Sunday, October 9, 2011

The ABC of the Dota Tarrazu coffee region

The Tarrazu region in Costa Rica, or Dota Tarrazu, as we like to call it in Down to Earth,  is Costa Rica's premiere coffee producing region.  Considered one of the top three regions of the world for the production of coffee along with Kona from Hawaii and Blue Mountain from Jamaica, Dota Tarrazu produces very distinctive coffee with a set of characteristics of aroma and flavor that make it unique.

-- Why do we  add Dota to the Tarrazu name in Down to Earth?  Well, to start, our farm is located in the town of Providencia, in the Dota county.  Also, it is not only a matter of pride in our harvest but also a definite issue of quality.  The Dota county occupies the highest part of the Tarrazu region, with an average of 900 feet (300 meters) higher altitude over the rest.  This creates a smoother, more balanced coffee than the norm of the Tarrazu region.  But don't get me wrong,  we are happy to be part of Tarrazu; aside from true connoisseurs that know and ponder the virtues of the Dota coffee, Tarrazu is the recognized name in the industry and like it or not, there are benefits to market our coffee under this umbrella.

Rather than getting into the characteristics of the coffee, I want to lay down the basics of the Dota Tarrazu coffee region.  This is very important because there are a lot of coffees blended with Dota Tarrazu beans, and there are a lot of coffees that claim to be from Tarrazu but like anything, there is always people who like to stretch the truth...and the boundaries of the region at the same time.

So, here is the ABC of Tarrazu:

--The Tarrazu region is made up of three counties:  Tarrazu, Dota and Leon Cortes.  That is the original Tarrazu region, known for producing a balanced coffee with very distinctive traits, like a chocolate nutty aroma, good body and high acidity.

-- The Tarrazu region has been producing Costa Rica's best coffee since 1865 and it is a key ingredient in the blends of some of the best known coffee brands.  For instance, Starbucks, Peet's, Green Mountain, Nestle/Nespresso, Hockland Kaffee and many others buy Tarrazu coffee in great quantities to flavor their blends. In some cases, like Starbucks, they sell  a Costa Rica Tarrazu blend and identify it as such.  Also, Starbucks has used beans from Dota Tarrazu for its Black Apron specials a couple of times in the last few years.

-- Origin of the name:  The coffee region is known as Tarrazu because, when coffee production started in 1865, Tarrazu was the only county, so the entire production of coffee was credited to it.  The Tarrazu county was officially created in 1868 and presently covers only 25% of its original area.  The Dota county was created in 1925 and Leon Cortes in 1961, and both areas came out of the original Tarrazu county.

This is an interesting point because marketers with an interest in the Tarrazu county claim a distinctive characteristic in the coffee produced by them, and claim ownership of the "Tarrazu" concept over Dota and Leon Cortes.  But when you look at the history of the region, the reason is a very different one.

--The three counties cover 812 square kilometers, or 313 square miles, with Dota covering the largest extension, actually 55% of the entire region.  Tarrazu covers about 30% and Leon Cortes covers 15% of the region's total area.  It is interesting to note that only 85% of the Dota Tarrazu region grows within the SHB range, 15% of it falls outside of the SHB range and is officially classified as HB.

--  Both Leon Cortes and Tarrazu have the highest percentage of their area dedicated to coffee, an average of 63% and Dota only 49%.  Tarrazu and Leon Cortes have the lowest area dedicated to forests, an average of 17% and Dota the largest, with 34%.  The main reason for these percentages is that the higher part of Dota, reaching 9,500 feet (3,000 meters) of altitude,  is not good for coffee and is being preserved as a habitat for the Quetzal, one of the most beautiful birds in the world.
-- The key to the success of the Tarrazu coffee is the sense of pride that the producers put in the harvest.  A total of 95% of the region's coffee is produced in family owned-and-operated farms.  In absolute terms, there are 6,600 farms averaging 10 acres each.  Out of these, 6,000 are worked on exclusively by the family members that own it.

-- There are different cup profiles within the same region for the same reason that coffee can show different flavor if it was grown facing East or West.  For instance, the coffee from the Tarrazu county is more acidic, the one from Leon Cortes might appear "bland" to the untrained palate and the Dota cup has a more balanced taste.  When we want to get boastful, the producers of the Dota county  like to say that our coffee makes Tarrazu taste good, but the official cup profile is one where the characteristics of the three counties join to produce a distinctive taste.

