I found my “Roots” to coffee in Africa

by Rocky Rhodes

This is not a story of an epic jour­ney like Alex Haley’s to find his ances­try, but I did dis­cover a pretty cool tie to my present sit­u­a­tion in the cof­fee world and to a shrubby lit­tle cof­fee plant in Kenya.

If you were to really do the in-depth research, like Mr. Haley did in his book, ‘Roots’, the cof­fee per­son would find them­selves embrac­ing their ances­try in Ethiopia where cof­fee began. That is assum­ing of course your fam­ily his­tory included the Arabica ances­try. If you were of the Robusta lin­eage, your genealog­i­cal jour­ney would end in Uganda. My rev­e­la­tion only dates back about one gen­er­a­tion and lands me in a lit­tle town called Ruiru about an hour out­side of Nairobi, Kenya.

In the SPECIALTY cof­fee fam­ily, specif­i­cally the Coffee Quality Institute clan, there is a key fig­ure in the fam­ily. Let me intro­duce you to Ruiru 11. This scrubby lit­tle guy is about 4 feet tall. Don’t let its small size fool you. It was built to be resistent to CBD (cof­fee berry dis­ease), which is a big prob­lem for Kenya Coffee Farmers. It is the cre­ation of the Coffee Research Fondation located in Ruiru. The prob­lem was the mixed reviews it was get­ting for cup qual­ity. It was at this moment that MY roots in cof­fee begin.

The Coffee Reasearch Foundation needed some objec­tive help to define the fla­vor char­ac­ter­is­tics of Kenyan Coffee so they could com­pare the Ruiru 11 to those norms. Then they could say once and for all if the taste char­ac­ter­is­tics were bet­ter / same / worse.

They found an upstart orga­ni­za­tion, a com­mit­tee really, under the SCAA called the Specialty Coffee Institute. It was co-founded by Ted Lingle who was then the Executive Director of SCAA. The one employee they had, Joseph Rivera, was charged with doing research for the group. He was put on this project as well.

Joseph used sev­eral cof­fees from Kenya. This included a lot that just gar­nered a supe­rior price at auc­tion, some SL28 and Ruiru11. The goal was to do an analy­sis of the organic acid makeup of this cof­fee and to try and com­pare it to other cof­fees. Thereby an under­stand­ing of the fla­vor dif­fer­ences in the cof­fee cre­ated by the var­i­ous organic acids might be achieved. This research became one of the cor­ner­stones to under­stand­ing qual­ity in cof­fee and led to addi­tional research as to how to develop cer­tain acids in coffee.

Some Science & Coffee

Here are some things that we know as a result of the research and sub­se­quent stud­ies. The acids that cre­ated the biggest pos­i­tive changes in the Kenyan cof­fee were Phosphoric and Malic acids. Let’s look at each one, how they are cre­ated, and there effect on cof­fee flavor.

Malic Acid is the “apple acid” as it can con­tribute to the per­cep­tion of green apple tart­ness and sweet­ness in the fla­vor of cof­fee. It is pro­duced when the cof­fee matures more slowly. Higher alti­tudes and shady con­di­tions will allow a cof­fee to mature at a reduced pace due to lower tem­per­a­tures. If the cof­fee has time to ripen slowly, the acidic devel­op­ment is greatly enhanced as the ‘cit­ric acid cycle’ is allowed to con­tinue and the plant will pro­duce more acids.

Phosphoric acid is devel­oped when cof­fee absorbs phos­phates in the soil. These can be nat­u­rally occur­ring or added to the soil through fer­til­iz­ers. The most notable fea­ture of phos­phoric acid is that is does not have a taste per se, but it adds to the bright­ness or the per­cep­tion of acid­ity in the taste. Phosphates also make the bub­bles in sodas. This adds to the ‘excite­ment’ of the soda but does not affect the fla­vor. (If you let a soda go flat, it still tastes the same, but its taste is bor­ing or stale.) The inter­est­ing thing about these two acids is that they each have very small amounts in cof­fee com­pared to other acids. They are the small­est acids hav­ing the best impact on flavor.

So why was the Kenyan Coffee so dif­fer­ent? The study con­cluded that the Kenyan cof­fees had more phoshoric and malic acid than a washed Colombian used in the study. You can imag­ine that this had a dra­matic impact on the cof­fee. WARNING: It would be fool­ish to assume that ALL Kenyan cof­fees have this trait any­more than you can say that ALL Indonesians have lower body. Some gen­er­al­iza­tions are help­ful but it all comes down to the indi­vid­ual lots. As we just demon­strated, dif­fer­ent grow­ing con­di­tions and dif­fer­ent soil make up can cause a cof­fee to have a dra­mat­i­cally dif­fer­ent pro­file than other cof­fees of the same coun­try. Joseph Rivera sum­ma­rized, “The study really shed the light on the role of acids and how they inter­act to effect cof­fee fla­vor. It’s amaz­ing how rel­a­tively small changes in cof­fee brew com­po­si­tions can bring about entirely new fla­vor pro­files, even within the same coffee.”

So how does this relate to MY cof­fee roots? Rivera shared this with me, “I think the study played a huge role in ini­tially bring­ing about a greater level of aware­ness to the whole issue of cof­fee chem­istry. Since then, we have seen the devel­op­ment of the Q-Program, sen­sory tests, as well as sev­eral tools in an effort to objec­tively assess cof­fee qual­ity. Prior to this, I think the indus­try was more of an ‘art’ with lit­tle to any ‘science’.”

Specialty Coffee Institute soon became CQI. CQI had a new mis­sion: The Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) is a non­profit orga­ni­za­tion work­ing inter­na­tion­ally to improve the qual­ity of cof­fee and the lives of the peo­ple who pro­duce it. The Q-Coffee sys­tem, the Q-Grader course, and the sci­ence that sup­ports it man­i­fested from this orig­i­nal research.

I became a Q-Grader instruc­tor in 2010 and I now travel the world shar­ing this infor­ma­tion. And only coin­ci­dently I ended up teach­ing at the Coffee Research Foundation in Ruiru, Kenya, the very lab in which Ruiru 11 was cre­ated. I was back to my cof­fee roots.

I would like to per­son­ally thank the Coffee Research Foundation and Coffee Quality Institute for their research and desire to improve qual­ity in the sup­ply chain. Because of them, I get to do what I do! Oh and just to beat the ‘Roots’ theme to death: “I FOUND you! Ruiru11 I FOUND you.”

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