Roasters Rock – What Roasters Should Know About Processing

For years now we have had the unique position as roasters to be the guardians of the most transformative part of the coffee supply chain. By applying heat and activating the chemical reactions we turn a grassy tasting agricultural product into a potential liquid masterpiece. We hand it off to a barista or consumer that will add water and their own transformative energy to create the final step in the coffee journey.

The supply chain has many ‘unsung heroes’ that also add transformative value, but they are so far removed from that final cup, it is easy to overlook their efforts. Let’s take a quick refresher on who the actors in the supply chain are:

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(Graphic gratuitously stolen from CQI PowerPoint!)

Right in the middle of this chain the coffee moves from Origin and arrives where we are. But the other half of this chain is what we will be examining in this article. Specifically we are going to examine the craft of being a Processor of coffee.

Before we can view this transformative moment as a craft, we need to break down what actually happens at this step and what decisions are being made. Only then can we appreciate the complexity of those decisions and admire the craft.

A processor represents a job function that takes the raw material of coffee and creates the exportable green bean. Sometimes they are in the employment of the Estate that grew the coffee. Sometimes they are in a community cooperative. They can also be an independent company or even be in the employment of the coffee exporter. The point is that it does not matter who employs them, it only matters that they understand their role and do it well.

The job function requires a certain number of steps: There is some level of fermentation. The product must be dried to 11+/-1% moisture. The outer layers of the coffee cherry must be removed and the seeds must get sorted and classified. This is very clinical and when written like this seems a bit simplistic. This job is anything but simplistic!

So here is where the ‘consuming country actors’ get very confused. There is a growing number of marketing terms being invented, (Thanks a lot Graziano!) to describe various types of processing that are clogging up the communication like Black Honey clogs a mechanical dryer. In an effort to create some industry standards, SCA and CQI have been assigning smart people to help classify what is happening to the coffee and what we should call it.

If you are lucky enough to get the opportunity to take it; CQI has a new set of classes just on processing coffee. The Q-Processing Program. There are 3 levels to this program. The first is the Processing Generalist. This is a 2 day overview class designed for ‘Urban students’ to help them better understand the complexities of processing coffee as well as to create some common language around communicating about processing. The level 2 and 3 classes are for those that actually do this work and the classes happen at origin during harvest.

When you take the Level 1 Generalist course you will enter with an attitude of “Yeah, I know this stuff. I have been in coffee for years.” Well, prepared to be blown away because you probably don’t know as much as you think. One of the important aha moments is that this work is being done by people who value their craft as much as you do and want to get better.

Here is one of the most functional tables from the class because it helps define the layers of processing in a much sharper and focused way. 

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Another blatantly stolen table from CQI.

If you look at the Technical name, you can see it is derived from a combination of the last layer remaining at the end of drying as well as what was done to the fruit. It gets more nuanced when we get to mucilage dried coffee. This is where people marketing coffee nuance drying style by leaving some or all of the mucilage on the parchment and invent names like ‘Golden Honey’, Black Honey’ etc.

The level 2 class is done at origin where you are required to go to a coffee farm and then create all of the above coffees from the same raw material off the farm. You get to experiment with the difference just in things like spreading out a pile of coffee dry-fermenting vs. leaving it piled up. Understanding the little nuances that will make coffee form a particular profile is the craft of the processor. 

They will make choices on fermentation, pulping or not, processing as well as how to dry it based on what works in the conditions surrounding the processing plant. They will also know what works best for their coffee. So be a little humble and respect the actions of this unsung craftsperson.

Rocky Rhodes is an 18 year coffee veteran, roaster, and Q-Grader Instructor, and his mission now is to transform the coffee supply chain and make sweeping differences in the lives of those that produce the green coffee. Rocky can be reached at [email protected]

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