-- The Tarrazu name is in the process of becoming a Protected Origin, such as Champagne, La Rioja, Burgundy, Bordeaux, etc.  The Department of Food & Agriculture from Spain has been a key player in the process by providing the knowledge and experience to develop a coherent and consistent body of regulations on the Tarrazu brand.  Known all over the world as a gourmet haven, Spain has many regions under a protected origin status for wine, ham, olives and many other products.

The Tarrazu protected origin is a great honor  and creates a Tarrazu brand, managed by a committee with legal control over the use of the word Tarrazu in coffee packaging.  When this process is concluded, a company will need to prove that the coffee has been grown, harvested and processed in the region in order to identify it as Tarrazu.   The comittee will legally regulate the use of the word Tarrazu and hopefully stop some of the abuse that goes on now.

-  Presently, the Tarrazu origin name is being abused in a few different ways and to set the stage for this section, let me state that there are 12 times more Tarrazu coffee being offered around the world than it is possible to produce in the three original counties.

The first issue is the abuse on the part of the big industrial concerns that market Costa Rican coffee.  They buy coffee from the surrounding counties of the region and still call it Tarrazu.  Surprisingly,  the Costa Rica Coffee Institute (ICAFE) is not helping the cause of the three original counties.  In a very political move, and under presure from the international industrial concerns, the Institute passed a resolution where the 5 counties surrounding the Dota Tarrazu region can also sell their coffee under the Tarrazu appelation. This and other positions by the Institute are being challenged in court by the Tarrazu Origin committee, the only one empowered to oversee the region's use of the name Tarrazu.

Another form of abuse is when a marketer in the destination country adds 5% or 10% of our coffee to a blend and calls it Tarrazu, or Costa Rica Tarrazu.   Most of the time, that ingredient is not even first quality Tarrazu but inferior categories that will still lend some of its characteristics to a blend.

But the worst case is when a company creates a "Tarrazu-type" blend, by using coffees from different origins that produce a similar cup profile than Tarrazu. This is the case of "Tarrazu" coffees being sold for a low price in the discount stores of the USA and CAN.  For good measure, and taking into consideration the economics of the region and the level of production, there is no chance a consumer can find pure Tarrazu coffee, or a blend with a decent percentage of Tarrazu, for under $11 a pound.

In other words, a lot of the Tarrazu coffee being sold around the world is either a knock off or "hopeful-by-proximity", and neither is the real thing.  I would go as far as saying that the true aroma and flavor of 100% pure Dota Tarrazu is a mystery for most coffee drinkers, except to the Down to Earth customers.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Grind fine for better flavor and aroma

Full aroma is one of the main traits of Costa Rican coffee, specially the one we produce in my farm in the Dota region.  So, if you like to get the most out of each cup, grind as fine as you can. 

You will probably have to deal with a residue in your cup, but if you don't mind that, then you are in for a special treat.

I just spoke with one of my customers from Bosque Farms, New Mexico today, and he shared his experience with me.  He started buying my Dark roast ground but later moved to my Espresso ground and kept brewing it in their regular coffee maker. 

To deal with the residue in the cup, they simply added a paper filter to the machine (it has its own gold metal filter so the paper filter is additional) and a fuller cup is ready to be served.

Like anything new, there is no guarantee that you will like the results but it is worth a try.  You can do this with any of my roasts, by grinding fine you will get more aroma and flavor out of it.

Give it a try and let me know.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Roasting is key to make coffee taste good

Eleven years ago, when I started producing coffee in the Dota mountains of the Tarrazu region in Costa Rica, I did not do the roasting personally, I used to take it to a roaster and even though I was there all the time and got involved in the process, the roasting was somebody else's craft.

A few years later I decided that to master my product completely I had to roast it myself. Once I got into it felt I had found my true calling: shaping the flavor of your coffee in 15 to 20 minutes is what it is all about. It does not matter how good the coffee grows and how much care you put in the process, if the roasting is not good, then the coffee quality that you worked for is ruined, or at least diminished.

So, how can the roasting spoil coffee? "Roasting is the key factor in driving the bitter taste in coffee beans", says Dr Thomas Hofmann, a German expert in Food Chemistry and Molecular Sensory Science. "So the stronger you roast the coffee, the more harsh it tends to get". He adds that "prolonged roasting triggers a cascade of chemical reactions that lead to the formation of the most intense bitter compounds. The roasting process changes the chemistry of the coffee bean".

This concept answers many questions, like Why Starbucks coffee tastes so bitter? Why does Starbucks coffee have a taste almost like it is burnt?

I have been telling people for years, both at the farm coffee tour and at my store, that the lighter roasts are the better cups of coffee, technically speaking. At the same time, i tell people that there it does not make any sense to swimm against the current, you like what you like. But if you have a chance, give the lighter roasts a chance. The light roast might be too much of a change but the medium is the perfect point to start.

