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Can bad coffee still be good enough?
17 May 2010


The picture above shows samples of unroasted green beans from two different batches of 100% Kona coffee.  Can you see a difference between the two?  If so, what is the difference?  Is it an important difference or a superficial one?  Which coffee would you pay more for, the one on the left or the one on the right?  How much more would you pay?  How much less would you pay for the other coffee or would you even buy it at all?

Of course it's difficult to tell from just a picture.  Scroll over the picture for a closer view.  Seeing the coffee in person, touching it and smelling it, you'd be able to detect the difference more easily but it is still somewhat subtle.  Even tasting the coffee, it is still a relatively subtle difference.  Both samples look like coffee.  Both samples smell and taste like coffee.  Both samples could be sold as 100% Kona coffee.  So exactly how bad can coffee get before it's considered too bad?  Every coffee farmer, every roaster, every consumer has a different opinion of what constitutes "good" coffee and what is "bad" coffee.

To help in the judgment call, I did a cupping.  The timing was convenient because Shawn Steiman, an expert coffee cupper and all around coffee expert, just happened to be visiting for a couple days.  He's always looking for interesting coffees to try so we arranged a cupping with several different coffees.

In the samples above, the beans on the left are fresh and in great shape.  If you buy coffee from Kona Earth that's what you will receive (except probably roasted first).  This coffee received a near perfect certification report from the state inspector.  This particular crop of coffee has received even more positive feedback than usual from some very experienced cuppers.  In my not-so-humble opinion, it is some of the best coffee I've grown so far and easily capable of winning awards.

I won't say exactly where the beans on the right came from.  They are 100% Kona coffee, just not Kona Earth coffee.  These beans started out as decent coffee but now they are nearly two years old and past their prime.  For two year old beans, they're in great shape.  Still, that's like 80 in coffee years and a fit 80-year-old is different than a fit 25-year-old.

It's fairly easy to see the difference in age because the older beans are starting to discolor.  They are turning white around the edges instead of the consistent green of properly stored, fresh beans.  This discoloration isn't really all that bad.  There's no mold, no musty odor, only slight discoloration and a little dehydration.  I've seen far worse discoloration in coffee beans that were stored in an unstable environment with constant temperature changes and high humidity.

Roasting Cupping

It's great to have pretty coffee beans but the proof is in the cup.  So we roasted up some coffee from each sample and did a controlled cupping.  I'll admit that I am not an expert cupper and I thought I'd have a hard time telling the difference but it was surprisingly obvious.  Still subtle but definitely there.  The good beans had the full brightness that I'm always looking for in my coffee.  The not-so-good beans were flat with a subtle hint of cardboard.  It was still coffee, still better than many other coffees I've tasted, just not good enough that I'd want to put my name on it.

So I've decided that the "bad" coffee is trash.  That was a difficult decision because that's over $1000 worth of coffee beans I'll be throwing out.  I don't look at it that way though.  If I had no other coffee then maybe I'd try to sell the inferior beans but I have plenty of very good coffee and there's no reason to dilute the good stuff with the lower quality stuff.  So the bad stuff will be thrown away.

I'll probably hold onto it a bit longer.  For the same reason I have a broken vacuum cleaner and dirty old microwave oven sitting out in the barn, sometimes it's hard to get rid of old stuff.  What if want to scavenge parts from that broken vacuum or decide to clean up the old microwave?  What if a wholesale customer comes along that is looking for old, stale coffee?  It could happen.

So I'll hold on to the old stuff for a little longer even though it's headed to the dump sooner or later.  Likewise with the old vacuum and microwave.

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