“We buy only the BEST coffee beans.” How many times have you heard that on TV or radio commercials? How does one define “the best”? This can be quite a controversial topic and some may even get emotionally involved. If there is a best, then is there a worst? Let’s don’t go there.
How do we define what are the best coffee beans? If we are talking strictly flavor and personal taste, then the best is whatever you like best. No right or wrong answer, just personal preference. For instance, millions of people like robusta coffee beans best. Other millions like arabica coffee beans best. How do you argue personal taste? We can’t.
Now, if we are talking about bean quality, that is different. Why is that? Basically, we are talking about bean “grades”. Like mostly everything we buy, quality varies and generally we pay more for quality. Is that always true with coffee beans? What is better, robusta beans or arabica beans? How is coffee graded? What is the difference between a commodity grade and a specialty grade? Are there differences in specialty grades?
Robusta vs Arabica Coffee Beans
It is commonly believed that Arabica coffee is better than Robusta coffee. To compare the two is like comparing plantains to bananas. They are both bananas, but plantains are for cooking and the dessert bananas can be eaten directly. Likewise, there are major differences between robusta and arabica beans.
Robusta beans are of the coffea canephora species whereas arabicas are of the coffea arabica species. Robustas produce very well in lower altitude farms and are high production shrubs. They generally have a higher caffeine content than arabicas and can taste quite bitter. These beans are popular in “instant coffees” as well as the more economical coffees found at retailers.
The arabica bean is more complex. There is a constantly growing list of varieties under the arabica umbrella. Each with their own specific flavour notes. These are sweeter and milder than the robustas, therefore preferred by many. For this reason, a lot of attention is given to arabicas over robustas.
The “Third Wave” coffee movement and “Specialty Grade Coffees” are exclusively of the arabica species. Although, robustas are now receiving a lot of attention by coffee connoisseurs worldwide. For the remainder of this article we will focus on the arabica species.
Understanding Coffee Grades
Like most natural products on the food line, quality varies. A system had to be developed to set an acceptable standard for all in the industry. Naturally, coffee professionals in decades past had no problem grading coffees. There already existed a number of separate grading systems in the industry. “European Preparation” “EP” is one example.
As Specialty Grade coffee expanded in popularity, it became clear that a new standard had to be set. In this instance, the Specialty Coffee Association of America accepted the challenge. By 2001 the development of a set of standards was well underway.
Formally, there are 5 coffee grades. Grade 1 being Specialty. Grade 2 Premium, Grade 3 Exchange, Grade 4 Standard, Grade 5 Off grade. What makes the difference? The number of defects among other irregularities within a 350-gram sample of green unroasted beans.
To be Specialty Grade, no primary defects are allowed with no more than 5 full defects. Attention is given to screen size and moisture content as well. With all obstacles removed it is now possible to appreciate the full characteristics and flavour notes of the actual bean. Therefore, the bean must clearly manifest at least one of the following areas: taste, acidity, body, or aroma.
Specialty Grade must score at at least 80 points from a qualified Q-Grader. These are highly trained individuals with years of coffee experience under their belts.
The Farmer’s Responsibility
Basically, there can be no specialty grade coffee without extra hard work and considerable expense from the farmer. However, the farmer can only take the bean so far. There are a lot of factors to be taken into consideration before a farmer decides to try to raise the bar of his product to specialty grade. For more in-depth information on farming procedures see “A Coffee Farmer’s Dilemma”.
He has to consider the farm conditions: altitude, soil quality, humidity, and the varieties of coffee available to him, just for starters. Not all varieties are equal and not all beans perform as well in any area. For instance, a Panama Geisha may score in the mid-’90s on a cupping scale on one farm. On another farm in the same region, the same Geisha varietal may only score 84. So, what is best on one farm, may not be the best for another.
A case in point, our farms hover around 1100 meters altitude. We produce mainly caturra, tipica, and geisha. What does best for us? Tipica. Scoring 86 points on our farms is a reflection of the hard work involved from seed to finish.
Like all things, quality costs more. In order to produce specialty grade beans the farmer needs to sell his product at a fair price. He may dabble in some “extra special” varieties and processes, too.
Among the more expensive varieties in our region are “geisha” and “pacamara”. So outstanding are their characteristics that the “Best of Panama” competition has these varieties in their own category as well some distinct processes.
Any beans within the Specialty realm of 80+ points can be rightfully considered “among the Best”. At this level, the beans are clean and free of defects. Attention has been given in recent years to enhance or even develop new flavor notes within the bean and therefore increase the cupping score.
Some of the most common processes are: washed, honey and naturals. Each method promotes distinct flavour notes in the same bean. Things haven’t stopped, there. New processes continue to be developed such as anaerobic processed among others.
Numbers Are Not Everything
A number of years ago while doing some cupping in Costa Rica, a Q-Grader explained that numbers although important are not everything. The consumer tastes flavor not numbers. For that reason when green bean buyers make a purchase the focus will likely be on what the consumers in their area prefer as well as quality.
This makes total sense and takes us right back to the beginning. What are the best coffee beans? Whatever you like. There is enough variety in coffee beans, drinks and processes to satisfy the palate of most anyone. By all means, enjoy your favourite brew, whatever it may be. If it helps put a smile on your face, then you have answered the enigma “What are best coffee beans?”.