When most people ask Tim Hill, “What is the best coffee and why?” the buyer and quality manager for Counter Culture Coffee likes to respond with another question: “What do you think makes one wine better than another wine – or any agricultural product?”
Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the Durham, North Carolina-based indie roaster has been a pioneer in the industry, expanding the horizons of what constitutes quality coffee and shining a light on sustainable practices. Part of the brand’s mission is to source beans as directly as possible from farmers and co-ops, and engage the public in awareness of origin initiatives, the craft of roasting and brewing experimentation at home.
“It is true that a lot of coffees taste alike because of the mass-produced approach that so many have taken, but this is an exciting time to have a better understanding of truly good coffee,” says Tim. “When you look at the genetic diversity of coffee in the world, it’s actually been relatively small, but that’s changing. In the next 15 years, we could think of coffee much more like wine. If I’m buying a wine blend, I want to see what’s in it and I’ll have an idea of its flavor. Coffee is getting closer to that approach.”
To know what separates good coffee from the rest, Tim says we should first consider three things: where it is grown, the variety and the process.
“The reality is that coffee is a really young industry, but it’s exciting to watch as we all develop a sense of discovery. If you have these three basic factors in mind, you can really find interesting coffees that taste dynamically different. Most good roasters are putting that information on their bags to help educate customers.”
Where it is grown
The soil, altitude and environment (terroir) have a profound impact on the flavor of coffee, so the location of the farm certainly matters. If you grow the same variety (and even process it the same) in Colombia and Costa Rica, the difference you would taste would be the terroir.
Generally, the higher the growing elevation, the more acidic flavor the coffee will have. And while elevation is a key factor, micro-climates within areas can also impact a coffee’s flavor.
Also, lakes and oceans can significantly affect the coffee. For example, Lake Yojoa in Honduras brings a micro-climate to that region, which helps coffee grown there have more acidity and unique flavors.
Each country is trying to experiment with what variety works best for its land. It is thought in Kenya the red clay soil helps promote the acidity of that country’s varieties.
Just like with wine and different types of grapes, the same is true of coffee varieties. A large percentage of the world has been drinking coffee that is a direct descendent of two varieties (Typica and Bourbon), but now we are finding more exotic types and more genetic diversity. Coffee originally came from Ethiopia, but today about 11,000 types of coffee with many different flavor profiles have been catalogued.
The Gesha varietal, floral and citric, is a good example of how variety and location matter. It’s an old Ethiopian coffee that select farms in Panama started growing and now wins competitions all over the world.
Today, most coffees are a mix of varieties (not a “single variety”), but with Counter Culture’s single origin, we try to give information about the types of varieties so you can learn more about the beans.
The handling of the coffee as it is processed is another key element to consider in the quality and flavor. For example, coffee that is naturally processed will generally have more of a sweet, fruit flavor. A pulp natural will have some fruit flavor and more sweetness. Washed process will have less fruit and cleaner flavors. Honey process will have a nuttier flavor. Also, the timing of when the beans are picked will have an impact on how ripe the coffee will taste.
These days, many customers aren’t putting 20 oz. of milk in their drinks, so this allows them to taste the more nuanced, interesting, delicate flavors in the actual coffee. Also, with the rise of the craft of baristas, they can better manipulate the original flavors.
At Counter Culture, we have a certain style of roasting coffee that creates a good balance of flavor and acidity. We also have a versatile range of profiles – from very light to fairly dark – but roasting all our beans to work for both espresso and drip.
In the future, you’ll see more farmers crafting the idea of creating a flavor profile for their farm. That’s when you really start seeing the coffee experience on a similar level as wine.