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100 Year Old Coffee

Some things better with age – wine and cheese come to mind. Some things don’t – milk and bread. But what about coffee? Can the age of a tree make a difference in the quality of the coffee?

Ted Lingle brought an interesting sample / experiment back from his work in the Yunnan Province of China. He is doing work there with the Yunnan Coffee Exchange to help the entire industry, from the farmer on up, improve not only the quality of coffee, but the delivery mechanism. He is helping YCE change the ordering methodology as well as the export model of specialty coffee.

What he brought was a fascinating trio of samples so a ‘vertical cupping’ could be done. What is a vertical cupping? Glad you asked, because it wasn’t clear to us either! In this case, the experiment had only one real variable: Plant Tissue Age. And the age difference is DRAMATIC. 10 year old trees, 70 year old trees and 100 year old trees!

To get to the end of this experiment, you have to go back to the beginning. French missionaries brought coffee to Binchuan, Dali Prefecture of Yunnan in 1904. A tree was planted and then survived until 1997. Seeds from that tree were plated and a farm was started between 1908 and 1912. That ancient forest still produces coffee today. In addition, farm expansion created a generational farm of trees, all from the same original planting.

Today, the farm is owned by Binchuan Plateau Organic Agriculture Development Co., Ltd. The farm area has expanded to just under 5000 acres, but this ancient forest remains intact.

So the samples to be cupped are from that same original tree. 100 year old trees, 70 year old trees and 10 year old trees. A significant change over the century is that better production practices are in place. All of these samples are washed, and carefully sorted. The only real variation in regard to production for the three samples was that the 100 year old sample was dried a bit further than the other two.

One has to question many things when presented with this type of historical opportunity:

Is there a difference in yield?

Is there a difference in cup quality?

What type of soil conditions are there after 100 years of growing coffee?

Is there a density difference among these coffees?

Unfortunately, only one thing is going to be answered in this article: Differences in cup quality. It would be wonderful to get some additional opportunities to really dig into the research. Now that we know this opportunity exists, it can be scheduled and planned for an even more detailed set of experiments.

The sample size of each age group was 550 grams. An SCA / CQI sample roast profile was achieved for each sample. In addition to the three China samples were two from Indonesia. Both were washed coffees; one from Sulawesi and one from Sumatra. All the samples were placed on the cupping table ‘blind’ so the pre-conceived notions about age did not affect the outcome.

Prior to the cupping a hypothesis was created: The older age of tree will degrade the cup quality.

Following the cupping, all samples were scored and notes taken. When the notes were finished the coffees were revealed.


The following are the cupping results for the 3 different ages of the coffee. Needless to say we were surprised by the results and more questions were raised than were answered!

In general, there were more things about the coffees that were the same, rather than different. The total point difference between them was only 1.25! With this single experiment it would be impossible to draw any concrete conclusions. If a conclusion HAD to be drawn, it would be that age of tree does not impact cup quality! The ‘youngest’ scored the lowest and the ‘oldest’ the highest.

All three coffees had spicy notes and some Sugar Browning odors. The dominant was in the Dry Distillation group and none were extremely complex. 10 was the only one to have any (small) enzymatic odors.

All three had a fairly dry finish after a pleasant flavor. The flavors were similar for all three with Bakers Chocolate and light amounts of Lemon and Orange. 100 was the only one with a complexity of acidity which started to present a fruity Acetic acid. Perhaps it was psychological, but notes of black tea were present in 10 and 100.

The body was stable throughout the cupping from hot to cold. The only one to improve was 10.

Summary of cupping: All three samples were certainly produced to ‘Specialty’ standards. The green was clean. There were little to no quakers. The cup quality was solidly over 80. The age seemed to have made little difference in the overall result of the cupping. The variations found could be just as easily been produced with different post-harvest practices as the age of the tree.

Thank you Ted for bringing this opportunity for such a unique cupping experience. Now we have to do some other vertical cuppings to see if the data is consistent! This could be a fun journey!

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

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