When I talk to people about the best cups of coffee they’ve ever had, I tend to hear the usual origin suspects…
The first is Ethiopia, widely known as the world’s premier coffee-producing nation in the world. I can’t tell you how many times someone’s told me that the cup that changed their life was one of those Ethiopian “blueberry bomb” naturals (aka, a sundried-natural coffee bursting with blueberry-like flavors). It makes sense. The flavors found there tend to be extremely mystifying, and, I must admit, it was a “blueberry bomb” that prompted me to pursue a career in coffee.
If not Ethiopia, it’s Kenya. The rare trees in Kenya, particularly SL-28 and SL-34 created by Scott Laboratories, tend to produce distinct flavor qualities that absolutely blow people’s minds. The one-of-a-kind “electric berry” acidity mixed with the dense sugary-sweetness makes these cups rightly unforgettable. I don’t say this lightly, but the best coffee I roasted last year was from Kenya, and, let me tell you, it hit all the marks.
As a roaster, I get it. It’s easy to lean on the consistently outstanding East African coffees and overlook other options. However, I’d be doing myself and everyone else a great disservice if I didn’t give major credit to the dark horse, soon to be usual suspect of coffee countries, Peru.
Brass tacks, Peru has all the “right stuff” to produce phenomenal coffee that rivals the best East African coffees. First off, the climate in higher elevation areas where coffee grows is perfectly suited to the slow ripening of the cherries, which leads to a deep sweetness that can’t be replicated any other way. Secondly, they still cultivate an abundance of old-variety coffee trees like Bourbon, Typica, and Caturra, that other areas of South America have ceased to farm due to tedious upkeep.
Lastly, and most importantly, Peru’s collaboration-based coffee culture ensures that the coffees, and their producers, are nurtured from the farm, to the mill, to exporting. This culture is due, in no small part, to the work of Jose Rivera and his organization, Origin Coffee Lab (OCL).
While working for a large roaster in Chicago, Jose recognized not only a lack of representation for Peruvian coffee, but a lack of respect for the richness that his country’s coffee farmers had to offer. He left the US and moved home in an effort to restore Peru’s reputation in the coffee industry in the US and abroad.
Fast forward – Jose and his team at OCL have made incredible strides in creating visibility and support for Peruvian coffee producers through their Solidario Program. In their own words:
“The Solidario program is a holistic developmental model that empowers farmers. We deliver both economic and agricultural modeling to the farmers in order to provide a springboard for success. These curriculums are designed to encourage cup quality while also making coffee farming a consistently profitable practice. We provide farmers our detailed curriculum, a two-fold implementation of ideals that we view to be key for the coffeelands. These ideals embody the ethical imperative that farmers should be able to improve their lives and communities through sustainable coffee farming. First, we provide detailed cost structures that allow the farmer to understand their costs and how to create profits with their resources. Thinking of the future we suggest targeted investments to ensure long-term profitability. Second, we provide detailed quality feedback as to the farmer’s coffee. This feedback will help them meet quality goals and the market’s demands. This, in turn, allows the farmer to benefit from a premium payout.”
A Tale of Two Trees
As I mentioned earlier, this year I tasted through several single-producer coffees and was blown away by all of them. Each has distinctive features and qualities which made them unique expressions of the Peruvian coffee landscape, but there were two coffees in particular I absolutely fell in love with.
There is a three-part evaluation that takes place for each green-coffee sample we receive at the Utopian Coffee Lab. The first method of evaluation is mainly visual. I look at and inspect the raw coffee sample for uniformity, color, and number of visible defects on the seeds. The second method of evaluation utilizes a UV Light and Moisture Reader in order to expose even more about the coffee’s “physical” quality. For an average sample to fall within the desired physical-quality specs, there must be a very low number of “glowing” seeds under the UV light, and moisture must fall within tight parameters set by the Specialty Coffee Association, as well as within Utopian’s defined parameters for shelf-stability. The third method of evaluation is sample-roasting the raw coffees and then tasting them. As I’ve mentioned in past blog posts, I try my best to be a very impartial cupper, but at the same time, I also have to be extremely rigorous in my scoring to ensure only the most remarkable and delicious coffees end up on the Utopian offering list for the year.
