I spent the first few months of this year farming in Kona. I was recently considering everything I did not get out of the trip; all my unanswered questions. I could list about one million of them, but the ones that stick out relate to the significance of terroir in the development of the characteristics of the bean. I have broken it down to the basics:

 

Prior to brew method, and prior to roasting, and given that defects and problems in processing and handling are held to a minimum, why are any two green coffees different?

 

My understanding is that there are three variables: Terroir, Varietal, and Processing, where terroir is the geographic location and environmental conditions, varietal is the genetic makeup of the plant (bourbon vs caturra vs geisha etc), and processing is the method of fruit removal, fermentation, and drying that happens between harvest and green, ready to roast coffee.

 

Let’s say we have two coffee trees. Given the three variables listed above, the following situations are possible:

                TERROIR                     VARIETAL                    PROCESSING

0                   =                               =                                 =

1                   =                               =                                 ≠

2                   =                               ≠                                 =

3                   ≠                               =                                 =

4                   =                               ≠                                 ≠

5                   ≠                               =                                 ≠

6                   ≠                               ≠                                 =

7                   ≠                               ≠                                 ≠

 

Let’s consider 0 to be our baseline, where the farm, the varietal, and the processing method are all the same for our two plants. We are assuming that there would be no difference in the green coffee produced by these two plants. Variations 1-7 represent the possible different combinations of variables for our two plants. For example, in variation 1, the two plants grow on the same farm, they are the same varietal, but they are processed differently. In this case, the difference between the two resulting green coffees would be attributed to the different processing methods.

 

My questions are:          

  1. In variation 2, our two trees are different varietals on the same farm, and they undergo the same processing. How does the difference in varietal manifest in the cup? How significant is this difference?
  2. Similar to question a., in variation 5 our two trees are the same varietal but are in different regions and are undergoing different processing methods. If the varietal is the only thing that is the same, how does that manifest in the cup? Is the varietal a strong enough characteristic to be recognizable among the powerful influences imparted by terroir and process? Are there other ways in which the differences in varietal manifest?
  3. Variations 3 and 4 are the crux of my ponderings. In variation 3, the terroir is the only source of difference between the two plants, and in variation 4, the terroir is the only source of similarity between the two plants. It might be obvious that two plants of the same varietal, processed in the same way, from two different geographic regions are going to be different. But two plants on the same farm that are different varietals and are processed differently have only their terroir in common, and can we discern that in the cup?

I recognize that this model is an oversimplification, but my questions remain. I also recognize that bX is not primarily a farmers’ forum, but I value everyone’s input on this site and I think these are questions that we would all benefit from asking and discussing. Thanks!

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Stephen,

 

All good questions, and I don't really have answers. I think varietal is certainly distinguishable--some more easily than others. Even a novice will be able to taste the difference between a pacamara and a bourbon from the same farm. And other less "dramatic" varietals have cup tendencies that some cuppers think they can pick up.

 

But here's a nugget for your last query. At the NE roasters gathering we did a cupping with George Howell using a high quality estate guat that was sorted at Terroir (for the exercise itself) based on the amount of silverskin that remained on the green, post-processing. The point was not to ID silverskin flavor in the cup, but that this skin was one indicator of ripeness during harvest. (Simplifying here, but lots of silverskin would mean less ripe, no silverskin would mean more ripe, if I remember correctly.) The difference in cup characteristics was remarkable, and more ripe did not necessarily equal "better." And please note that this was extremely high quality coffee. We weren't cupping under and overripes--all of it was ripe, and picked at an appropriate time. My point is that "ripe" beans coming from the same exact tree, picked at the same exact time and processed on the same exact day, can taste very different from one another, so I don't know that a "control" for an experiment attempting terroir is possible in coffee. There are so many variables that we don't really understand.

 

Can't go by the silver skin, Matt. Different dry mills do different things to it. I had much silver skin on one batch lately (harvested at peak as always), and ran the green beans afterwards thru a color sorter. They were all silver skin free.

 

Reg. Stephen's variations: One can drive himself nuts with trying to get the perfect variation. And then even nuttier by trying to replicate the results when desirable. On our 4 acre farm I knew I had 2 different soil types. I tend to think now by working the land for a number of years, that I have 5 or 6!  Micro lots is one answer, but marketing micro lots is very difficult (How many samples of micro lots can I send out? How to market a small lot?)

 

The amount of fertilizer, soil health, pruning, pest control, rain fall, picking quality, are also additional factors to consider. Then the way a coffee is processed by fermentation vs strip pulping, forced heat or sun drying, moisture content and storage. All situations were even marginal errors influence the taste. 

I'm inclined to agree with the responders, that there are just simply too many variables to be able to narrowly define it into three "major" categories.  

 

What of soil chemistry?  What of rainfall?  What of humidity?  Those can change from year to year, and different specific proportions of minerals in the soil can attribute specific tastes to the coffee.  

 

I have noticed that it's easier to distinguish varietals from the same (rough) "terroir", but that the same varietal on different locals often are MORE different than the two varietals from the same "terroir", though not necessarily so.  

 

Processing is another variable, but it's more about shaping what's already there, in my opinion.  That is, while it is important, it's not the MOST important (assuming quality of processing is equal).  

 

 

Interesting things so far. I'm really glad this discussion is happening.

 

The one part of the OP's question that I haven't seen addressed thoroughly is, well, the question:

"But two plants on the same farm that are different varietals and are processed differently have only their terroir in common, and can we discern that in the cup?"

 

How does the "grown on Joachim's farm" show up in the cup, across different varietals and processing methods, in a predictable and identifiable way?

 

Jason, you hit it briefly:

"What of soil chemistry?  What of rainfall?  What of humidity?  Those can change from year to year, and different specific proportions of minerals in the soil can attribute specific tastes to the coffee."

 

Can you and/or others elaborate on this, and to what degree it shows up as commonality in the cup?

 

Again, nice discussion. Really hits an area where I have far more curiosity than knowledge.

To the quoted question, yes, it can be discerned in the cup.  How much variation is required for said discernment is another matter that may fall into the metaphysical category of "vagueness".  

 

In your regards to your direct question to me, I don't remember it all off-hand, but there was some good discussion on coffeed about this very thing some time ago.  I think it was related to iron or calcium ratios in the soil resulting in a specific umami-like taste in the cup.  I think I remember James Hoffmann using the word, "blood".  

 

I'm with you in that my curiosity FAR exceeds any knowledge that I may think I have on the topic.  I'm just recalling things that I have read.

Brady said:

Interesting things so far. I'm really glad this discussion is happening.

 

The one part of the OP's question that I haven't seen addressed thoroughly is, well, the question:

"But two plants on the same farm that are different varietals and are processed differently have only their terroir in common, and can we discern that in the cup?"

 

How does the "grown on Joachim's farm" show up in the cup, across different varietals and processing methods, in a predictable and identifiable way?

 

Jason, you hit it briefly:

"What of soil chemistry?  What of rainfall?  What of humidity?  Those can change from year to year, and different specific proportions of minerals in the soil can attribute specific tastes to the coffee."

 

Can you and/or others elaborate on this, and to what degree it shows up as commonality in the cup?

 

Again, nice discussion. Really hits an area where I have far more curiosity than knowledge.

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