What is a coffee factory? And why should you care?

Recently, as we welcomed the arrival of our new Kenyan Kiaga AA, we got thinking about coffee picking and all its permutations. Mostly we were bemoaning the fact that a coffee’s potential can only ever decrease from the moment it leaves the tree. No man has the power to take a coffee beyond Thunderdome, if its inherent natural composition was initially only ever good enough for little league.

Beyond Thunderdome. It’s where all good little coffee cherries want to go.

The factory:

In Kenya, the place where this potential is either realised, or lost, is called a coffee factory. This is where beans are sorted, washed, dried, milled and bagged. As it turns out, the process of transforming picked coffee cherries into dried green beans, ready to roast, is a rather finicky process, and it can either be done really well, or rather poorly.

(Granted, it can also be done with formidable mediocrity, but I’ve always had a penchant for the binary.)

During any one of the aforementioned processes, a sweet coffee with a bright future can be reduced to a caffeic reprobate; destined for substance dependence in a grimy inner city diner.

So…if cherries are not properly sorted (unripe, overripe, rotten or bug-eaten), or if fermentation is not properly monitored (correct yeasts, pH, ambient temperature, for the correct amount of time), or if the mills are not well calibrated, the final result can be green coffee beans that are misshapen, poorly sorted, or just plain defective.

Raised drying beds for sun-drying coffee

So what does you Kiaga AA have to do with this?

Well, in Kenya, great factories produce high quality coffees, and shoddy mills do the reverse. The sad truth is that even if a farmer grows some delightfully sweet cherries, and times his picking perfectly, all his hard work can be undone by a sloppily run coffee factory.
Luckily, Kiaga is no such coffee factory. Kiaga takes pride in its quality control and stringent sorting policies. As a result, what we landed was a beautifully full-bodied, juicy coffee with those delightful, characteristic Kenyan blackcurrant notes. Coffee geeks go mushy for that stuff. Not us though. We just emit manly, stoic admiration from a distance.

As it turns out, size does matter.

What does AA really mean?

For the most part, coffee beans are sorted into grades, based on size, form and density. AA is the largest (and usually most dense) of the dominant size classes (there are also “A+” and “E” categories, but those suckers are rare and freakish).
So what?” you may ask.
And rightly so, for the size and density of a man’s beans seems to have little connection, at first glance, to how a cup of coffee might taste. But first glances are often fleeting, furtive, or other adjectives, and seldom result in an accurate impression.
The reality is that both uniformity of size and density are closely linked to how a roasted coffee will taste when brewed. Here’s why:

Sweet & Dense; like Susan in Marketing

As is the case with hard woods like Oak or Mahogany (or even high grown Chinese Bamboo), a denser cell structure is usually caused by a slower growth rate. When it comes to coffee seeds, the slower growth occurs when tough growing conditions (such as higher altitude and lower temperatures) put the plant under stress. The plant responds by storing more sugars (backup emergency food stores) and growing more slowly. Slower growth means a reduced demand for sugar as sustenance. The end result? More sugar left in the bean! Hooray for lovers of naturally sweet coffee.

“…first glances are often fleeting, furtive, or other adjectives, and seldom result in an accurate impression.”

Birds of a feather…cook more evenly on a braai.

A thought experiment to further illustrate the point: You are given five spatchcock chickens of dramatically different weights and sizes. You have to cook all of them over the same heat, for the same period of time. How many do you predict will be “perfectly cooked”? I give us moderate odds at achieving one out of five.
The same goes for coffee beans in a roaster. Each bean in a batch will be exposed to roughly the same amount of heat and airflow, for the same period of time. If these beans vary greatly in size (or density) then they will require very different levels of heat to be “perfectly roasted”. Toss in a batch of mixed beans, and the result will be a hotchpotch of burnt beans, under-roasted beans, and okay-ish beans. Not our kinda picnic. 
So while sorting may not seem to directly affect the quality of a green/raw coffee, it will play a huge role in what that coffee tastes like once it is roasted. In short, well-sorted beans give the roaster the best chance at producing something that will brighten your day.
But don’t take our word for it. Why not come and examine our beans up close? Or, if you live and work in Cape Town, then you could have some delivered to your office or home?

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