Expert Interview: Allegro Coffee Buyer Christy Thorns

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

As we wrap up our intensive coffee coverage of the last week or two, we wanted to go straight to the source for some in-depth answers. Meet Christy Thorns, a coffee-buyer for Allegro Coffee. She works directly with coffee farms to source the beans for Allegro’s organic single origin and blended coffees. We sent her some of our curious questions and she was kind enough to answer.

Here are Christy’s answers to questions like how blends are developed, the truth of shade-grown coffee, and how a real-life coffee expert brews her coffee! She wrote us these answers on her Blackberry, sitting in her little jungle cottage….

Christy writes…

I am writing my answers on my Blackberry while sitting in the doorway of my little cabin at Selva Negra, clouds rolling down over the forest, wind blowing this afternoons raindrops down from the tree tops, and it is really chilly. A typical Matagalpa rainy season evening. The only problem, it is not supposed to be rainy this time of year and it is causing havoc with the harvest. Thanks Global Warming!

Do you buy Allegro’s coffee primarily from one region, or do you source equally in all three major regions?
We are currently sourcing from 27 origins, but Latin America is definitely the biggest region for us. We buy from Mexico, every country in Central America, and in S. America: Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil.

However, our biggest single origin seller is Sumatra and last harvest we purchased more coffee from Ethiopia than anywhere else, which we use both as a single origin offering and as a big blender. The diversity of flavor profiles from Ethiopia, due to the wide range of microclimates, processing methods, and plant varietals, make it a wonderful blender for anything from espresso blends to french roasts. Although the nuanced fruit notes of a great Ethiopian coffee really are best experienced in an perfectly developed full city roast.

Can you tell us some of the differences in taste between major coffee regions?
Well this is a fairly generalized answer because within each of the three major regions their are many sub-regions and microclimates, but in general coffees of the Americas are balanced and sweet, with nuances of cocoa, roasted nuts, caramel, and toffee.

The coffees of East Africa and Arabia are more exotic with powerful and complex notes of fruits and flowers, which depending on the microclimate and processing method could be expressed in the cup as berries, citrus, stonefruit, jasmine, honey, wine grapes, and sweet spice.

To me coffees of the Pacific Rim, when at their best, represent flavors of the earth. They are loamy and wild with aromas most often found in the forest; mushroom and moss, leather and cedar, green herbs and dried spices. They are also big bodied and typically lower in perceived acidity.

We’re curious about blends – how are they developed?
The main consideration when developing a blend is how will the coffee be used? Is it for espresso or for drip brewing. Then you have to break that question down farther, if it is espresso will it taste best as a shot or as a cappucino or or will the blend have to be powerful enough to stand up to all the milk in a latte or, god forbid, vanilla syrup, chocolate sauce, and sprinkles? Is it for breakfast or for that afternoon pick-me-up?

Typically people like a little bit lighter, brighter blend to get them going in the morning and a more contemplative, sweet spot roast after lunch. Also because we sell coffee all around the country we need to have a range of light to darker roasted blends to meet the established regional preferences.

All of these blend styles require experimentation and adjustment with each new harvest and it is essential that you taste the coffee not only on the cupping table but also in the method that it will be brewed at your customer’s place.

What’s your favorite coffee region and why?
Well I appreciate all the great growing regions of the world and diverse aromatic experiences they have the potential to deliver, but my true loves are the washed coffees of Ethiopia and Kenya. If flavors of apricot or blackcurrant are in my cup, I am a happy woman!

What’s shade-grown coffee, and why should a coffee buyer look for it?

Shade grown coffee, unfortunately, can mean many things to many different people. There is still no real standard around this term and at the different farms there can be various levels of shade depending on what is appropriate and traditional in that microclimate.

We prefer to work with farms that have either managed polyculture shade trees over the coffee or secondary forest with coffee inside. In addition to providing good bird and wildlife habitat, the trees create hummus-rich soils from their leaf droppings and most importanly, they slow down the development cycle of the coffee cherries creating more flavor-packed beans.

How do you like to brew coffee at home?
I like the clarity of flavor that a good brewed coffee can deliver so at home my Technovorm Moccamaster with a gold filter is my baby!

If you want to make great coffee at home you absolutely have to invest in a good brewer, one that first gets the water hot enough,195-205 one that holds enough coffee, 2 TB per 6 oz of water, one that brews in the appropriate amount of time, around 4 minutes, and one that can be brewed into a thermal carafe, not into glass sitting on a burner. Also, you have to buy a quality burr grinder and grind fresh beans for each brew.

I also like to brew up a French Press to go with my Sunday paper. This is an excellent, affordable, and easy way to make exceptional coffee at home, but a good grinder is still key.

Thank you so much, Christy!

We’ll wrap up chocolate coverage tomorrow – we have an interview with a Master Chocolate Maker!