I just posted this to our blog, and thought I would share it here as well.
This is something that's intrigued us for quite some time. We're always interested in what kinds of experiments are being done in origin to produce coffees that push the envelope and stumble upon new flavor profiles in the cup, and a lot of work has been done to this end lately. We've seen interesting experiments with fermentation procedures in Hawaii, SL-28 plantings outside of Kenya, incredible dry-process coffees from Ethiopia, and some exciting pulped naturals coming out of Panama and elsewhere. Finding and tasting these new coffees is perhaps my favorite part of this job.
We think we have another new idea that has some potential, and we'd love to collaborate with a producer to see what we can do. Here's a quick run down:
It is generally accepted that the best coffees come from relatively low yielding varieties like Typica, Bourbon, Sl-28, Gesha, etc... In 2006, at the SCAA conference, there was a discussion about an experiment designed to test for the correlation between productivity and cup quality among two common varieties of Coffea Arabica. A research team gathered beans from both Caturra (higher yielding) and Bourbon (lower yielding) plants grown on the same farm, harvested on the same day, and processed and roasted in precisely the same manner. In numerous blind cupping trials, tasters rated the Bourbon significantly higher.
The experiment was conducted again. Only this time, researchers used flower removal to reduce the Caturra's yeild to an amount similar to that of the Bourbon's. In this cupping trial, there was no significant difference in quality. This suggests that lower yield may be the primary reason for the superior quality of the "heirloom" varieties. This shouldn't be much of a surprise; With many other agricultural crops it is well known and accepted that lower yield has a strong correlation with higher quality. Why should coffee be any different?
I stumbled upon some more support for this correlation this morning when I read an article from Kenneth Davids on the Coffee Review blog. Here, Davids discusses the controversy over the new Ruiru 11 plantings in Kenya, which many roasters and cuppers believe produces inferior coffee when compared to the currant-laden SL-28 coffees. It is a great article, and one part really stuck out at me: "The more thoughtful agronomists I spoke to nuanced the situation. Essentially, they admitted the Ruiru 11 cup is sometimes simple and empty, but the reason, they say, is that farmers don’t prune these new Ruiru 11 trees aggressively enough, so they simply produce too much coffee with a diffused or empty character. Cut the Ruiru 11 trees back so that they bear less fruit and the coffee they produce will taste just like coffee from the lower-bearing SL28 and SL34."
Here's my question: If higher yielding varieties produce better coffee when their yield is restricted, either by pruning or flower removal, what would happen if the yield was highly restricted on an SL-28, Bourbon, or Typica plant? Could we make an even more Kenya-like Kenya? Could we make an even sweeter El Salvador Bourbon? We want to find out.
We want to collaborate with a producer who can produce a small quantity of coffee from trees that have at least half of their blossoms removed at flowering time. To anyone who is growing a high-quality, low yielding variety, has the ability to wash small batches, and the interest to give this a try; Please contact us! No quantity is too small, and we will, of course, be willing to pay very fairly. We want to work with you on this!