[Skip to Content]

Welcome , Register or Sign In

Search Store 0 
  • No products in the cart.

Evaluating specialty coffee: The good the bad and the ugly

Five Senses CoffeeMatthew Smithies 13 August 2018

As I’m sure most would agree, when talking about specialty coffee we beeline straight towards coffees that leave us with impressions of tea like flavour, beautiful delicate acidity, sweet, syrupy, smooth, floral aromatics. One might need only to quietly pull into their local specialty coffee shop and utter the phrase “natural process Panamanian geisha” to unlock a superlative laden conversation from any savvy barista. Of course, the opposite is true, one just need whisper any mention of Robusta to any discerning coffee fanatic and take note of the looks of discomfort as they roll out any number of colourful and creative flavour notes relating to burnt rubber, wheat and tar. So what are we to make of products who have attained iconic status despite a lack of cup quality?

What makes an icon? Does iconic status denote quality?

With this topic there are many parallels between the music world and the coffee world. Miles Davis is a Jazz icon to most, but who is Clifford Brown? Kanye West is a pop music icon, but who is Max Martin?

Arabica coffee is wildly known to be superior to Robusta, however does that mean all Arabica is created equal? Could some Robustas outshine some Arabicas?

Living in a world full of generalised information and buzz words can be frustrating for clear conversations. To start with, let’s step back and examine the coffee industry from a global perspective.

Specialty vs Commercial
The type of coffee most of us would associate with ‘specialty’ is a drop in the bucket of the global coffee market, a common estimation is that it is perhaps only about 2-5% of global production.

Specialty coffee is defined by a score higher than 80 points on the Q grader system.

It’s actually a little difficult to find coffees that score below 80 in your average local independent coffee shop and, with the multinational corporate chain restaurant players brandishing the words such as ‘specialty’, sometimes what we mean by ‘specialty coffee’ is a bit tricky to convey to your everyday average coffee consumer.

We must face the fact that the commercial coffee world is a much larger chunk of the pie, thus tends to have a stranglehold over some of the overarching coffee terminology and ideas which blur the lines between commodity and specialty coffee markets. For example, Colombia Excelso is associated with great coffee although the ‘Excelso’ classification is purely relating to the green bean size (15-16) as opposed to a variety or cupping profile. Yes, some Excelso is damn tasty, but the scientist mantra “correlation does not imply causation” applies.

All in all, it’s safe to assume that there are more people in the world who have heard of excrement derived coffee than coffee coming through the cup of excellence programs.  More people have enjoyed the music of Kanye West than Miles Davis and there are more people in the world who for coffee is a vente pumpkin spice Frappuccino rather than a face melting geisha experience down at their local specialty coffee shop.

How do we define ‘good’?

If you asked most specialty coffee folk, they’d tell you a good cup of coffee is; full of flavour in the cup, conversation around where the coffee came from (often shared by the barista), and integrity / transparency around the coffee’s journey. However, the more pragmatic baristas and business owners among us would attest that a ‘good coffee’ is rolled up in the enigma of average coffee customer expectations:

“Is this coffee strong?”
“Which one is the most expensive coffee?”
“Is this coffee fair trade?”
“I’ll have a decaf, extra hot, soy cap”

But for this particular article, and to make things easier, we’ll define it by being ethically produced coffee that is balanced across the palate with flavour suited to its purpose.

How do we define ‘bad’ or ‘ugly’?

In keeping with our definition of ‘good’, it should come as no surprise to you that a ‘bad coffee’ would be the exact opposite of good; devoid of flavour, no story, zero conversation, and the integrity of a crocheted parachute. Though some coffees may lack certain characteristics we’re focussed, on coffee variables, terroir, processing methods, elevation are all brought together to create a pallet of colours in which we as coffee roasters use to construct complex flavours in a blend.

Though to some, ‘bad coffee’ will only need be anything that exists outside of their comfort zone. For pure simplicity, lets define ‘bad coffee’ as something you don’t easily choose to put in your mouth.

