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Purist or Process

The thread between people's personalities and beverage preferences never fails to fascinate me. Some people are very process-oriented and respect and admire the control or personalization a craftsperson can make on their product. Others are purists and wish to experience the food or drink in its most unmolested form. This can be seen very clearly among coffee fans and pros alike. For those who feel forced to choose, these can be very divisive times to live in.

For a very long time, coffee was treated like a spice. Something stored for times when you needed it or company was coming. It took centuries but eventually, it became respected for its inherent natural flavors. Coffee advocates had lobbied for it to be treated as wine and prize the terroir of each of its unique origins. This of course is the purist approach. It was good for coffee and helped elevate its place in the mind of the consumer and add value to the price it would fetch.

Today, we are in the midst of a producer revolution where experimental fermentations, out-of-context varietals, and innovative agricultural techniques are creating new flavor profiles making it virtually impossible to distinguish origin, let alone specific terroir. These innovations have been in the works for years in places like Costa Rica and Colombia however, these techniques have become ubiquitous across continents. They have recently hit a saturation point where these processes are being featured on the retail bag as a way of displaying value. There is a specific audience for these types of coffee and it is growing.

For the purist, this is a nightmare scenario where they can no longer play, “name-that-origin” with any amount of confidence at the cupping table. For the producer, it is a compelling prospect to add value to their coffee without a large investment or years-long learning curve.

In reality, there is nothing to be feared. This type of product will always be relegated to a niche category. Terroir coffees will remain, and stalwart flavor profiles will continue to hold fast. If there is one trend in green coffee that is more unsettling, it is the widening of the belt on middle-of-the-road coffees. That soft target between 82-84pt coffees that are clean, and sweet without too much acidic nuance. These coffees have their place and they generally lie in blends for large-volume roasters. The demand for this type has grown so vast that it is becoming difficult to find truly interesting or nuanced coffees. This demand creates a motivation for producers to create “type” blends at origin to meet these needs, often leaving behind more interesting coffees that could have had a voice of their own. This trend is truly an affectation of specialty coffee's success in being embraced by the majority. The consumer preference toward higher quality has created a demand that could only be satisfied through homogeneous, boring flavor profiles. The same effect has occurred in many food groups that became popular over time and as a result, were gradually made less special. Specialty coffee is becoming a victim of its success.

Someone once asked me, “Why does Starbucks use bad coffee?” With a smirk, I said, “They use the correct coffees for what they are trying to accomplish, a consistent flavor around the world. We should all be thankful that they do not venture fully into Specialty coffee. For if Starbucks did, there would not be enough Specialty for any other roasters.” Then, of course, came the Reserve, and coffee's homogenous waistline grew again. More followed from there and here we are. Whether you are a purist or a process fiend, both camps agree that nuance and distinctive flavor are the targets.


Written by Jake Leonti, F+B Therapy 

Mr. Leonti has worked in coffee for over twenty years with disciplines at every link of the value chain from barista to roasting, green grading and importing. Jake is the current Editor-in-Chief of Coffee Talk Magazine, columnist at Santé Magazine, member of the Roasters Guild and host of the Food and Beverage Therapy podcast

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