Seriously Seed to Cup

“Seed to cup” is the coffee industry’s equivalent of “farm to table,” a much used phrase intended to describe one person’s (or company’s) involvement in the process of transforming coffee from plant to drink. It’s been a buzzphrase for a few years, and while it may have been edgy and evocative in its first days, it’s running the risk of becoming rote. When someone says “seed to cup,” what does that actually mean? It can certainly mean many things, as coffee knows no single path from tree to prepared beverage.

As an avid coffee drinker, I feel fortunate to know exactly what it means for most of the coffees I drink. Knowing that I’ve traveled to many coffee origins and have peeked behind the scenes of many different coffee brands, people will often ask me what I drink at home. I always feel a little guilty that my answer can’t be more of a recommendation that other avid drinkers can replicate; I only drink coffee from people I know.

Some of the stockpile, old and new. (At this point some is sentimental artifact)
Some of the stockpile, old and new. (At this point some is sentimental artifact)

I literally have stockpiles of beans and grounds. (At this point I basically only drink stale coffee because I can’t possibly move through everything I have while it’s still fresh—and I drink many cups a day! I’m also hoard what people give me; I share the love with all family and friends who own a coffee maker!)

Some of the coffee is from roasters or shop owners whom I know, and in those cases I have not met the growers themselves. But, I am infinitely fortunate in that most of the coffee I drink is grown by people who have become my friends and whose farms I have visited. Because coffee takes some time to process and rest and roast, I’ve always seen the seeds on the farms and then taken some coffee home to make, but it’s never been those same seeds that I saw on the trees that make it into my cup. The harvest on the trees will always be one removed from the bags ready for sale at any given moment.

Don Tito's seeds on trees
Don Tito’s seeds on trees

I decided to challenge myself with making “seed to cup” as literal as possible. It seemed like a silly challenge not to undertake. I know score of coffee farmers; I have no excuse not to really walk the full walk. During my last trip to Panama and Costa Rica in January I decided to take some early harvest from two friends’ farms—one in Boquete, Panama and one in Naranjo, Costa Rica—bring it back to New York, roast it, and drink it. I wanted to, with my own eyes (and the help of a few outsourced craftsmen) watch seeds literally become the coffee in my cup.

The first seeds I collected were from Don Tito’s Finca La Milagrosa, Cafetales Don Alfredo in Alto Jaramillo de Boquete, a five hectare farm at 1500 meters above sea level growing Caturra and Catuai under moderate shade. The coffee cherries had been washed and sun dried and let rest for just under two months before I begged Don Tito to hull the dried coffee seeds to remove the last layer of parchment, a protective layer of seed casing, and seal about four pounds of the resulting green beans in bags.

I put them in my duffel and carried them across the border (I actually carried them across the border. I took a bus from Panama to Costa Rica, which involved hauling my own luggage from the Panamanian customs exit to the Costa Rican immigration entry)

Zona Frontera
Zona Frontera

stashed them, along with all my other luggage, at my “home” in San Jose, and visited my friend Enrique’s family business, Agricola El Cantaro, which includes several fincas of Caturra and Catuai coffee grown at 1400 meters above sea level and a medium sized processing mill churning out those fine washed Arabica’s that have built the Ticos’ coffee rep.

Santa Anita mill
Santa Anita mill

In the mill’s storage bays, the first coffee of the harvest was getting ready for export to Atlanta, so Enrique dug into one of the bags of beans-in-parchment, hulled some, and handed over four pounds worth in Ziplocs (maybe a little less… I dropped one bag in the parking lot. He only made fun of me for 15 minutes.)

Green Santa Anita coffee
Green Santa Anita coffee

I had my seeds, now to get them ready for the cup!

Back in Brooklyn, Steve Mierisch of Pulley Collective offered the expertise of Parlor’s David Shaub Stallings and Pulley’s super cool tabletop San Franciscan to help me roast a pound of each. (Who am I kidding; David roasted and I took pictures.)

David at Pulley
David at Pulley
Not a sample roaster, just a really cool mini version of a drum roaster
Not a sample roaster, just a really cool mini version of a drum roaster
The San Franciscan. Because style counts in coffee.
The San Franciscan. Because style counts in coffee.
Panama in the roaster, Costa Rica on deck
Panama in the roaster, Costa Rica on deck
cafe de Santa Anita!
cafe de Santa Anita! (green, unroasted coffee)
COFFEE!
Coffee that looks like COFFEE!

I was giddy to have two bags of beans in the form in which coffee finally looks like coffee. I had to let it rest a day or two before drinking, and I was in the middle of my “March Madness” marathon month of events, so I finally drank both coffees three days later in my friend Matt’s kitchen in Columbia Heights, Washington, DC.

It was the best coffee I’ve ever had, and that is not something I say lightly.

Another question people also often ask me is “what’s the best coffee you’ve ever tasted?” I’ve honestly never really had a good answer because I’ve loved all the coffee I tried during my travels and couldn’t single one out. I don’t have the world’s best palate, and I seem to have a terrible long term sensory memory (I always feel a bit like a puppy chasing a tennis ball because the best coffee always seems to be whatever’s sitting right in front of me at that moment).

I’m also a sucker for a story, so I think coffee tastes better when it’s more interesting, which is a terribly biased way to begin to answer a pretty objective question. Also, it’s no secret that the best (read highest quality, read least moldy/mildew/overfermennted/bug bitten/stale) coffees of a country aren’t the ones that stay home. The good stuff gets exported and the defective stuff gets consumed on site. Traveling to coffee origins is not comparable to a Bavarian beer crawl (at least not at this moment) and is actually not the ideal way to taste the best coffees.

