Growing produce without the aid of petroleum-based fertilizers and chemical pesticides is better for the earth and the people who are a part of it. Decreased nutrient run-off into local water supplies, a chemical-free working environment for those who tend to and harvest the coffee, more varied and abundant flora and fauna on the farm itself—simply put, organic methods help contribute to healthier places and people.
But farming is a tough job. While there are many responsible stewards of their land who, for various reasons, have chosen to utilize conventional, or non-organic, methods to varying degree, we like supporting those who have resolved to take a more sustainable—and often more difficult—path. At Matt's, we have decided to carry only certified organic coffee.
About organic certification
The term "organic" historically has referred to the agricultural method itself, but can now be used only by growers and processors whose farms and facilities have been independently certified to employ organic methods, and whose practices meet the requirements of the USDA's National Organic Program. Our roastery receives an annual inspection, and our protocols and paperwork is studied, in order to guarantee that the integrity of our organic product is never compromised. All of our coffees can be verified to be organic all the way back to the field in which they grew.
As you might guess, going organic costs money. Farms that employ organic methods generally require more intensive field labor, and produce crops with smaller yields. Further, both farmers and processors (like us) foot the bill for the certification process itself. We pay a premium for our organic green coffee, and incur significant expense complying with the NOP, but overall, we think it's worth it. We hope you do, too.
About Fair Trade
Green coffee beans are traded globally, and are subject to the same sorts of market fluctuations and geopolitical influences as are other commodities, like wheat and oil. In fact, coffee is second only to petroleum on the scale in which it is exchanged. Because the local market for their coffee is limited, and because they cannot usually tap directly into distribution networks, farmers often are paid a fraction of what their crop ends up commanding in retail environments overseas.
There are, however, organized efforts to bypass these conditions and variables. "Fair trade" is a belief that farmers have a right to receive a "fair" price for their produce, regardless of what markets dictate. As with the term "organic," fair trade is merely a concept, but here in the US has come to be synonymous with the certification process employed by TransFair USA. (Indeed, TransFair USA has actually trademarked the phrase "fair trade certified," in essence creating a bureaucratic monopoly on the concept.) On top of a guaranteed fair trade minimum price, green coffee importers and roasters also pay TransFair USA a fee for each pound of green coffee purchased. These monies pay for the auditing system that guarantees farmer cooperatives have received a fair trade price for their beans, and create an additional pool of funding for social and economic projects in coffee growing communities as well.
We at Matt's know that coffee farmers and harvesters deserve to be compensated fairly. While we do not exclusively carry Fair Trade Certified coffees, and are too small of an outfit to visit producers overseas regularly and so trade with them directly, we attempt to engage in business practices and make green bean purchases that are true to the fair trade ideal. The sweat that goes into growing, picking and processing even mediocre coffee is no doubt worth more than bottom-end "C" market prices, but great coffee is always worth more than the fair trade minimum, and great coffee is what we are all about.
About Our Coffee
A quality cup of coffee is the result of a number of factors, with varietal, geography, preparation and roasting style being among the most important.
There's a big difference between a Brandywine that you pick from your garden in August, and the pinkish-colored, cellophane-wrapped, hybrid object that you might find in a grocery store in January. They're both tomatoes, but that’s about the only thing they have in common. As with other kinds of agriculture, different strains of coffee plants have been crossbred over the years in order to maximize yield and resistance to things like insects and rot. And, as in other kinds of agriculture, this has often resulted in a bean that just doesn’t taste as good as the old kind. At Matt's, our Arabica beans are of the "heirloom" type. There's just more flavor packed into the little bean.
Coffee beans are organic expressions of the earth from which they come. With few exceptions, the highest quality coffees are high grown (above, say, three thousand feet). And in general, each coffee growing region has characteristic attributes: Indonesians are heavy-bodied and earthy, Africans are winey and acidic, South Americans are round and well-balanced, and Central Americans are medium in body and refreshingly bright.
Coffee beans are not beans, so much as they are seeds—the center of a cherry-sized fruit (called a "cherry"). "Wet" processing is the most common preparation for coffee beans. After being picked, the bean is removed from the fruit that surrounds it, and washed of remaining pulp before being rested, bagged and shipped. The result is a clean flavor profile that allows varietal and geographic attributes to shine.
With "dry," or "natural," processing, the whole coffee cherry is left intact and sun dried for a period of time before the bean is removed from the cherry. The result is that the bean has prolonged contact with the fruit that surrounds it. It's a risky preparation, as beans can become gamey, but when it's done right, the result is heavenly.
Green beans are hard and dense, with the consistency of a chunk of wood. They contain hundreds of chemical compounds that contribute to coffee flavor, but it is only through the roasting process that these attributes are released. When subjected to heat, the cell structure expands until the bean cracks slightly. Moisture (green beans contain up to 20% water) escapes, myriad sugars begin to caramelize, and essential oils migrate toward the surface.
Once this "first crack" is complete, coffee beans are ready for consumption. Roasting them longer accents deeper, more "roasty" flavors, and contributes to a chocolaty sweetness, but after "second crack" commences, the beans’ innate characteristics are soon eclipsed. After prolonged roasting all beans start to taste alike, and produce a thin liquid that is relatively bitter, because what's left is more charcoal than coffee. The oils and sugars that comprise coffee flavor have literally gone up in smoke.
As roasters, our job is pretty simple, if a bit tricky. We start with great beans provided us by skilled farmers, and roast them in a way that allows their inherent quality and flavor to shine. At Matt's, we burn wood, not beans.
Of course, you as a consumer play a vital role in the finished product as well. Brewing coffee is all about extraction. The object is to bring hot water into contact with freshly-ground coffee for the exact period of time it takes to extract the oils and compounds that comprise flavor. Under-extract, and you get a weak brew; over-extract, and the brew becomes bitter.
A few tips:
- Start with two level tablespoons of coffee per six ounces of water, and adjust to your own preference.
- Grind your coffee just before you use it, and use a grind appropriate for your brewing method. Generally speaking, the longer your water comes into contact with the coffee, the coarser the grind should be.
- Use good water. If you don't like the taste of what comes out of your tap, your coffee isn't going to taste its best.
- Use a good coffee machine. Ideally, water should be right around two hundred degrees Farenheit—just off the boil. Few home drip machines reach this temperature, but you might start by looking for one without a hotplate—more energy goes to the heating element, and so your chances of having an optimal temperature increase. Besides, the worst thing you can do is leave a pot of coffee on the burner. After fifteen minutes or so, and after pouring yourself a cup or two, it starts to get skanky. You know what we mean. (If you haven’t tried French press or Aeropress coffee, you should.)