Flying well below the radar of most people there is an ebb and flow to what is in or out of fashion in the realm of Specialty Coffee. Those in the industry will feel this more acutely but make no mistake, you, the average coffee drinking Dick or Jane (ok, ok above average – if you are reading this blog) are not immune to these winds of change.
These new coffee styles (of buying, preparation and/or presentation) remain in vogue for various lengths of time but their impact and intensity is no less significant in steering the Queen Mary like Specialty Coffee industry – slow to start, slow to stop, and hard to turn.
On balance coffee has been a conservative business. Only in recent years have the youth gone rogue, breaking the rules, doing the new and previously unthinkable. Rebels in the past perhaps lacked the power of the Internet and in turn the impact from such liberated promotion of boundary breaking ideas.
I would suggest there has also been some fallout from these enfant terrible types and their fickle, never happy with what they have, always needing something better, different, more intense, more wow, more in your face and slightly out there…. and very rarely, something less.
So what’s currently in vogue?
I’ll tell you – a super light roasting style. Some would call it “Scandinavian” where by the coffee is given the barest minimum of development. I call it “Blue Rare” and absolutely hate the results but this is not where I want to focus our attention today. Instead we need to go back a bit further to not the previously sexy style (aka “All Acidity, All the Time”) but prior to that and into the time when Naturally Processed coffee was all the rage.
Does anyone remember those days?
The ultra classic, washed coffee preparation – clean, consistent, timeless was getting a little staid, a little safe. As a coffee buyer I’m all over “safe” like white on rice.
Regardless, the washed method is a sensational way of showcasing coffee and the prep of choice for most Central and South American coffees as well as (in my humble opinion) the best coming from Africa with a particular nod to Ethiopia…ok pretty much the whole world.
Now there has always been natural processed coffee but in the previous world order these coffees were not held in high esteem and often sold at a reduced price.
What is Naturally Processed coffee you ask?
Very simply coffee that doesn’t taste like coffee but rather like a fruit salad – heavy on the berries.
Now to some that might sound like a mighty fine proposition. That is the best-case scenario I assure you.
A trademark of those coffees was their range from fruit bomb gratuitous to slight less vivid fruit, to say fruit that was beginning to turn; to fruit that had turned and finally to the smell of compost on a warm day. You just never know what you’re going to get.
As a case in point I had made a stop at a high profile café/roaster awhile back. Pleased to be there, pleased to re-connect with an old friend, pleased to try a little something from the menu hailing from Brazil. Not sure if it was a full natural or pulped natural (a variation on the theme). What I do remember was trying to smile while tasting a coffee that, no word of a lie, tasted like goat’s milk. Imagine my surprise.
The risky nature of this method of preparation did not deter the vocal minority in Specialty Coffee and when they found these dazzling naturally prepped coffees they were elated. This taste profile was held up and lauded, shared, gushed about both online and in person and promoted like the second coming of coffee.
I cannot deny that when a little fruit toned note graces the aromatics of a coffee it can be gorgeous – and there are those moments – but an underlying fear of the sound and fury surrounding these coffees and this flavour profile was that it would lure producers who were traditionally washed coffee specialists to experiment and try something different.
Good, clean, washed coffee you can always sell. Always. Your natural processed coffee experiment that went wrong – not so much.
Just this week I looked at some natural coffee from Honduras. Astute students of coffee will know that Honduras does lovely washed coffee and so what a pity and with more questions than answers did I look at two boxes of coffee that was horrific.
Unsalable, and unusable to a Specialty Coffee buyer? Also yes.
All of this to say, tread cautiously as you explore the far and wide of flavours found in Specialty Coffee. Don’t immediately be seduced by the new, the novel and the obvious. And if someone is trying to suggest that this coffee that doesn’t actually taste anything like coffee is something you’ve just got to try…well, I’m glad we had this little chat.