How does the ethos behind each coffee effect our tastes and/or buying decisions?

As the specialty coffee industry progresses, we endeavour to steer away from products whom are solely reliant on their name, gimmick or the multitude of buzz words that are slapped on the sides their packaging. As a start, knowing where our raw products come from, who we’re working with and how purchasing effects their communities are indeed positive ideals and are becoming more a part of consumer consciousness in general. As coffee is so much more than just a beverage, it’s imperative that the impact we have on coffee growing communities be as positive as can be.

To sum up here, let’s take account of our objectives whenever we try ANY coffee:

When tasting/evaluating any coffee, either in isolation or side by side with a range of different varietals / terroir / processing methods, it’s imperative to keep an objective mindset. In addition to familiarising oneself with the origin, story and ethics of a particular coffee, our appreciation of all the nuances of each example will allow us to keep us on the path to the flavour truth. In order to appreciate true beauty and the full potential of flavours one must become intimate with all things good, bad, and ugly. So go forth, coffee lovers, venture out into the Badlands and be prepared to face your fears. Let each tasting experience you have teach you something, despite what’s written on the bag. 😊

Coffees featured at our The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Curated Cupping

Coffea Canephora, AKA Robusta, is a coffee species which renowned for it’s high caffeine content, ease of growing, pest resilience, and distinct flavour characteristics compared to Arabica.

As robusta is generally considered inferior to Arabica, this results in having a different grading system for Robusta. To make things potentially more confusing each coffee growing country has their own unique grading systems which can indicate ratios of defects, black/brown/grey/blotchy beans, screen sizes and densities.

Democratic Republic of Congo
Region · Kivu/Ituri
Altitude · 1480-1500masl
Processing · Natural
Grade · HTM/C/I (3% Blacks/2% Browns)

HTM/C/I is abbreviated French (Hors Type Marchand Courant Moyen) which translates to “Out of type Ordinary processed Inferior quality”·

India
Region · Kaapi / Various
Altitude · 1100masl / 500-1000masl
Processing · Parchment (washed) / Cherry (natural)
Grade · AA / AB

India uses it’s own unique nomenclature for its coffee screen size and percentage of defects, The letters indicate screen size and defect percentage. India also names natural coffees as Cherry and washed as Parchment. Some consider the AA grade as the “supremo” of the robusta world!

Vietnam
Region · Central Highlands
Altitude · 100-700masl
Processing · Natural
Grade · 2 (Screen 13, 5% Blacks and Broken)

There are 6 grades of green bean in the Vietnam grading system which indicate screen size and the percentage of defects.


Region · Big Island Hawaii, USA
Altitude · 700-900masl
Variety · Bourbon & Typica
Processing · Washed
Grade · Fancy / Prime + Fancy

Kona coffee is grown mainly between the Mauna Loa and Hualalai volcanoes and is the USA’s only coffee growing state. In the 1990s, Kona coffee was heavily affected by coffee lea rust which decimated their coffee production. In the aftermath, to replant and restart the industry the practise of grafting liberica roots to arabica stems became commonplace. This made the crop completely rust free and resistant to most pests. The coffee is highly marketed, however the liberica root has affected the characters in the cup. With the cost of labour in the USA being much higher than central and south American coffee producing countries, the added pricetag to Kona coffee has influenced the markets appreciation for this particular crop.

Kona coffee is graded into five different categories based on size and quality:
Extra Fancy (extra large)
Fancy (large)
Number 1 (medium/commercial)
Prime (small)
Select (mixed sizes from a single estate)



Region · Cauca Popayan, Colombia
Altitude · 1900-2000masl
Variety · Wush Wush
Processing · Washed

The Wush Wush variety is quiet rare and is believed to have originated from Ethiopia, in the Bonga forest of Southwest Jimma in an area known as Wush Wush. It arrived in Colombia about 30 years ago and is a relatively low-yield product with physical characteristics to that of Gesha. It is also similar in cup profile with jasmine, rose, lemon grass and stone fruit flavour notes and sweetness, with a complex acidity but with a more pronounced body than Gesha.


