So, what exactly are we hunting for?
For many people, specialty coffee may mean a method of preparation (espresso, filter, siphon, etc.), a place where coffee is consumed (the many high street ‘lifestyle’ coffee shops), a milk-based coffee ‘cocktail’ of espresso and syrups, an exotic origin or perhaps any coffee from a particular roaster.
But we believe that specialty coffee is all about the beans.
We define specialty coffee as: best of crop beans with distinctive flavour attributes, properly prepared and shipped, from a producing country or region with the appropriate geographic and climatic conditions. This is usually only the top 2 to 3 per cent of coffee production.
Coffee is grown throughout the tropics but the primary producing regions for specialty grades are found in Central and South America, the Caribbean, East Africa, India and Sumatra.
When seeking out specialty coffee, these are some important factors we look for:
- Soil quality
- Appropriate microclimate
- Producer expertise, including harvesting of ripe cherries only
- Potential for varietal separation and experimentation
- Milling and preparation expertise
Specialty Coffee Map
For a more in depth discussion of how to define specialty coffee - and the challenges faced along the complex chain from tree to cup - please see Ric Rhinehart’s excellent essay on the subject for the SCAA. We particularly like his conclusion:
“In the final analysis specialty coffee will be defined by the quality of the product, whether green bean, roasted bean or prepared beverage and by the quality of life that coffee can deliver to all of those involved in its cultivation, preparation and degustation. A coffee that delivers satisfaction on all counts and adds value to the lives and livelihoods of all involved is truly a specialty coffee.”
Once we have identified areas that are capable of producing specialty coffee, Mercanta goes ‘coffee hunting’ to find growers of the finest quality beans. We travel extensively throughout the year and, crucially, draw on our network of local contacts to find new and interesting farms that are committed to good agricultural, social and environmental practices.
We then blind cup our way through innumerable samples to find coffees that consistently stand out on the cupping table. We have built world-class coffee labs in our offices in the UK, USA, Guatemala and Colombia, and our whole team cups daily. When evaluating samples, we look for cleanness of cup, sweetness, and quality of aroma, flavour, aftertaste, acidity, body and balance. We are also, of course, on the look out for defects - for example: age, phenol or ferment.
When we find a coffee we like we seek to negotiate the price directly with its producer wherever we can. We then arrange prompt shipment with a shipping line we know and trust. Often we pack our coffees in Grain Pro bags, PET bags or vacuum packs in order to maintain maximum freshness.