Decoding Terroir

Coffee is a magnificent agricultural product. It’s a vehicle, a means of expression, its one of those amazing products that nature uses to embed its mysterious ways. There are many factors that influence the coding of this message, a combination of geography, geology, climate, and latitude are all imprinted into the coffee and this is what we’ve come to know as terroir. I’ve come to believe that nature is so purposeful that it doesn’t stop at the obvious and goes into pursuing the botanical surrounding, the process, handling, and even the human characters it interacts with in order to fully express the message.
Those of us working in coffee are often mesmerized at the amazing and uncommon way in which we discover this expression of grandeur, as the message is often heavily coded and it takes dedication in order to finally begin to grasp it. Once we believe we have taken an interesting approach and “figured out” a coffee, there’s still a gigantic gap that separates a sample in a cupping table from its final outcome in production roasting.
We’ve come a long way in the process of terroir decoding (if you will), starting with the wide proliferation and popularity the market has demanded from different origins and producing countries. Among these we have seen amazing progress in narrowing producing countries into coffee producing regions, such is the case of Guatemala, Brazil, El Salvador, and many other countries that have decided to recognize and promote their diversity. Slowly within this trends we’ve seen Single Estates and Micro Farms begin to surface as names that are synonymous with quality, and we’ve seen them become very popular because there is something very special about them.
“But what exactly is so special about these coffees? And what exactly determines a remarkable cup of coffee on the table?” I like to see it in a very simple way, along the line of terroir coding there is a chain of perfection that was followed flawlessly. It means that somewhere down the line, a particular coffee received the right conditions of climate, nurture, and process, paired with exactly the right handling, so by the time its seating in our table its shouting in aromatic expression the story of all that process it had to go through.
In terms of knowing your coffee, the best way you can do this is at the cupping table. A methodical, constant and critical evaluation of your coffee will allow you to know it better. More than this, it will allow you to discover and to decode it.
When using terroir as the quality basis for attracting customers, there are various steps to follow:
1. To have knowledge on the traceability of the coffee. Specialty Coffee can only be defined if we know where it comes from and who produced it. Terroir is about the combination of these two factors.
2. Are these notes or is this terroir? There’s a thin line that separates this confusion, and often we make the mistake of taking notes present under a specific roast profile and certain brewing-cupping condition as the actual meaning and discovery of terroir. A coffee’s true character will be that combination of attributes, aromatic, structural, sweetness, acidity, mouthfeel, and flavors, that become established within a coffee profile year after year.
3. Build Relationships. When you purchase a coffee year after year, not only are you becoming familiar with it and learning how to develop it properly, you are making a commitment with those who produced it. By committing to work with a specific farm or region you are providing the necessary economic incentive for development which ultimately ends in better farming practices and the constant pursuit of excellence that will distinguish what you are roasting and serving.
4. Educate. You are enthusiastic about your coffee and the many underlying relationships that bring you coffee, share your enthusiasm with your customers. By committing to feature some of the same coffees year after year you will also garnish a following and further commitment on behalf of your customers who will continue to buy these coffees for very much the same reasons they continue to seek the same wines or dine at the same restaurant: it’s personal.
In the same manner in which we choose or find our friends and stick with some over the years, the exact same way some coffees appeal or not to the people that choose them. It becomes then a matter of relationship and as in any relationship one needs to understand and know one another and that takes time. Learn, engage, and challenge yourself; just as a French vigneron takes pride in giving its signature to the blending of his wine, develop your coffee so that together you may tell its story and the signature you’re imprinting on its final coding.

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