But, and this is a big but, even though roasters in consuming countries get their paws on the best beans and even though they treat them with love and attention to detail and loose sleep in tortured pursuit of the perfect roast curve to unlock all of a bean’s potential, they will always be missing something. Coffee doesn’t teleport from Enrique’s or Don Tito’s warehouses to the roasters’ lairs. It gets shipped on a container ship across open waters. Even if that container ship is the QE2, I simply cannot believe that not a single drop of saltwater or ocean moisture didn’t weasel its way in. Even with the glory of Grainpro and even with traceable lot numbers and every control in the book dutifully employed, I still believe in my gut that something will always be lost in transit.

Coffee is not Incan gold, (which was sought as booty precisely because it was easily divisible and decidedly near impossible to degrade, according to Thomas C. Mann’s mindbending historical account, 1491); coffee does degrade. Even if you make every attempt to preserve it, the unstoppable force of time has its way. Roasters in consuming nations are always working with booty sacked from Elsewhere, and until we can grow coffee in the Alsace-Lorraine or San Joaquin Valleys, that’s just the way it is.

Because I literally have no favorite coffee, I guess I’ve had trouble answering the question of what the best coffee I’ve ever had is because I wanted whatever answer I gave to make sense from a sensory perspective (to justify me calling something the “best” just because I found it the most interesting). But, if I named a coffee from an origin country, everyone knows that those beans are mostly defective and most roasters at origin are still perfecting their craft and working on less than ideal equipment.

If I named a coffee roasted in the US, not only would I be “naming favorites,” I would be doing so knowing that I personally believe that all coffee that gets imported is more inherently flawed than any “defective” beans that haven’t crossed the seven seas. I honestly didn’t have a favorite, and I also didn’t have a stock answer that I could live with.

Now I have both. Well, two that tie (and another in close third. But I’m getting closer!) Standing in my friend’s kitchen in DC, everything still had the hushed winter silence that I typically associate with New Hampshire and only comes from a fresh layer of powder covering everything (and eight inches of it had bizarrely fallen the night before).

DC looking like NH
DC looking like NH

Even before I ground the coffee (Don Tito’s Panama first) I could smell strawberries and apples and lemon and jasmine. The resulting cup tasted like Panama. I couldn’t differentiate the tree tomato from the papaya from the geranium and roses, but all the flavors of Boquete were in that cup. It was fruity and flowery and citrusy and amazing.

Matt tasted it and said, “these are just the beans? There isn’t anything else in here? It doesn’t even taste like coffee.” It didn’t because it wasn’t. It was a cup of seeds, seeds transformed by people I knew. I ground and brewed the Enrique’s Costa Rica. A huge kick of that unmistakable Costa Rican acidity hit me immediately, but here with some full-on Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup—milk chocolate with peanut butter. Matt sipped. “This doesn’t taste like coffee either.”

I slowly sipped the two mugs I’d made for myself, moving back and forth between the two. Not only was this a testament to the most “seed to cup” coffee I’d ever consumed, it was also the best coffee control experiment I could hope to create, with coffees from the same harvest, same varietals, same elevation, same processing method, and very similar latitudes. The only differences here were the terriors and the touches of the growers.

I’m not enough of a cupper to give any more helpful descriptions, but the two coffees certainly overlapped and contained the same elements, but by no means did they taste like the same coffees. Matt watched me reveling in the final drops of each. “Don’t worry,” I told him, “now we can make some coffee that tastes like coffee.” He pulled a bag of beans out of the cupboard.

I rationed those two pounds of coffee for weeks (like I said, any real quality enthusiast will dismiss me at the outset for drinking coffee that’s probably too staled to “properly” do anything with), but luckily I have little use for proper and am a sucker for my own marketing narratives. Those coffees tasted like heaven because they represented an accomplishment almost as meaningful to me as writing a book. Coffeepeople want their stories shared, but they also want people to love their coffee. I was able to transform their coffees as “seed to cuply” as possible, in the microest of micro sample lots.

IMG_4679

Brewing Enrique's Costa Rican coffee in a Costa Rican chorreador
Brewing Enrique’s Costa Rican coffee in a proper Costa Rican chorreador

I had had both Don Tito’s and Enrique’s coffees before, in beans they’d roasted and bagged themselves. (Those were probably actually much “fresher” because they roasted them right at origin, where I drank them, and the beans were never subjected to the trauma of airplane travel which was the fate of the beans David roasted in Brooklyn). Still, there was something really important to me about being able to see coffees that I’d seen on the farm be roasted on my home turf. And there was certainly some pride glowing on Don Tito’s and Enrique’s faces knowing that I wanted to take some of their coffee to other corners of the earth (as promised, I gave the other three pounds of each to actual roasters).

Most of us in the US aren’t makers of things, and we don’t get to experience the rush that comes from watching something you’ve toiled to create sail off into the sunset, destined for shores unseen. It only takes a good thunderstorm to shake the windowpanes and remind us how we’re really pretty small, but coffee producers know the glow of creating something that will travel farther than you ever will, that will reach more people and places than one person alone ever could, and that being the creator of such a substance—in spite of mortal tribulations—makes you feel a little bit larger than life.

With Don Tito on his finca in January, '14
With Don Tito on his finca in January, ’14
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3 Comments

  1. Thank you for a wonderful article, beautifully written and espousing things we believe in and have done so for many years. As a “seed to cup” coffee farm in Costa Rica (Cafe Finca Rosa Blanca), it is this kind of support and consciousness that allows us to continue our work toward first and foremost quality, followed by sustainability, ethics and socioeconomic involvement in our local community.
    Thanks again Rachel!

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