Probably one of the biggest buzzwords in the last couple of years, be it wine, beer, grain, vegetables, coffee or any naturally produced product. What is it that we talk about when we mention Terroir and is it a term properly describing the complexity of coffee?
If we turn to the ‘Oxford Languages’, they define it as the following.
/tɛrˈwɑː,French tɛrwar/nounthe complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.
Let’s replace ‘wine’ with ‘coffee’ and we get a pretty good definition describing some of the elements which shape the unique characteristics of the beans.
What we should highlight when talking about coffee is the microclimate, altitude and micro-organisms unique to where the product is grown.
These words certainly help explain some of the factors impacting the taste and quality surrounding a specific coffee. However serious work is needed in order to preserve and maintain the unique ‘terroir’ of a coffee from farmer to consumer.
Frederik Zeuthen of Cafe Nor overlooking the farm at Finca Jesper
It seems natural to draw comparisons to wine,
Quality Wine is most often grown, harvested, pressed, fermented, aged, bottled and sold with a single winemaker overseeing the whole process. It’s his or her skill and philosophy, combined with the seasonal weather and terroir, that dictates the final result.
Looking at speciality coffee, the process and value chain is often much more complex.
The journey begins at the farmer where beans are hand-picked, this is in order to assure that the beans are perfectly ripe. These farmers do some preliminary processing where they dry or hull the beans as appropriate for that particular grower’s method.
Coffee cherries from a single farmer, from the same harvest and from the same lot undoubtedly express a very true and pure form of terroir.
The farmer might grow several different varietals of coffee, often interplanted to combat disease and crop failure, occasionally these are separated to showcase the unique characteristics of a certain varietal.
Depending on the style of processing, this can have a fundamental impact on the final flavour.
Coffee cherries are then sent to a mill where the coffee can be dehulled. Some farmers are able to mill and process their own coffee, but, in most places, several farmers can share the same mill.
In this step, dependent on the size of the mill and the quality control, beans of different varietals, from several farmers are often mixed and processed together. When tasting these beans, we have a much broader and general sense of an area or region, in other words, a single origin.
In some cases though, especially with mass-market coffee, beans are bought in much larger quantities, from different places, and traded as a commodity. This is historically true for almost all coffee.
When this is the case, we lose almost all sense of the original origin and terroir in the final taste. Some countries might still exhibit a certain style or flavour often due to a unique climate, varietals, or processing style but the traceability is limited.
After several intermediaries, the coffee finally ends up with us roasters and now it's our turn to transform these beans. This is a very humbling task, roasting and presenting a product honouring and respecting the hard labour that went into bringing it here, especially in working with small lots from single farms or single origins!
As roasters, it’s our task to bring this sense of time and place to you. Therefore, we do our utmost to respect the beans. When working with single origins we almost exclusively opt for a lighter expression, as nuances and characteristics unique to the origin fade as the beans get roasted darker. Ultimately, our craftsmanship is the final and crucial link between you and the farmer.
There are a lot of things that need to fall into place to truly express the terroir of a coffee. In many cases, we argue that the varietal, altitude, processing, age and general handling of the beans play just as crucial of a role in the final flavour and quality. When these factors line up, we can truly bring you a coffee with a sense of place.