100% Typica,Shade Grown, Wet Processed and Sun Dried. The highest quality in coffee is determined by the variety of tree, soil and climate conditions, cultivation technique, the harvesting of only ripe cherries and an expertise in processing.
Coffee trees originated in tropical Africa, and still found growing wild in forests across the continent. A considerable number of the natural varieties have been collected and cataloged from the Gold Coast region in West Africa into the Congo and throughout the Horn of Africa in the east of the continent.
There are few historic documents describing the early use of coffee by native Africans even though it had probably been used from time immemorial. The most quoted observation was by Sir Richard Burton from about 1858. He was one of the first westerners in this part of Africa exploring the source of the Nile. Burton encountered a tribe who were accustomed to preparing a trail mix that included the peels or skins of the coffee fruit in deference to the seeds we relish today.
I suspect they were not particularly impressed with the taste or the nutritional content of this delicacy as in both cases it is lacking, but used it mainly for the caffeine content inherent in the fruit. Caffeine is found in all parts of the coffee tree, equally in the fruit skins, the leaves and the seeds. When Arabs discovered coffee they also used only the fruit skins to make a tisane beverage, which is still popularly consumed today and known as qishr.
Somehow the Dutch acquired a botanical specimen around 1650. It happened to be a Typica variety. In 1714 a Mr. Brancas, mayor of Amsterdam gifted a botanical specimen to the Royal Botanical Garden in Paris. In 1720 a French military officer colleted seedlings from the Paris gardens and brought them to the island of French Martinique in the Caribbean, establishing the first coffee industry in this part of the world. Seedlings from the island were subsequently introduced to all the Caribbean Islands and to Venezuela on mainland South America from which offspring were dispersed to the Andes of Colombia in the early eighteen hundreds. All New World coffee started out as Typica. Jamaican has gained a reputation for quality.
Of the many varieties of coffee shrubs found in Ethiopia to date, we now know that the original variety selected by the Arabs is coincidently the one that produces the best taste from the roasted seeds. In as much as this variety was selected for cultivation in Arabia long before the custom of roasting originated we wonder if this is coincidence or if it just happened to be the one with the highest content of caffeine in the skins.
When Linnaeus classified coffee in 1738 he labeled it “Coffea arabica.” Over the last two centuries several Yemen varieties have evolved into a sun tolerant, small bean cultivars known as Mochas in recognition of the Red Sea port from which it was commercialized as commodity,
As I mentioned above, the Dutch were gifted or selected a shade grown variety from Yemen that we now know as Typica. The original source of this heirloom variety is elusive but it probably came from Ethiopia to Yemen or it may have actually evolved in Yemen. Many varieties are natural mutants. Surprisingly the details of its origin is sketchy and its history unceremoniously vague.
Legend has it that Sheik Omar consumed a coffee beverage in Arabia around 1258. In as much as coffee was not front-page news in those days of Christian Crusades and bloody forays of Genghis Kahn, it could have been around for some time before.
Regardless, it rose to international prominence when westerners discovered its most favorable taste as a roasted beverage from the Turks.
Yemen coffee was the only coffee available to the world for three hundred years or more after coffee was first roasted and consumed as a beverage. We do not actually know if the first exported coffee from Yemen was Typica or their Mocha variety.
Nevertheless Typica and Mocha are the coffees that made coffee famous. No other variety of coffee found in Africa can match the flavor characteristics of Typica although today’s Ethiopian Harar is quite similar to today’s Yemen Mocha.
When the French and the Dutch introduced coffee to their tropical island colonies it was the Arabian Typica variety they transplanted. It was the French who introduced it to the Indian Ocean island of Bourbon just off the east coast of Madagascar and the Dutch bought it to Java and Sumatra and other islands of Indonesia. Dates?
Progeny of the trees introduced to the French controlled Island of Bourbon spawned a slightly different yet distinct mutant variety that had all the good qualities of Typica but was higher yielding and possibly hardier. This natural variety of Typica would eventually be called the Bourbon variety. As with Typica it would be selected for transplanting to other French colonies and eventually it also became widely distributed. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries all cultivated coffee was basically of these two varieties, coming from common seed stock. When either of these varieties, Typica or Bourbon is grown under ideal conditions they can produce a coffee of extraordinary sweetness, excellent flavor and big aroma.
Some dates found in references.
1510 Arab traders to the East Indies bring coffee to Ceylon
1517 Portuguese arrive in Colombo
1595 Dutch begin colonizing East Indies
1597 Dutch found Batavia (Jakarta) on Java
1602 Dutch East India Company founded
1615 Dutch take Spice Islands from Portuguese
1623 Dutch massacre English in Spice Islands
1628 Dutch occupy java and Spice Islands
1636 Dutch settle Ceylon
1656 Dutch take Colombo from Portuguese
1658 Dutch begin coffee cultivation in Ceylon, unknown to me if it was original Arab introduced coffee or new seed from Arabia.
