Sampler Plate: Tracing Coffee from Bean to Barista

Published on: June 1st, 2018

Photos by Jennifer Pappas

We live in Boulder County, so we have to admit to being spoiled in a lot of ways, including by the coffee culture. But when you’re surrounded by places where you can pick up fresh, premium coffee, it’s easy to sip, savor, and move on with our day without thinking about what it takes to get a truly great brew into our cups each morning.

Will Kuepper, Director of Education at Ozo Coffee Company, stated that “for the most part, people are not aware of the amount of work that it takes to produce awesome coffee.” So much needs to go right that it almost seems like the stars need to align. But somehow, Boulder County roasters never disappoint. In fact, according to Paul Waitinas, owner of Paul’s Coffee and Tea, BOCO roasters are going the “extra mile” to maintain an exceptional level of quality. “The tenth person down the list here would be winning ‘Best Of’ in most other cities in this country,” he explained.

Still, it isn’t easy. The course of coffee as it’s grown, harvested, and imported is a “nuanced process,” according to Will, and there’s no one “right” way to do it. Roasters navigate this process through a network of close relationships in the supply chain, whether they’re with the farmers themselves, service providers in between, or with brokers who help shepherd the beans from foreign farm to local café.

Coffee is a finicky crop. It grows on farms nestled in the misty hills of tropical zones, and just like with wine, the environment and even the weather impact the beans’ flavor. Extra rain could virtually ruin a crop, and you have to also be aware of natural flavors produced by the environment when roasting. Steve Cassingham, Director of Marketing and Development at Ampersand Coffee Roasters, explained that their Guatemalan beans have a dark taste as a result of volcanic soil, even though they aren’t roasted dark. “You’ll actually taste some of that earthiness in the coffee,” he explained, “Whereas you won’t in an Ethiopia.”

When harvest season arrives, the cherries are picked, ideally by hand and in multiple rounds to select them at peak ripeness—too soon and the coffee might be too acidic, too late and the fruit might have a fermented flavor. After picking, the pulp must be immediately removed via a wet mill, and the green seeds inside must be either dried directly, or soaked and fermented first. After drying, a final husk is removed by a dry mill, and the beans are packaged and sent to an exporter.

While some farms steward their coffee virtually from start to finish, Will explained that, usually, “that’s not economically feasible.” More commonly, different operations complete varying legs of processing. Often, farms are also involved in cooperatives that buy their coffee cherries, take care of inspections, and sometimes provide processing before ushering the coffee to the next step.

Once they leave the dry mill and reach the port, the beans wait for their paperwork to go through and then weigh anchor for their destination, where they go through customs and set off to climate-controlled warehouses that maintain perfect temperatures and humidity. Finally, the beans are released and leave for delivery to Boulder County, where they’re roasted to perfection and pulled, dripped, or cold brewed into our cups.

Importing coffee—especially good coffee—is a complex operation: a “balancing act,” according to Paul. And with so many stakeholders involved in the supply chain, we’re lucky to live in a place where conscientious products are the norm; all three roasters we spoke with cited making sure their operations have a positive impact on the communities involved as a priority. In fact, Ampersand sources everything from women owned and operated farms, and Steve explained that “every coffee has a cause behind it.” So not only are we getting exceptional, top-of-the-line coffee in our cups (despite the odds, really), but we’re getting a product we can genuinely feel good about buying. We’d say that’s something to make mornings a little brighter.  

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