Split Rock Coffee

Minneapolis, MN



A Brief History of Coffee

Coffee is better enjoyed when you understand a brief history of coffee.  Coffee was discovered in the 9th century by an Ethiopian goat herder named Kaldi after he noticed his goats became frisky while eating the ripe cherries of the coffee bush. By the 16th century, explorers had spread the coffee to Indonesia, Europe, Brazil and finally America. Today, coffee is the second largest commodity (behind oil) traded in the world.

There are two types of coffee plants grown: Robusta and Arabica. Both Robusta and Arabica are grown around the world between the tropic of Cancer and Capricorn. Robusta is grown at low elevations and is used in commercial quality coffee, instant coffee, freeze-dried products, and espresso blends. There are some fine-quality Robusta’s, but the majority of the time its taste characteristics can be described as rubbery, burnt, and harsh. Arabica is grown at higher elevations and takes considerably more time to grow, care for, and process into finished green coffee. The trade-off for this effort is fine-tasting coffee with nuances that reflect the soil, sun, and microclimate of the growing region.

Coffee as a Commodity

Today, coffee is the second largest commodity traded (behind oil) in the world with daily and future prices tied to the Intercontinental Exchange or ICE exchange. The exchange allows buyers to purchase and set prices based on the futures market. The chart below reflects the price path coffee has followed since 2008. In this chart, the price spike is related to the wet weather and subsequent shortage of Colombian coffees in the summer of 2011.

Natural disasters or weather patterns are usually linked to these swings, however, speculative price spikes have becoming more common as more institutional money managers have begun to use the commodity sector for risk management.

Processing Arabica Coffee

Just like a Bing cherry, the coffee bean is really the pit or seed from a coffee cherry. Coffee cherries grow in clusters on long branches. The coffee tree produces one set of fruit per year, except in Colombia and Kenya where they have one large harvest and then a smaller Mitaca crop halfway through the year. Picking coffee cherries is hard, backbreaking work. Each cherry must be handpicked and since the cherries do not all ripen at the same rate, farmers must continually pick ripe berries throughout the 12-week harvest season. Once the cherries are off the tree, they must be transported to a drying patio or a washing station within 8 hours or they will begin to ferment. Depending on the country, there are two distinctive styles of processing the coffee: the dry or wet method.

The dry or natural method is used in hot climates where water is scarce and the country’s transportation infrastructure is not well developed. In these countries, fresh cherries are gathered and spread out on large dirt, gravel, or concrete patios and then raked or stirred continuously to promote even drying. As the cherries dry in the sun, the outer layer of fruit loses its moisture and begins to resemble a large raisin. Natural coffees have a very distinctive flavor profile of blueberry, fruit, medium body, and soft, wine-like acidity. Natural coffees are high priced and scarce because of the intensive labor needed to produce them.

The wet method has more steps, yet produces a more consistent flavor profile. For this reason it’s the prevalent method of processing coffee. In the wet method, the beans are mechanically squeezed out of their skins and then soaked in a fermentation tank to remove the mucilage, or outer layers, of fruit clinging to the bean. Next, the beans are washed in clean water, patio or mechanically dried, and then milled. This method produces a consistent coffee with more acidity.

The next step in the coffee production process is milling and grading. During the milling stage the coffee is stripped of the outer paper chaff that surrounds the coffee. The cleaned coffee is then sent through the grading machines that remove broken, unripe or otherwise defective cherries by either electronic sorting machines or human hands.

The finished coffee is then shipped from the country of origin in 37,500 pound or “C” container increments.

Coffee Purchasing

Final quality assessment and buying decisions are made at the coffee importer’s warehouse through a tasting procedure called “cupping”. Cupping coffees ensures that the coffee is free of flavor defects and will work in Split Rock Coffee’s blend recipe. It is not unusual for the coffee from one region or farm to change flavor during the harvest, so cupping green coffee purchases is critical to quality control.

Coffee Roasting

Roasting coffee is the next critical stage of developing a great coffee. Roasting coffee is part art and part science. The art portion is knowing when and how to push or pull the heat in or out of the beans. The science is being able to replicate the roast profile as seasonal and daily atmospheric changes take place within the roasting facility. Split Rock Coffee is slow roasted in about 12-14 minutes time. The longer roasting times convert the starches in the coffee bean to sugars. As these sugars are brought to the surface of the bean they are caramelized by the heat of the roaster. The darker the roast level the more the sugars have been caramelized. Split Rock Coffee’s light, medium and dark roasts are specified to not be overpowering in roast flavor, but to complement the green coffee that went into the blend.

Coffee Grinding

Coffee grinding is the final quality control point for Split Rock Coffee. Our equipment manufacturer’s lab personnel work in tandem with the brewing equipment and roaster to extract the best tasting coffee possible. The chart below is an example of our coffee’s extraction ratios. The large box at the top of the chart represents the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s “Gold Cup” standard. The gold cup standard represents the perfect-tasting cup of coffee and reflects a very high Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) coffee-to-water ratio. Note the consistent, vertical linear line that Split Rock Coffee’s taste profile follows on its way up to the gold cup standard. This vertical line translates to sweet-tasting, correctly brewed coffee at every throw weight we offer.