What makes a specialty coffee farmer?

We often talk about specialty coffee, but what does it really mean? Our head of Research, Development & Innovation, Craig Simon, talks about the five key things that distinguish a specialty coffee farmer from a commercial farmer.

  1. A desire to produce great coffee. Amazing tasting specialty coffee takes a lot of effort in all aspects of growing, picking and processing. The first difference between commercial farmers and specialty farmers is the motivation to try and produce the best coffee they can.
  1. Selective picking practices. Great tasting coffee starts with picking only the ripest, perfectly mature cherries off the tree. This is when they have the maximum development of both the sugars present but also all the compounds that make coffee tasty. This requires educating the pickers to only select ripe cherries and means multiple pass picking, where they will move through the trees multiple times each time picking only the cherries that are at maximum ripeness leaving behind the un-ripes and discarding the over ripes. This puts the farmer at risk as any extra unexpected rainfall will cause the crop to be damaged or lost.
  1. Pre-sorting at the mill. It’s impossible to pick perfectly. Sometimes a stray unripe or partially-ripe cherry will make it into the basket. Sorting these by colour before pulping will improve the taste quality.
  1. Sorting equipment at the wet mill. Brazil has led the way with the development of mechanical sorting equipment for the wet mill. Floating tanks, sorters that separate un-ripes, immatures, foreign materials. These all improve the cup profile we expect from specialty coffee.
  1. Investment in processing facilities. Specialty coffee farmers will frequently build their own wet mills and drying patios so that they have both control of all of the steps so they can implement their quality control processes and also so that they coffee cherries are processed as soon as possible after there are picked.

It’s important to note that a very small percentage of the coffee produced on a farm actually ends up being specialty. The farmers don’t choose to either produce specialty or commercial. Farmers do commit to trying to make as much specialty coffee as possible by investing in all the details of the growing, sorting, processing and drying phases but still roughly 10% only of their production for the year ends up being classified as specialty with the remainder ending up as commercial and not for export. Nothing is wasted by farmers.