Perfect Coffee?

At last year’s SCAA annual Expo, the keynote speaker was George Ray McEachern, a professor of horticulture at Texas A&M University, focusing much of his research and study in wine. He used a particular phrase during his speech which absolutely fascinated me, especially as we often compare coffee and wine: “Perfect wine.”

He kept saying stuff like, “We (in the wine industry) used to have ___ problem, but we fixed it by ___, and now the wine is perfect.” There’s an almost visceral reaction that follows a comment like that. “Perfect?” How could he possibly be so obtuse as to declare wine to be “perfect?” Clearly there are different quality levels in wine, not every wine scores a 100 points (on any scale), and there is obviously much improvement that is still plausible and possible in wine, at every step in the process. Just like coffee!

But that’s not what he means. What he means is essentially that wine is now mostly defect-free. Even low-priced wines, while perhaps not the most earth-shattering in flavor, exhibit all of the baseline qualities that what you’d call “good quality wine” should have. Processing-related defects are mostly non-existent. Technology and technique have discovered the sources of the defects, and technology and technique have resolved them. Hence, today, you have perfect wine.

I had never thought of it that way before, but while it takes a little bit of shifting-of-gears mentally, it really makes total sense. In our world, where a 94-point score makes you wonder what’s wrong with it that it’s not a 100-point score, “perfect” is impossible. “Perfect” is a Holy Grail of sorts, never to be achieved but forever to be pursued.

Perfect wine does not mean that it will all score 100-points. Defect-free is perfection of a critically-important sort, but it still allows for different quality levels within it. You can have a Honda Civic and a Mercedes S-Class, and if both are mechanically perfect with no defects whatsoever, you could call them both perfect. It does not have to mean that they are equal in quality.

So obviously, the next question becomes, what is “perfect coffee?”

Right away, even if one were to accept the idea of perfect wine, many will resist the idea of “perfect coffee.” Indeed, despite all of the similarities between coffee and wine, they are also very different. Wine is commonly referred to being about 30 years ahead of coffee in development, and the growing and processing of coffee has much farther to go before we can declare coffee to be “perfect.” But that’s not to say individual coffees can’t be perfect.

Grow perfect coffee. Process perfect coffee. Source perfect coffee. Roast perfect coffee. Brew perfect coffee.

For us in the consuming-world, it starts at sourcing. There is still a great deal of defect to be found in green coffee supplies of renown specialty coffee roasters. Defect must be eliminated from what you do. Roasting defect must be eliminated. Brewing defects must be eliminated. Every time a specialty-coffee professional accepts defect without identifying it as such, it holds the industry back.

This will, somewhat obviously, require for specialty coffee professionals to learn to identify defects in green coffee, in roasting, in roasted coffee, in brewing, and in brewed coffee. But often, someone will allow over-ferment and instead call it “fruity.” Someone will have roasted coffee with scorching and tipping and call it “tobacco-finish.” Someone will taste an over-extracted coffee and call it “complex.” Each time this happens, it holds the industry back.

It really can be perfect.

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