Region · Boquete, Panama
Altitude · 1700-1800masl
Variety · Geisha
Processing · Natural

Geisha, the current royalty of the specialty coffee family, originated from the Ethiopian village of Gesha. It is an extremely difficult coffee to grow and maintain. The trees are low yielding and require a lot of maintenance in order to grow coffees that are true to the hype of having the beautiful delicate fruit and floral tones for which they’re renowned.
This coffee, Kotowa Las Brujas, is a natural process Geisha from the Kotowa Estate which is located in Boquete, Panama. The name KOTOWA comes from the native language and means “mountains”.



Region · Karnataka, India
Altitude · 1100-1200masl
Variety · S795, Kent, Catimor
Processing · Natural, Monsooned

The practise of monsooning coffees began with the advancement of modern ocean freight transport. Historically, coffees were shipped from India to Europe over a period of 12-16 weeks during which time the coffees were exposed to the sea breeze and would bleach and swell up to almost twice their usual size. This quality soon came to be a norm in the European market and when the quality of ocean transportation improved, they needed to replicate this process at origin, and hence the process of monsooning was born.


Region · Yirgacheffe, Ethiopia
Altitude · 2100masl
Variety · Heirloom
Processing · Washed

Wood fire coffee roasters swear by their claim that the hot air and smoke produced from a wood fire will give more of an even roasting over a much longer period than gas roasters, sometimes up-to 5 times as long per roast!


Region · Bogata, Colombia
Altitude · 1400-1800masl
Variety · Variedad, Caturra
Processing · Washed

Traditional roasting styles of yesteryear tended to push coffees more towards flavour notes of spices, tobacco, nuts and… Well… Ash. This roasting style still rings true with many die hard dark roast fans. Certain beans can handle being pushed far beyond the point where the coffee is soluble enough for us to extract a balanced and accurate snapshot of what flavours are present within each coffee.


Region · Bogata, Colombia
Altitude · 1400-1800masl
Variety · Variedad, Caturra
Processing · Washed

This particular trend of flavouring roasted coffee beans is much more popular in Europe and the USA, though still has some apologists around Australia. Be prepared for the lush French vanilla aroma to permeate your cup, grinder burrs, your cupping spoon, your hands, your hair and everything else you will smell or think about the next day or so.



Region · Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria, Colombia
Altitude · 800-1700masl
Variety · Typica, Caturra
Processing · Washed
Growers · Kogi Tribe

There is a lot of romance idea of something growing wild and free carries a certain mystique. This coffee is grown and produced by the Kogi people native to the rainforests of Central highlands of Colombia. The is grown wild without fertilisers or pesticides, and the proceeds of the sale of the beans go back to the indigenous tribe and towards buying back sacred sites and traditional sites.



Region · Peru & India
Variety · Arabica & Robusta

Recently this particular tactic of coffee marketing has been popping – coffee that promises to be the strongest cup you’ve ever tasted with no bitterness. These are pretty bold claims, however the commodity market has embraced these promises and we are now seeing a few different companies around the world with their own spin on the idea of a ‘super’ coffee blend.


This article was initially written in part of a curated cupping which was put together in August 2018.  The line up of coffees took the cupping participants on a rollercoaster ride of flavours (Geisha, robusta, famous origins, flavoured beans and other gimmicks). Seeing as we’re a few years shy of having smellivision or synthesized coffee aroma emanating from our computer screen. The author suggests one to simply always approach every cupping table and café with a healthy balance of objectivity and subjectivity. 

……And for those who are still wondering who is Max Martin, he’s a Swedish songwriter that has basically written every single chart topping pop song you’ve heard of since the early 90s, his achievements are enough to make Yeezy blush.

Be the first to know

Sign up to our newsletter to hear about the latest coffee and offers from Five Senses.

Simply fill out your details to get the latest coffee news direct from us.