1690 Dutch introduce coffee from Arabia to Java
1712 Dutch gift coffee tree to Louis XIV, it dies
1714 Dutch gift coffee tree to Louis XIV, it survives
1718 Dutch introduce Java coffee to Dutch Guiana
1720 French introduce coffee to Martinique
1732 Spanish introduce coffee to Jamaica
Terroir is a term commonly used in the wine industry. It can be loosely defined as “the taste of place.” Many agricultural products will develop flavors unique to the soil and climate conditions from where it is grown. This is illustrated by the popularity of wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy. The same varieties of grape grown elsewhere don’t produce the same taste. Coffee quality has a similar response to growing conditions. The same variety of coffee growing in different regions of a country will give a different taste to the beverage.
Typica thrives in the higher elevations of the tropics where it is naturally cooler. Five to seven thousand feet is common. Some shade is required with Typica as it is an under story variety typical of those found in the highland forests of Ethiopia.
We are told that volcanic soil is particularly good for coffee, yet application of composted humus is helpful with yields and vigor. Appropriately spaced rainfall is critical as is the number and spacing of sunny days. Such conditions are blessings of nature and common to only a few places in the world. As with the better-known wine regions, these coffee regions have earned great acclaim.
Why Typica is getting harder to find:
Coffee will grow and survive quite well outside of the ideal condition but yield and cup characteristics can suffer and fail to give the stellar results hoped for. Irrigation will sustain crops in arid conditions but it really doesn’t replace natural rainfall that comes with overcast skies and naturally cooler temperatures.
Today there are some hundreds of hybrid varieties under cultivation around the world yet even under the best growing conditions they generally produce an average cup. Hybrid coffees are essentially developed for some practical purpose, such as higher yield, earlier maturity, root-rot resistance, drought resistance, fungus resistance and direct sun tolerance but never for the ideal or improved flavor. In fact, flavor is the last thing considered unless it is totally undrinkable.
A few years ago the Colombian Coffee Federation convinced thousands of coffee growers to pull out their Typica trees and replace them with a new hybrid called Colombia Six, that was more resistant to the leaf-rust disease.
In Latin American countries the Typica variety often referred to as Comun, Spanish for common or as Arabigo, Spanish for Arabian.
The Federation even paid the farmers to do this and gave them the new seedlings. Now it is more difficult to find the most highly prized coffee of Colombia. 100% shade grown Typica.
Can you imagine Chateau Lafitte Rothschild pulling out their Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and replanting with Concord grapes just because they gave a higher yield.
Scenarios similar to this happen all over the coffee world. Coffee Board Administrators hear about some new hybrid that has higher yield so they aggressively introduce it for new plantings. New Guinea has six major varieties and a number of lesser varieties that have been introduced over the years. Often a farmer will have four or five varieties interspersed on his plantation. Obviously they get mixed in the harvest to produce a nondescript coffee. There is no national character to New Guinea coffee.
In some ex-commonwealth countries of Africa, British government aid agencies have helped farmers start new coffee gardens. If the climate and soil is not conducive to Typica cultivation, this presents no problem. The government agronomist merely selects a hybrid that fits the local climate conditions and is direct sun-tolerant so they don’t have to go to the expense of planting shade trees. Often the grower has no idea of the variety of tree he is growing. Often growers have never roasted and brewed their own coffee. Some don’t drink coffee at all. I visited one coffee farm that served me a cup of instant coffee.
The Dutch introduced the wet method of processing.
Variety, climate and proper cultivation techniques is only the first step in producing a good coffee. The harvesting and processing of coffee is equally important. It requires expertise, common sense and restraint. 100% Typica will not be memorable unless it is well processed.
As with most fruit, the coffee cherry should be fully ripe before picking. Most unripe or under ripe fruit is often bitter, sour tasting and highly astringent. Persimmons are a classic example and coffee is no exception. Even though it is the seed of the coffee cherry we are concerned with and not the flesh, the same ripening processes are taking place in the bean. It’s mostly about sugars and amino acids.
Under-ripe coffee beans will yield a sour tasting beverage. If you have seen trade journal articles about coffee production, there are often photographs of harvesters sporting full baskets of freshly picked coffee cherries. On close examination you will often see green, pink and red ripe cherries mixed in the basket. Why would pickers not be more selective?
Coffee harvesting is labor intensive. Coffee fruit does not ripen all at the same time so multiple passes are required over several weeks to properly harvest only ripe cherries. There is temptation to pick the almost ripe fruit along with the fully ripe, possibly the grower is thinking the almost ripe could be overripe before the next pass. Alternatively the picker may think that almost ripe is actually almost as good as fully ripe cherries. Obviously the picker dose not realize the under ripe fruit are severely deleterious to the coffee cup quality and should be avoided at all costs.
Another reason for occasional green cherries is just sheer accident. It is difficult to not make some mistakes and good technique has to be learned. It is not easy to pick coffee.
