Flashback to a pretty ordinary day at the Summit Coffee Co. roasting facility. It’s the beginning of a busy production week and so far everything is going as planned. It’s going to be a steady week, but not uncomfortable and most of the week is pretty well outlined. Then I received an unexpected email…
“Your mission, should you choose to accept it. . .”
A little silly, but since this weird email was sent by a trusted coffee importing partner, it immediately invoked fantasies of some thrilling adventure should the mission be accepted. (It was.)
Before I get to the mission, it’s important to explain something about coffee. Coffee cherries, like grapes, grow in many different varieties. There are too many varieties to name (we’re talking hundreds), each having its own characteristics. Growing conditions and processing techniques have an impact on the coffee as well, but each variety has some well understood characteristics.
On a recent sourcing trip to Colombia, the CEO of Cafe Imports, Andrew Miller, came across something that was completely unexpected. A coffee farmer had planted one variety of coffee, but now something else was growing. The coffee they found had physical characteristics of several different varieties of coffee, making identification in the field nearly impossible. Of course identifying the plant was important, but the cup would be the real story. After tasting and scoring, it quickly became apparent that this coffee was truly unique. After a cupping score of 94 was reported, the producer and importer quickly decided they had to know what variety this coffee was. Samples from the farm were sent to Italy for genetic testing. Very few coffees in the world ever surpass 90 on the scoring scale; 94 is almost unheard of.
While waiting for the results of genetic testing, Cafe Imports decided to see what roasters could do with this newly discovered coffee variety. They chose to process and import 400 pounds of green coffee. Instead of making this coffee available to anyone, they hand selected eight roasters from around the world to see how they approached this new discovery. To make things fun they decided not to tell the roasters anything about the coffee — not the name of the farm or producer, not the growing conditions, not even who the chosen roasters are.
It is a thrill to have been chosen for this project.
Choosing coffees for our portfolio is an involved process. We look at the world harvest cycles, conditions of the farm and community, the impacts of a particular coffee on the environment, taste, customer wants and needs, the list goes on. Being handed a coffee with no information and being told “Roast!” is equal parts disarming and exciting.
Once coffee arrives in Davidson, NC, it becomes a straightforward but wide open equation. What flavors does this coffee have? What dynamic elements are present? As the roaster, how can I highlight those things and share the best of this coffee? We ask all these questions to decide how to roast a coffee when it arrives. When we are making a purchasing decision, however, there isn’t always a clear roast plan, we just know we have a great coffee to work with. In that regard we treat all of our coffees with the same sense of discovery that we are treating Variety Unknown.
That isn’t meant downplay the excitement of being selected as one of eight roasters that will be the first to roast this coffee. This mission — to roast Variety Unknown — is thrilling, challenging, and mysterious. At Summit Coffee, we typically work with importers develop relationships with farmers and source coffee by gaining a lot of information about where and how it comes to us. As part of the Variety Unknown Project we are completely in the dark. It is at the same time familiar and exhilarating. We couldn’t be more excited to roast and share this amazing coffee with you.