I was absolutely blown away by the physical quality of the samples I evaluated. I am not exaggerating when I say that everything was nearly perfect. All the moisture also fell into the desired ranges, and all the seeds were free of visible defects. This means the only way left to define quality was to taste through the samples in a blind-cupping.
Long story short, I went through four rounds of blind cuppings to select my favorite coffees from the pack, each with about 8-10 different coffees per round. None of them were bad whatsoever… quite the opposite, actually. All the coffees were really remarkable, which made it extremely difficult to select any! I loved different coffees for different reasons, and I felt like choosing one or two would be to not represent all the entire spectrum of wonderful flavors I tasted. Nonetheless I whittled the pack down to three coffees that I thought would give a great representation of the diversity of flavor and excellent quality of Peruvian coffee.
Milceades Minga – Gallito de la Roca
Surprisingly, two of the three comes came from the same farm and same producer, a gentleman named Milceades Minga.
Milceades is the owner of Gallito de la Roca farm near the village of Rumipite Bajo in the dense mountains of La Copia county. If you pull up a topological map of the area you’ll see that the entire area is nothing but mountains covered in endless acres of forest. It is in this context that Milceades farms around three acres of land with his wife Irene and his four children, as well as their grandchildren. On the farm Milceades cultivates corn, cassava, and plantains in addition to coffee. Milcaedes has worked with Origin Coffee Lab since 2016, and is now considered one of the senior members of their Cafe Solidario program.
In his own words, Milceades says that he inherited the farm from his father, and that coffee-farming has been in his family so long that no one knows exactly when it began. By producing coffee, Milceades hopes to improve the conditions on his farm, including making some upgrades to his coffee-processing equipment. He also hopes to build a “hotel” of sorts so coffee buyers can come and stay with him and his family on the farm and “to know about this beautiful place we live in, the nature around here and the farm itself.” Though I have not yet had the opportunity to speak directly with Milceades, the flavors I found in his coffee speak volumes about the kind of person he is. I truly believe he must live in a extraordinarily beautiful place, perfect for creating such delicious types of coffee.
Little did I know I was actually cupping two variety selections from the same farm! A variety selection in coffee means the coffee producer selected a single-variety (or type) of coffee tree to create a micro-lot. At Milceades farm he cultivates three distinct varieties: Pache, Caturra, and Bourbon. Each of these varieties are well known and highly regarded for the complex and dense flavors they provide in the cup. In the past we’ve highlighted both single-variety selections of Bourbon and Caturra (our Toldopamba Aponte is a single-variety selection of Caturra), but I’d never really worked with Pache. Regardless, I found the flavors coming from these two lot separations to be fascinating.
Pache Microlot Selection
In this first selection I taste tangy-fruitiness akin to dried apricots followed by genial spices like vanilla. As the coffee cools I begin to taste secondary fruited tones reminiscent of Fig Newtons as well as a bright lime-like characteristic in the acidity. As the coffee cools I pick up on flavors of white flowers, buttercream, and nutmeg.
Bourbon / Caturra Microlot Selection
In this second selection I find rich fruitiness similar to wild forest berries with a rustic nutmeg-like spiciness. As the coffee cools I taste waves of flavors like hazelnut, spiced chocolate, and rainier cherry. The cup profile is not as complex as the Pache selection, but the mouthfeel or texture of the coffee is slightly more juicy, round, and playful.
Both the variety selections from Milceades are wonderfully expressive and flavorful coffees. As soon as I am able, I plan to travel to Peru to spend time with the Origin Coffee Lab team and meet Milceades in person. I look forward to seeing his farm and learning more about his hopes and dreams moving forward. In the meantime, I will thoroughly enjoy his coffees and scheme of ways we can improve the quality even further.
At the end of the day, as a coffee roasting company that claims to care about people, it’s our duty to ensure that all the coffees were purchase are genuinely supporting the improvement of life for those whose coffees we enjoy so thoroughly. I love knowing that working with Origin Coffee Lab is a sustainable partnership, and that our commitment to purchasing their coffees and working together in greater depth in the future will yield new opportunities to better share the value created by specialty coffee. I invite you to join me on this journey to making the world we inhabit a better place for us all. Every bag of coffee counts and puts us one step closer to this idea of Utopia.