If you prefer Darker roasts, you are safe with my dark and my espresso roasts. As a principle I dont roast as dark as the commercial brands so you would not find that extreme bitterness in them. I actually had to adjust my Dark roast standard because i would often get emails from customers who expected it to be "stronger" or show more of a "shine". These two are the characteristics of a dark roast like the one that Dr Hoffman described above.

I hope this article provides enough insight in your coffee. Knowing what you like and how it comes to be that way is key to know where you are going to go next.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

What is happening to coffee taste

I have a few selected places in San Jose, Costa Rica where i can go have a cup of coffee in a time of need, they are commercial venues that can serve a decent cup of coffee before i get home.

But about three months ago I had a surprise. The cappuccino i ordered from one of these places tasted really bad, my feeling that it was not done properly so i asked the girl to do it again. The second time around it was just as bad. So i took a look at the beans in the machine and alas, they were over-roasted. One thing led to another and soon i heard from the employees that their coffee was suddenly coming darker. They wanted to know why.

Sadly for them, the reason was simple. The world shortage and the skyrocketing of coffee prices had forced their supplier to alter the blend to include cheaper, lower quality beans as fillers, in a proportion greater than before. And the way to hide that was to roast even darker, hoping that the stronger flavor would disguise the bad quality in it.

For anybody in the business it was a no brainer. If the coffee is more expensive you look for a cheaper bean to maintain your profit margin. But, for the consumers, nothing like that makes sense. They come to a coffee shop to enjoy consistent quality, not something different that does not taste as good as before.

I visit this shop often and they are still getting the same lower quality product. Probably the owner does not know or does not care. And the same must be happening around the world. With market prices up almost 100%, and retail prices of coffee increasing as much as 80%, you should be prepared to drink a lower quality blend.

Bottom line is that this will be a way to see how reputable your coffee brand/coffee shop is. If the quality goes down substantially, you better look for a new source somewhere else. If the quality stayed the same with a small increase in the price you pay, you should feel proud because your shop values you tremendously. They are probably taking a hit in the profit margin, partly off-setting it with a small increase in prices, but they are sticking to quality. And in turn, you should stick with them.

Writing about coffee again

My audience of three should be happy to see that I am back. Yes, I started this coffee blog in 2009 and just like 90% of bloggers I never wrote back.

Why? Well, it is a mix of a few very good reasons. First of all, I wrote all encompassing articles about coffee quality and taste that made me feel I had said it all. I also have very little time and writing to me is a state of mind, I need to be in the mood and have the peace of mind to do it. I also spend a lot of time on the road between the farm and the store, with my home & family exactly at the half way point, so it is always hard.

But the most important reason, is that most of the time i can not think of things to write. For some reason I dont consider my experience as a Costa Rican coffee grower and roaster important. Yes, i know, that is crazy, and when i analyze it, I come to the conclusion that i am silly.

One of the events that started to make me change my mind was a couple of visitors i had in the farm. A Canadian couple came in late January 2011 to spend a week at the farm. And they not only wanted to come visit but also paid for it (!!!!).

If that was not enough of a clue, they also had a great time and are still telling me about it. She is a writer who just published her first travel article about her experience at the Down to Earth Estate. He is a coffee blogger who is still publishing articles about the process and all he learned during that week. (check him out at www.coffeetroupe.com)

Seeing people that interested was an eye opener. I do coffee because i love it and i enjoy the appreciation of my customers. What a great feeling is to open up my email and see messages from people telling me how much they love my coffee.

So, I am back. From now on my articles will be more about the personal experience of producing and selling coffee than educational. I will still throw in some facts and tips, probably comments about how the industry practices affect you, that is also expected from me, but this is going to change a bit in focus. I hope you enjoy it.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Altitude is key for good coffee

Coffee marketers are clever, they use the altitude claim over and over, but without really committing to a range. And that is actually the most important issue in coffee quality.

That is why, the next time you see a bag or an ad promoting HIGHLAND coffee or MOUNTAIN GROWN coffee, please ask how tall the mountain was. Why? Because it makes all the difference in the world. Coffee quality is classified according to altitude ranges, being the highest and best the SHB, or Strictly Hard Bean.

SHB is coffee that grows between 4,900 and 6,000 feet. Above that, coffee quality and productivity starts to dwindle and below that you get an array of lower quality beans without a well defined personality that are mostly good for fillers, specially in the 2,400 feet altitude range.

