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The best coffees in the world are made when farmers grow coffee beans the right way: at mid-range elevations in shady, humid and fairly temperate tropical climates. That’s all for naught though unless the roaster takes these conditions into consideration when applying heat to the beans. Phil Goodlaxson is one such roaster at Denver’s Corvus Coffee.
“I didn’t start necessarily because I saw a need per se,” he says. “Or at least, I didn’t frame it that way. I just started getting really interested in coffee and had been wondering what I could do in general where my day-to-day work would have a positive impact on others, and where there were always learning opportunities.” It was the earlier days of specialty coffee in the mid-2000s when Goodlaxson visited the Intelligentsia in Chicago and saw something that grabbed his attention: a story about coffee on the walls, framed with photos of farmers and the roaster Michael Phillips and their story. It was a story about place, about relationships and about people working together to make something special. “I just saw a lot of exciting elements within coffee captured in those words and images, and I wanted to learn more. I started home roasting and learning everything I could near the end of college.”
Goodlaxson credits his time learning from Tim Varney in Norway to changing the way he thought about the focus of coffee and launching him in the direction that he’s pursued at Corvus. “He [Varney] seemed really perplexed by the singular focus and preoccupation on brewers—like Aeropress versus Chemex—and Tim explained their way of thinking, now common here, that the raw ingredient was the most important thing to focus your time and energy on from the standpoint of making an impact and for pursuing quality. This has been our core focus in the coffees we roast at Corvus, uniting sustainability and quality as a singular purpose. We work with farmers in concert toward increasing quality. That quality, and the price that it can command for them, is the most tangible thing they can have for creating a more sustainable future for their communities and families.”
As the specialty coffee realm has grown and become hyper-focused there is still much that can be done for those doing the very hard work of both growing and preserving greatness in coffee. According to Goodlaxson, it’s all very doable and it all comes back to honoring the farmers and the special places where they grow these coffees. “The soil, weather patterns, temperature patterns in a specific place are what form the building blocks for the flavors within each coffee, similar to an agricultural product like wine. The care and management of the agronomy, selection of variety and processing are what create clarity and vibrancy within those flavors. More than ever though, farmers are experimenting a lot with different fermentation methods that are also beginning to have more of a direct impact on the flavor attributes, not just the vibrancy and clarity of those attributes.”
As a coffee drinker, I’ve been drawn to the Reserve coffees by Corvus that often come in small tins with a substantial price tag; they are simply some of the most incredible coffee experiences I’ve had. The Moonshine Mill reserve coffee was a bit of a happy accident. One of the farmers Corvus works with, Barney Duran, who grows coffee in some of the best volcanic soils in Costa Rica, was hustling to get his coffee cherries to dry in the sun but had more coffee than he had room to dry. So, he grabbed three white tarps, instead of the typical black, and spread his excess coffee out over those tarps. The drying, the unique nature of just the white tarps impact on the cherries and most importantly tasting that particular lot of coffees separately, created a serendipitous bit of coffee magic that has fetched three times the price of the normal specialty coffees from Duran’s La Clandestina terroir.
“In the end, that price tag is important, and you could say it’s the goal for Corvus; but it’s not about his profit, it’s the freedom that money can buy the farmers he’s working with. Nearly every producer above 1,600 meters is probably growing at least some 86-plus-point coffee. Beginning to see which lots are ‘good’ and tracing that back to specific steps or processes and then getting compensated for that quality on those lots is 80 percent of what it takes for the right type of person to become a specialty producer. Moonshine Mill is a good example story actually—I think Barney thought that coffee wouldn’t be any good, it was just coffee he didn’t have room for. But he has the discipline of micro-lotting and so it got cupped and turns out it was great. Now he can likely repeat it and get three times the price he gets for his normal specialty coffee! For people who live on a couple-hundred or a couple-thousand dollars a year, becoming a specialty producer of an artisan [product] you can only get from them, instead of being a tiny producer in the second largest commodity on earth (after people’s personal data), makes a difference immediately.”
Christian Osorio at La Vega in Colombia is a similar grower. “A bag of La Vega for $20 per 12 ounces translates back to three times the ‘C’ market price for specialty in southern Huila,” says Goodlaxson. “Christian is more than capable of producing coffee that’s worth this much in the market—you can taste the difference in the cup. If people are buying that coffee for what it’s worth, it just means it’s not getting blended into huge lots of “Colombian” or at best “Huila” coffee for half or a third of what we pay. Enjoy coffee, ask for transparency, make an impact. It’s very simple and very real.”
From issue 101. Buy it here.