Miguel hunts around the warehouse to find samples of imperfect beans. They're much scarcer than at, say, the "Big Four" coffee roasters (Kraft, Nestle, Procter & Gamble, and Sara Lee), which buy about half the world's annual coffee production and are notorious for focusing on quantity, not quality. He spreads a handful of beans on a table and sorts them like a beader, picking out those with barely visible misshapes, milling nicks, and coffee-borer bites. I sample one of the "quakers," a defective bean that failed to properly roast, which tastes like popcorn hull and burnt cardboard. The more of these in the mix, Miguel says, the worse the flavor.
One of the reasons for so much poor coffee is that most beans are sold on the commodities market, where prices are based on the volatile supply of low-grade beans. When farmers can't demand higher prices, there's no incentive for better quality. Another problem, Aaron says, is that most farmers don't drink coffee. By that he means that most haven't tasted much coffee besides their own and that of their neighbors, and they have little experience evaluating their product.
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In recent years, though, more demanding consumer tastes and increasing awareness of the social and environmental issues surrounding coffee production have helped grow the specialty market. The next step to improving coffee, Miguel says, is for roasters like himself to develop direct relationships with farmers, and, as he's trying to do, encourage them to grow more heirloom varietals and process the beans more carefully.
Slurped side-by-side at the cupping table, one of Paradise's Panamanian brews has bright, acidic notes; a Brazilian variety is nutty, mellow; one from Sumatra is almost vegetal. "How much coffee do you guys drink?" I ask. Miguel laughs. "I don't drink that much, but I taste a lot," he says. "I've been in this business 10 years and I still don't have a tolerance for caffeine." His lanky frame seems to twitch just a little.
Miguel explains that the $300-a-pound price tag on his R. Miguel "Nectar" coffee is tied to its labor-intensive processing. As the coffee cherries are dried, they have to be raked about every 15 minutes for the first 24 to 48 hours. Then workers spend hours hand-sorting each batch before it's air-freighted to Miguel, who roasts it and then re-sorts it himself.
I slurp a spoonful of the Nectar, and it definitely has a more complex flavor than the others, with citrus notes, smoky tones, and a dozen other flavors. The coffee's most noticeable difference is its smooth finish—as soon as I swallow, there's a pleasantly light, clean aftertaste. But would I pay $6 a serving to drink this at home, versus 35 cents for the others?
Just then, the timer goes off on the roaster, and Miguel dashes over to push a few buttons. The beans spatter into a bin below—tat-tat-tat-tat-tat—like coins from a slot machine.