Good JudgmentThis week we taste two versions of two coffees: first, long-time favorite Tairora Project from the Eastern Highlands region of Papua New Guinea and a new-to-you coffee from Chema in the Kapchorwa region of Uganda. One bag of each coffee is labeled as tainted or defective, with the Tairora showing flavors of premature aging, or fade, and the Chema smelling and tasting of chemicals.
Notes on the CoffeesWe have tasted coffee from the Tairora Project numerous times over the past few months and years, and this isn’t the first time that we have explored its highs and lows by comparing fresh-tasting and faded-tasting Tairoras on a cupping table. In prior tastings, we have acknowledged that Baroida and Tairora aren't necessarily exceptional for being inconsistent when it comes to fading, especially among farms in Papua New Guinea. Rather, they are exceptional for the fact that the Colbrans are happy to bag, label, and ship each day's harvest separately as opposed to blending it all together and mixing the better with the worse. We have also celebrated the work of the roasting department for cupping coffee from every ... single ... bag ... when it arrives before deciding whether it's fit to roast and sell (and over the course of the season, that’s at least 500 bags).
People, including some of you, I’m sure, have asked us whether it's worth the work. The coffee department has always said that it is because the payoff is so good. Tim has worked tirelessly over the past couple of years with Chris Colbran to communicate our experiences and encourage better infrastructure for consistent quality. Being thorough in our assessment and tenacious in the relationship have made it possible to strengthen the relationship and improve quality holistically (not just for Counter Culture's lots) at the same time, which is something we're way better at than the other coffee buyers we know.
If drying is comparatively easy to address, it should be a snap to fix Chema's tainted flavor because the chemical overwhelming the coffee comes from the paint—or perhaps a thinner added to the paint—that is applied to the jute bag. I always find myself feeling a little bit heartbroken when I taste coffees like this because I think about the fate of a bag of coffee hinging on one instant, and I imagine how it could have gone differently. On a less somber note, though, an instance of this same sort of accidental contamination occurred in Honduras in 2007 with ALL of the coffees from the Cup of Excellence competition, and the mill that made the mistake of using bad jute has recovered and since grown to be one of the most successful specialty mills in Central America, if not the world.
Chema's coffee would be a flat-out rejection for many companies, but because we tasted the good stuff first, we knew that some of it was good and as it turns out, only half of the bags are tainted (maybe because someone ran out halfway through, we don’t know). Uganda is a place where we are investing time and energy in cultivating relationships, and this is a new group for us, as well as a relatively young importer. So, instead of dismissing the coffee, we are taking the time to go through it in hopes of building good will and trust for the future.
If this seems like a lot of work, you’re right! As I said before, the payoff is great in Tairora’s case, and it has the potential to be great in Chema’s case, as well. Taking a bigger picture view, these bad flavors pose challenges, but they are of the sort that we as buyers are in a much better position to address than other challenges we face: potato defect, coffee leaf rust and its myriad effects, bad-tasting varieties, and, worst of all, low elevation. Nine times out of 10, if we can taste greatness in an inconsistent coffe,e and the growers or suppliers are willing to put in the work to change that, then we are, too.