Monday, December 21, 2009

Seed Prep Theory Part II

This might seem really obvious but it did strike me as insightful recently.

When you eat an avocado you eat the fruit and discard the seed. When you drink roasted coffee you discard (via de-pulping then fermentation) the fruit almost immediately after it is picked (this of course only refers to de-pulped methods).

Therefore what is important in the coffee cherry is the seed. So like last time, I feel that methods of drying that mimic seed prep techniques should yield superior tasting coffee. Now, this doesn’t follow exactly the natural path of coffee seed prep. In coffees natural life cycle the cherry has two possibilities: eaten and the seed is by an animal or fall of the tree to the ground. Most coffee geeks know what happens to the coffee that is eaten by small cat like animals or monkeys – some people like to pay lots of money to drink the coffee after the feces is cleaned off of the beans! Coffee that is left on the tree usually dries on the tree. The fermentation period is long and slow as the cherry over ripens on the tree. Then the cherry eventually falls to the ground. At this point the coffee is rather dry (probably 25% moisture). Then the leaf litter that traps the coffee keeps the coffee seed moist. The cherry skin either parts or rots off the bean. Then 45 days later the coffee buries its head in the ground and shoots the dry parchment and remaining bean up in the air. According to Illy’s book about espresso, the fruit’s purpose in the life cycle of coffee is for dispersion the coffee seed. The amount of sugars dually encourages animals to eat the cherry and aid in the fermentation.

If you take the seed prep revelation and apply it directly, then the best tasting coffees would be a Brazil natural (aka Raisin or Pasa process dried on tree until they look like little raisins the finished on a patio) or Full Natural (aka Dry Process) because those methods follow the natural life cycle most closely. I enjoy Full natural, I’m actually a big fan of the good Full Naturals. Brazil natural, meh, it can taste really good in espresso.

What am I trying to say? Well it is simply a marriage of cupping with a little agronomic inspiration. I’m not totally convinced at what point coffee should be picked for peak flavor. If you are super strict in picking, your picking cost could easily double. Again it is seeking that balance of two forces quality and economy. So if the coffee is picked at a certain level of ripeness and then processed in ways that encourages the seed to reach its peak potential. For example, if you are processing avocado for seeds it is better to let the fruit over ripen because that allows for better germination (you can also cut off the point before planting). Furthermore we all obsess about ripe cherries, but the cherry skin is removed within eight hours of picking. So it really isn’t the color of the cherry that we find so important. Its in the seed! The real question is at what point of development do we want the coffee picked? Here is a time line aiming for a blood red cherry: a month before the cherry is picked the skin starts to lighten and turn towards yellow, at two weeks out it is yellow with hints of red, at one week it is half red and all the green should be gone at a few days it is red but not blood red, then it turns at striking blood red color. (If you leave it on the tree four or five more days it will turn burgundy). Then, in less than eight hours the cherry skin is removed and the seed rocketed into the fermentation stages. What people don’t talk about is what is happening to the seed as the cherry skin ripens.

Also I recently heard a theory that blood red skin on the cherry produces a more acidic coffee and burgundy produces a sweeter coffee that has little acidity. . . I think bananas provide a good example. A solid yellow banana should be balanced in flavor, (in the US they are rather starchy) little sweet, smidge savory, and a tiny bit lively (acidic). When the banana has a few black spots the flavors have shifted to super sweet and there is no sign of that lively element. Does the production of sugars consume “acidity” (as in flavor) as a it ripens?

So how does a farmer push the coffee seed towards full flavor potential? I don’t know. But I do think that the answer lies in cupping lots of experiments while knowing what buyers and consumers what and provide an environment that is seed prep inspired.

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