So why is coffee better in the SHB range? Because at that altitude, the temperature at night goes very low, around 45 F to 50 F, and that slows down the metabolism of the tree which then produces a smaller, denser bean that concentrates aroma and flavor. The size of the true SHB beans is much smaller than the regular coffee beans and can be recognized because they have a corrugated surface.

In the SHB range, the growth process is slower than normal and the plant goes well into the dry season (summer) maturing the bean. This also contributes to the smaller size because the plant and the bean dehydrate. Our farm, in the Dota county of the Tarrazu region, is a late harvest area if you compare it with the rest of the country. Most areas in the Central Valley of Costa Rica are done with their coffee harvest by the time we start in late December.

If you are serious about coffee, please make sure you demand Strictly Hard Beans (SHB). Now, if the coffee you buy is a blend, the SHB beans will not be pure but used only in a small percentage to flavor the blend and most of the beans will be lower altitude ranges. Long gone are the days when blending was done to search for the ultimate cup of coffee.

Nowadays, blending is the norm and done to stretch out the good beans with lower cost fillers. The rule is that the more commercial the coffee, the lower the quantity of good beans in it. Unfortunately, coffee is like a drug where every hand that touches it on the way to the market cuts it down. Just to give you an idea, you can find blends where the percentage of Single Origin SBH coffee is 3% to 5% and the rest is fillers. The worst problem is that the coffee at this quality abounds in the market and the finer coffees are the exception. but there is always hope, and you just have to be careful of what you buy and always demand the best.

Enjoy your cup!

Coffee blends are bad

What is so bad about coffee blending?

Well, first of all, I want to make clear that, plain and simple, blending is done to make a bag of coffee more profitable. Fortunately for marketers, and unfortunately for you, excellent quality beans can positively impact the flavor of a blend in a very low percentage, sometimes as low as 10% to 20%, and make it the $13 bag of coffee that you have in your kitchen.

Now, what are the consequences of commercial coffee blends?

First of all, you get a higher caffeine content. Low cost fillers are produced in low altitude plantations, picked under less strict standards than gourmet coffee and most likely come from the Robusta tree.

All of these conditions brew a higher caffeine content in your cup. A ripe coffee bean that has reached its perfect stage of maturity has 50% less caffeine than 4 weeks earlier when it was green; highly commercial coffee operations do not make an effort to pick only the ripe coffee beans and also harvest beans that are still green, therefore bringing in more caffeine to your cup.

The Robusta tree, purposely used to produce low cost fillers, has a higher caffeine content than the Arabica beans and it is heavily used in blends, with some low end brands exclusively using 100% Robusta beans. The Robusta beans, four and five times cheaper than the gourmet Arabica beans, are mainly the product of Brazil, Vietnam and Honduras, and prohibited by law in Costa Rica.


How about taste?

The effect of blending in the taste of your cup ranges from a feeling of watered down elements of aroma and flavor to a harsh, bitter aftertaste.

If the fillers used are decent, they will take up space in the bag and will not bring in any specific characteristics to the cup, they will immediately dilute the excellent taste of the good beans at one fourth the price; if they are used in a great percentage, they will simply neutralize the elements of aroma and flavor of the good beans and produce an unattractive run of the mill cup of coffee. Either way you are in the losing end of a proposition that has been created to allow the brand name to cash in big time.

Now, if the fillers are very low quality beans, the fine aroma of the original beans is overtaken by the imperfections of the low end fillers. That is when your brand name coffee needs to be sprayed with chemically produced coffee aroma in order to be appealing. Also, coffee this bad will generate a harsh feeling in your throat and will leave a lingering bad aftertaste that ranges between bitter and metallic. Generally, makers of this coffee will resort to a very dark roast in order to create the perception of "richness" in the cup while narrowing the range of aroma & flavor and hiding the low quality.

All in all, a blend simply destroys the distinctive characteristics of a Single Origin coffee and spoils what should be a very rewarding coffee experience. If you want to further explore this subject, search the web for an article by the Wall Street Journal called "Why does coffee taste so bad in the USA". It is as shocking as informative.

So, what can be done to avoid the pitfalls of coffee blending? A couple of things come to mind. The simplest is to avoid buying ground coffee. Grinding coffee is the best way to hide the telling characteristics of a low quality blend.

A harder approach is to enact changes in the law, like forcing brands to list the types of beans used in the blend and in what percentages. That would empower you by allowing you to better decide on the coffee you buy. Now, how do we achieve a change like this? I sincerely do not know. Should you write your congressman about it? Well, he has more important things on his desk right now but for sure something must be done.

Meanwhile, put your money in the Single Origin coffees and enjoy your cup.