed into something drinkable (and hopefully magical). At Mad Goat we do have one staple blend - our Route One Espresso- and we do roast our own coffee, but technically speaking we offer origins. Therefore, when discussing our coffee, it is most proper to talk about those origins and not blends or roasts.
At Mad Goat and many other specialty coffee shops, brewed coffee is usually sold as single-origin. This simply means that the coffees we serve came from a single area in a coffee producing nation. There can even be several areas within a country or region. As high-end specialty coffee continues to grow in popularity and more exotic coffees are sought out, this increasingly means coffee from just a single farm or co-op, or even just part of a single farm or co-op (microlot).
Often, this geographic information can be found in the title of the coffee. For instance, our Ethiopian Aricha Edido was grown in the Aricha region of Ethiopia, and Edido is the specific processing mill at which the coffee was prepared (more on processing in a future MGU).
In the past, coffee from all over a region or country may have been lumped together and sold generically. This hurt farmers who respected quality and rewarded those who did not. Overall, this "commodity" practice can drive quality down, which drives prices down, which drives the already low wages and profits of the farmer down even further.
Specialty coffee's answer to this has been a focus on cup quality and geographical transparency, hence the long coffee names. This type of labeling has become prevalent in specialty coffee as it affords more transparency to the consumer, and enables producers to establish a reputation if their product is consistently excellent. In the end, we get better coffee and farmers get paid more. This is a win for everyone.
Coffee crash course.
The coffee we know and love is actually the roasted seed of tropical fruit that grows on a coniferous tree (or shrub when aggressively pruned). Without going into too great of detail, this seed usually grows two to a fruit, or cherry, and this fruit must be stripped and the seeds dried under exacting conditions. Occasionally, a single seed develops in a cherry and this is known as a peaberry.
Every step in the coffee production process can alter the ultimate cup flavor, so each step must be undertaken with extreme care, precision, and scientific rigor. For starters, coffee is not grown in any great quantity outside the tropics because of the fragile nature of the coffee tree. Where it grows, and as with any agricultural product, factors such as weather, disease, pests, and maturity at harvest all affect quality and yield. Coffee has the additional element of elevation, since many of the coffee producing regions are quite mountainous and because coffee quality is generally improved from the taxing conditions experienced at higher elevations. Coffee plants also really seem to like volcanic soil, which is why many of the best regions feature this type of soil.
After a coffee is picked - hopefully at peak maturity - the cherries must be sorted, processed, and dried. This is far too expansive to cover here other than to say each of these steps is critically important and must be undertaken with extreme diligence in order to produce specialty caliber coffee.
What can be mentioned is that there are two main processing methods, and a up-and-coming hybrid method. The two main methods are wet and dry, or natural. Wet processing uses machinery and water to depulp the coffee cherries. Natural is a careful fermentation process, undertaken usually in poor producing regions, and can yield exceptionally complex cups. However, consistency is a huge issue, as is controlling cup flaws from improper fermentation. The hybrid method has come to be called the "honey" method, and in it the skins and some portion of pulp is removed via wet milling, with the remainder processed as a natural. This also requires careful oversight, but can produce stellar flavors.
Origin flavor characteristics.
First, it should be noted (and will be addressed more fully in a future MGU) that the flavors described on a coffee label are not artificial, added flavors. Nor are they so overwhelmingly prevalent that everyone could agree on them (though, occasionally, they certainly can). The flavor notes mentioned for a coffee are generally very subtle flavors detected during the process of professionally tasting a coffee. This process is called "cupping," and flavors detected there may or may not carry fully into a filter drip brewed pot of coffee, or other coffee brewing method. Taste is a wild, subjective thing, and your mileage may vary.
However, coffees from certain origins do tend to share some broad characteristics. We like to group coffee producing origins into three large groups based on geography that are commonly called "regions." There is some dispute as to what exactly a region is and how to quantify it, so you may see other places classify regions differently. We find the Big Three breakdown to be easy to understand for most folks, but as with most things, there are always exceptions to the following rules.
Central & South America
These two regions could certainly each be their own region, but the cup characteristics are similar enough to group together. The main traits of this region are clean and bright. Coffees from the Americas have traditionally been wet-processed, which correlates with the clean cup character. They are also grown with some elevation, which contributes to a lively, apple-like acidity when light roasted, and a nutty, cocoa-ness when roasted a bit darker. And always with a nice, balanced sweetness. The US has traditionally gotten much of it's coffee from here, so to most Americans coffee from Central and South America "just tastes like coffee."
Africa is the coffee aficionado's region of choice. While we love coffee from everywhere, even here at Mad Goat we must say that Africa is our favorite region. Whether it's a fruity, dry-wine like Kenyan, or a natural processed cup of blueberry from Ethiopia, African coffees offer the starkest example of what coffee can be in the cup. Owing to great weather, high elevations, and genetic diversity (Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee), coffees from Africa are fruity, juicy, and citric and are usually roasted light. If you ever hear the word "fruit-bomb" thrown about, chances are good someone is describing an African coffee (and specifically an Ethiopian).
Indonesia & Islands
We dare say Indonesia is the region Starbucks made popular. This is because coffees here are usually grown a bit lower, and so are not possessed of the tart and lively acidity of other regions. Coffees here are mellow or absent in acidity, but they make up for it in thick, syrupy body and a spice like sweetness. Because the acidity is already so low, these coffees lend well to darker roasting, hence the Starbucks popularity. However, Papua New Guinea is one of Mad Goat's favorite regions as well, so these coffees aren't dominated by the dark roast. Coffees from here can be a little more approachable to the new coffee adventurer than the other regions, which can be overwhelming to an uninitiated palate.
Whether you like one of those aformentioned fruit-bombs or a daily drinker, every cup of coffee is literally an adventure around the globe. But growing origin is just the beginning of the journey. Join Mad Goat University again to learn more about roasting, processing, coffee varietals, brewing methods, grinding, and much, much more.
Let us know what you want to know and we'll do our best to help you along in your pursuit of the perfect cup!