Every coffee we source is grown from a specific species of coffee tree called Arabica, which is the most commonly used species in specialty coffee. Under the Arabica umbrella, we find several different subspecies of coffee trees, known as varietals, that each have unique characteristics contributing to the tree’s ability to yield fruit, resist insects, withstand different environmental influences, and more.
The varietal can also impact the flavor profile of the coffee. Some varietals have distinct and unique features about them that make them more or less desirable, while others easily adapt to the environment in which they grow, allowing the origin to more heavily influence the final result.
Lastly, some coffee trees are hybrids of two or sometimes three different varietals. Hybrid trees are skillfully created by farmers based on what they believe will grow best on their farms and what will produce the best product. This is why you might see a few different names on our bags in this spot.
Like great wine, coffee also benefits from growing at higher altitudes. Coffee trees that grow up in the mountains have to work harder to access water and nutrients in the soil, and this struggle lengthens the amount of time it takes for coffee cherries to fully ripen. This is great for us, because the longer the bean gets to sit inside of the slowly-ripening coffee cherry, the more time it has to interact with the sugars in the fruit, and this interaction develops amazing complexity in the coffee itself. If a coffee tree is grown at lower altitudes and has access to plenty of water, the cherries have a tendency to soak up water more quickly and store it in the cherries, which can often swell the fruit and dilute those beloved sugars within. It’s worth mentioning, however, that a higher altitude doesn’t necessarily mean better coffee, just more complexity in how it tastes!
Additionally, you may notice that coffees grown at higher altitudes can sometimes come with a higher price point; not only is this because of the higher quality and complexity of those coffees, but also because our coffee farmers have to implement more strategic and detail-oriented measures when harvesting coffee. Large pieces of equipment and machinery can’t make it up the mountainside, so it’s more likely that farmers will need to pick their coffee by hand, which is certainly more time consuming.
Natural, washed, semi-washed or honey-processed—these terms refer to the process of extracting the coffee beans from the cherry. This can dramatically impact the quality and character of the coffee, which is why it’s important to note. Natural process and washed process are most commonly used at origin, so let’s break those down a bit.
- Natural Process: Upon harvest, coffee cherries are immediately laid out to dry in the sun for 8-10 days. During the drying process, the bean interacts with the drying fruit, which enhances the fruitiness of the coffee.
- Washed Process: After the coffee cherries are picked, a machine is used to manually remove the bean from the fruit. Beans are then transferred to a water tank, where fermentation is used to break down any remaining fruit residue.
Similar to what we discussed in the elevation category, coffee drinkers sometimes enjoy the naturally processed coffees because the bean has an even greater amount of time to interact with the sugars in the cherry flesh, giving rise to more complexity and sweetness. But in areas where natural processing just isn’t practical, washed coffees still taste great!
If All Else Fails, Just Ask!
As you’ve probably been thinking, there’s so much to know about the world of coffee, and we encourage you to keep exploring and keep learning. If you need help discovering which coffee is right for you, check out our blog which describes each of the coffees we’re currently roasting. Even better, the next time you’re in our Carmel retail location, ask our team members for their input! And when you’re in the market to buy some beans, consider looking at those labels for a bit, and try something new – whether that’s a different origin, something with intriguing flavor notes, or exploring which process you enjoy the most – so you can continue learning more about what you like and how all those different factors affect your cup. Cheers!