The green cherries produce a bland and/or astringent tasting coffee that often fails to roast correctly and results in pale, tan colored beans in the roast. This off color in the roast will also devalue the coffee. The over ripe cherries on the other hand can also produce a most disagreeable taste we call ferment or over fermented. It can be vinegary or even rotten tasting. This is an unforgivable taste flaw that renders the coffee almost valueless.
Some producers may have a system to cull some under-ripe and undesirable cherries before processing so the pickers may become complacent in such cases. Flotation in a water bath before processing is somewhat helpful in removing green and overripe cherries but it’s not a foolproof system. I have seen farmers putting mixed cherries through an aquapulper or demucilager without pre-sorting. This particular type of pulper is indiscriminate in processing cherries.
Laborers are paid by the weight of cherries picked and the daily harvest will be much larger if one is not too selective. At best, a day’s hand picking of coffee is still pathetically small and extremely hard work. Selecting only perfect cherries makes it even slower and painstaking and if the picker is not rewarded for quality his or her pay will suffer.
All undesirable cherries must be culled before pulping because the beans inside the cherries will look the same after processing. With that said I would admit that some bad beans are sorted from washed coffee if it goes through a washing channel with density weirs but now with new water conservation practices, producers are moving away from this step.
Off tastes of under and over ripe cherries:
While consulting for a coop in New Guinea I demonstrated the taste differences of improper harvesting by processing the different defective cherries separately and actually roasting and brewing coffee of each category. After processing each grower got to sample the brewed coffee made from green under ripe cherries, pink almost ripe cherries, fully ripe cherries and over ripe cherries. To their surprise the almost ripe cherries produced the most bitter, disagreeable and undrinkable coffee.
I then took a few under ripe beans and added them to the fully ripe beans and brewed a cup of coffee for comparison with all completely ripe beans. Again they were surprised to find they could actually taste the bad bean in the cup. It may seem strange but some producers do not actually drink their own coffee and this kind of demonstration brings home the concept of the relative quality and value of their coffee. If they want to profit more they need not grow more, but pick and process their coffee better.
Over fermentation of washed coffee:
The aforementioned flaws in coffee harvesting and processing can be easily corrected. The prevention of another unfortunate flaw can also be mitigated by paying close attention to detail. Washed coffee requires a period of repose after pulping to dissolve or loosen the remaining fruit or mucilage from the beans before drying. This stage in processing usually takes 12 to 36 hours depending on the ambient temperature. Shorter time in warm weather and longer for cooler weather. Many processors will be content on using a standard length to time without regard to the weather and can suffer damaging results that we refer to as over fermentation. The purpose for this resting period is to allow the remnant of sweet sticky fruit (mucilage) still attached to the bean’s shell or parchment covering to actually ferment and totally dissolve thus allowing the beans to be washed clean of any fruit that could become a substrate encouraging mold.
Freshly pulped seeds will be slippery or slimy in the hand as you squeeze a fistful of sample. After a sufficient time of repose, the natural yeast will have had its way with the sugary coating and on squeezing another fistful of sample later the beans will no longer have the consistency of cooked okra but will actually be squeaky clean making a slight grating sound when massaged between tightening fingers. At this point the seeds are ready to be rinsed to remove all remaining sugary fruit and stop any further activity of the yeast.
Should this stage not be arrested in a timely manner the yeast will continue its fermentation activity producing an alcohol product similar to cider or vinegar and impart a sour and disagreeable off-flavor in the beans. A slight over-fermented taste can be referred to as fruity and winy. Outright over fermentation is referred to as ferment and is a fatal defect. The remedy is merely checking the progress of the fermentation and not relying on a standard timing.
Drying and Mold:
Another potential problem in processing good coffee is in the drying. Again this is most evident when unskilled producers are involved. If coffee is not dried quickly and properly it can and will grow mold. The best tasting coffees are patio dried or dried on elevated screens called raised beds or African beds. Here the problem is simply failing to pay attention to detail. First, the coffee should be shaded during the early stage of drying. If the bed depth is too deep it can slow the drying process and increase the potential for growth of mold and if the bed is not stirred regularly it can also facilitate mold. If the coffee is dried on a dirty concrete patio it can also facilitate mold. In New Guinea growers are in the habit of drying on sheets of plastic on the ground and where the ground is uneven water can pool in the depressions causing uneven drying. When coffee is left covered with a tarp or plastic sheeting it will overheat and again facilitate mold.
Another problem sometimes experienced is the rewetting of the coffee by tropical showers, which are all too common. Outdoor drying requires vigilance.
If moldy coffee is bagged and warehoused, one bag of moldy coffee in contact with another bag will spread the mold to all the bags. It’s the concept of the bad apple in the barrel. Moldy coffee cannot be reconditioned and will sell for only a fraction of its potential value.
Producing coffee of the highest quality possible is a passion with some producers. These producers are the backbone of Wheelin Pete’s Green Coffee Company’s excellent coffee beans.