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  • Preparing high quality arabica - the basics

    Before targeting a market one should understand one's own product, and know how it might fit into one or the other of the many niches that make up the world coffee market. Even where individual producers grow the same varieties, there are differences in tree age, tree care, fertilization, processing, general maintenance and sometimes irrigation that cause coffee quality to vary from farm to farm, within the same geographical area, on the same mountain slope, and so on. When these differences are not too obvious it is possible to mix or blend such coffees into a stable, reasonably even quality. When the differences are too great, any blend becomes as good (or as bad) as its lowest components. One cannot hide poor quality by mixing it with better coffee.

    The degree of quality variation will depend on the size of the production area or region, the variables in that area (altitude, soil, water), the number of individual growers, whether the coffee faces north or south, and so on. Although not always appreciated as such, the same applies to individual estates, though to a lesser extent. Estates may also have excellent, good and mediocre blocks. By mixing all the coffee as it comes off the trees an estate may produce an acceptable product, and if the variability is not too great it can even be a good product. Mixing is often the only way to obtain commercially viable quantities and there is no problem with this as long as it is done on an informed basis. Perhaps the most important message here is that the uninformed mixing of different qualities or production batches is nearly always bad for business and for profits. Knowledgeable buyers will always recognize mixing, and in the end the grower or exporter may have to start all over again. In the meantime the reputation of the coffee or even an entire region may have been affected.

    The meaning of the word 'quality' is often misinterpreted.
    Unfortunately many producers and exporters appear to believe that all one needs to do to make quality coffee is to clean up the appearance of their usual standard coffee by some regrading and additional sorting. Expertise is sometimes lacking, not only at the producing end but also at the consuming end. Large quantities of so-called quality coffee are traded which show no quality at all.

    This is regrettable because, in the end, indifferent quality causes consumers to lose interest, as happened for example in the United States after the Second World War, with devastating consequences for consumption there. Fortunately, the market share of the United States specialty or gourmet segment is growing, and this may help to arrest if not reverse that trend.

    Accepting that not every grower, region or even country can produce absolute top quality, or visually perfect coffee, then the alternative must be to present the best possible coffee for those markets that show appreciation for that quality by rewarding the effort that goes into producing it. Without reward, growers cannot afford to invest the time and energy required to produce quality. The words 'present the best possible coffee' are used here because it is not the intention of this guide to praise or condemn any one cultivar or variety. Preferences in different markets vary, and so do the prospects of different varieties, types and qualities of coffee.

    Other than the wild, extremely bitter tasting Mascarocoffea (found wild in the forest on Madagascar), inherently bad tasting coffee does not exist. Even the poor Mascaro has its good point - it is entirely free of caffeine - but apparently it is also sterile when crossed.

    True, certain new cultivars may not deliver the quality characteristics of the original lines and this disappoints many coffee enthusiasts. But there is no inherently bad coffee, at least not when it is still on the tree. What happens to degrade the quality from then onwards is nearly always caused by human intervention.

    When discussing quality from the production perspective it is well to remember that someone, somewhere, is expected to drink the coffee. When recommending planting or replanting with disease-resistant or high-yielding hybrid varieties, one should ensure that the growers are exposed to all relevant information. So also, what is the expected quality and marketability of the coffee? What are the experiences with that coffee in the potential growers' own environment? The decision to change the variety one plants has to be an informed decision, one that includes an assessment of the quality and marketing potential.