I first remember hearing the word “origin” when I was about 3 years old. My father, the son of a Presbyterian minister, was debating the Origin of Species with my mother over dinner. Like any good Presbyterian he was an evolutionist- not that I knew what origin, evolutionist or Presbyterian meant way back then. The next time the word “origin” became important to me was when I was at University. It was not part of my official studies, but rather a fundamentally important concept relating to my part-time job as a wine waiter at one of Wellingtons new 5 star hotels. We were taught that not only was grape variety important in determining the character of a particular wine, but also the origin- the specific area or appellation where the grapes where grown. A sauvignon blanc grape grown, picked and vinted in Marlborough, New Zealand, would display very different aroma, taste and body compared to the same grape varietal grown in Margaret River, Western Australia. It is for this reason that wine labeling clearly displays the origin, grape type as well as the year that the wine is made. It is to tell the customer exactly what to expect in the bottle. We were taught to pick the difference between a Chardonnay and a Riesling, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Pinot Noir. To start with it was a little difficult to pick the “cut grass, gooseberry, ripe lime” in a Sav-Blanc, or the “Deep ripe plum, soft peppergrass” of a Cab-Sav, but it soon became part and parcel of our lives as wine stewards.
Fast forward to the modern error. These days “Origin” is not only a very important part of my job working with coffee, it is also a word that sometimes wakes me at night, like a the noise of a rusty file scraping over a old, painted blackboard. Origin, in coffee, is not as simple or as transparently honest as many coffee proffesionals would like it to be.
The ICO, or InternationalOrganisation, is somewhat responsible for controlling origin labels on coffee in the fact that any coffee shipped from a growing country must be accompanied by a Certificate of Origin. However… the shipper of the coffee often will fill out the ICO form- adding the origin in as he/she sees fit. The system is based on honesty. If the coffee is Arabica grown in Java, the origin certificate should correctly read “Java Arabica” along with the appropriate grade, weight etc. It should not read “Sumatra Mandehling”, “Bali Arabica” or “Sulawesi Toraja Arabica”. That I am writing this means that it is sadly sometimes fact, not fiction, that mislabeling sometimes intentionally occurs.
Why is this wrong? For starters put aside the fact that it is fraud, misrepresentation and lying, it is more importantly doing huge disservice to the true coffee coming from that origin., like wine, has a particular character that is found in the beans growing in a particular geographical area. In fact the flavor of coffee, more so than wine, is almost entirely molded by where it is grown. Take 100 identical seedlings of Typica Arabica and send 25 plants to Aceh, 25 to Central Java, 25 to Flores and 25 to n Papua. 6 years later the cherries from these trees, ripe and processed, will display vastly different tastes (or cupping characteristics).
To most coffee professionals it is simply a preposterous presumption that anyone would try and mislabel coffee on purpose. Yet, it happens. Sometimes the deceit fools even hardened regulars. Not too many years ago there were two big cases of coffee fraud- one involving fake Hawaiian Kona coffee, the other Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. In both cases the origins were mislabeled because both Jamaica and Hawaii coffees demand a premium on the world market. In both cases the perpetrators were eventually caught out.
Think of it this way- if you were to buy a brand new BMW, you would expect the engine not to have already done 100,000km, and the body not to have been panel beaten to make the car look brand new. If someone tried to pass off such a used vehicle as new- that would be serious fraud.
The more common problem, and one which is beginning to cause real problems for coffee as a quality product, is not the blatant examples of cheating but rather what is call the ‘creeping boundary of origin’ (or CBO). Many years ago coffee origins were perhaps more clearly defined by geographics than they are today. For instance, inMandehling Coffee was picked and marketed from a fairly small area in North Sumatra- thus meaning the characteristics of that coffee were as clear to the drinker as day is to night. These days the geographical or ‘catchment’ area “Mandehling” comes from is 15-20 bigger than what it was 25 years ago. This means that almost by default the characters that the coffee was once famous for- the ripe paprika, fresh cut grass, passion fruit and earthiness are very seldom found to the same degree as coffee from that area today. Its like saying that Italians are the same as Germans. They are not. Lines are drawn on the map- Italians are Italians, Germans are…well…Germans. The French- they have perhaps identified this problem and dealt with it strictly. Not in regards to coffee, but to the labeling of one of their national treasures: Champagne. Only grapes grown and vinted in a particular way, with in a strictly identified area, may be called “Champagne”. Anything else can only be called “Methode Champagne” or similar. Seems pedantic? Coffee should look at this as being part of a solution to a problem which longterm threatens to affect customer perception of coffee in general.
Recently on a trip to coffee savvy New Zealand, a coffee professional was surprised to find just how the problem of labeling origin incorrectly can conspire to creating changes in perception of the customer. He was meeting with an eminent marketing guru who had brought along some material a well known company had put out to support its product. The professional was was not surprised to see “Java” and “Sumatra” on the list of coffee that this company sold. What was surprising was the fact that “Java” was a described as a blend of Guatamalan and Sumatran and “Congo” a blend of Colombian and Sumatran. As in the above European example- Java is likewise not Guatemala or Sumatran!
On the positive side many coffee professionals realise that the future ofis going small, not labeling big/expansive origins. Small is easier to define, more difficult for unscrupulous brokers to mislabel. The SCAA’s Cup of Excellence Awards recognise quality origins may be as small as a tiny Finca producing 1000kg of coffee a year. This think small, produce superior beans idea hopefully will result in a better cup of coffee.
In the end thats what it is all about. Despite the complexities of choice faced at a coffee shop, ultimately the customer wants a great cup of Java. However if he wants “Java”it should be the coffee grown on that Indonesian Island, not a mixture of beans from Africa and South America. And if its pure Kopi Luwak that customer is looking for? Well then that is another story altogether.