Susan Jamie

By Jardine Libaire
Photos by Tracey Maurer

The coffee industry is sprawling and international—coffee being a top-ranking commodity worldwide—and it provides a livelihood for millions of people. This huge structure, however, lacks a common technical language, which results in chaos and even corruption. Universal certifications for those who grade, buy, sell, import and export coffee bolster fair negotiations, and devoted coffee businesspeople and artisans have been going to great lengths to organize this system.

Susan Jaime, master roaster of Texas-based Ferra Coffee, has been pursuing those opportunities as they become available. She is a licensed Quality Grader (known as a Q Grader), which is a professional accreditation from the Coffee Quality Institute—the nonprofit education arm of the Specialty Coffee Association of America. Q Graders must pass a strenuous test that involves grading raw beans, blindly identifying the origins of different coffees and distinguishing notes in the brews, among many other challenges. With the accreditation, Jaime says that she can be trusted to accurately evaluate coffees through standardized testing, and also analyze potential defects that coffee samples have in green and roasted forms. This gives her license to score coffees for their value in the market.

The term “master roaster” is more nebulous, though, and is often conferred on someone like Jaime by the general coffee community out of respect for the roaster’s experience and prowess, and his or her dedication to passing on knowledge and skills. Jaime takes the leadership component of this title very seriously. She believes in concurrent learning and teaching as a way of life, and says that when you’re in the coffee business, you never stop learning. Even though the coffee industry is, by all accounts, a heavily male-dominated one, Jaime says she never encountered any sort of ostracism or rebuff, but instead was helpfully mentored by many men when she first stepped into the business. And now she’s happy to pay it forward.

Jaime patiently takes curious newcomers through her craft of grading, roasting and cupping, the industry’s complex and strict ritual for tasting and evaluating coffee processes. She first spills the beans onto a sheet of black paper and inspects the milky-green and mottled orbs for fungus, holes made by the borer beetle or the undesirably straight plane on a bean made by bad cleaning machinery.

She then roasts and grinds the beans according to the exact standards required by the industry. She pours the dry grounds into a cup—stirring them and inhaling the aroma. Using a cupper’s rainbow wheel as a reference, she identifies notes like caramel and currant in the aroma and documents them. Afterward, the grounds are soaked in 190-degree water for four minutes, and the surface of the brew—known as the crust—is broken three times with a heated spoon. The fragrance—different from the aroma—of the wet coffee is noted and documented.

As in wine tasting, the liquid is slurped (the taste should be aerated in the mouth) and spit out (to avoid anything in the beverage that could alter the taster’s sensitivity). The notes may have changed; perhaps a hint of clove has appeared, or cedar. This is how an expert grades the beans of a particular grower, registers the flavor profile of the beans to determine how the bean is blended or sold and decides on the roasting technique. The cupping process is performed multiple times for an accurate evaluation.

Jaime cares deeply about the esoteric side of this business—hunting down jasmine or smoke notes in fresh-ground Mexican beans, or roasting a Brazilian batch to the perfect finish. She has a visceral sense of terroir and notes that coffee, like dirt, “simulates the culture”—referring to the “cinnamons and cloves of Mexico, the dark cherry of Africa.” But she feels her role has urgent political dimensions, too. The widespread poverty of coffee-farming families is notable, considering that a cup of the brew can cost up to $5 in the U.S. After 13 years in the industry, Jaime, along with business partner Sylvia Vasquez, is determined to help close the gap between grower and consumer by educating both, and everyone in between.

“The reason Sylvia and I started in this business is because the first time we actually met with growers, they were just starving,” Jaime says. “When we told them that we pay as much as four dollars for a cup of coffee, they were astounded. But they don’t know their grade; they don’t know what they really have.”

Inside the vine-covered co-op building in quiet Flatonia, Jaime and Vasquez spend days receiving hand-bundled samples of green beans from African growers to grade, roasting larger shipments of beans from Mexico and packaging the roasted beans for their own lines: Ferra Coffee and Green Country Roasters. Ferra is Jaime’s thoroughbred—her specialty-grade coffee using beans and growers with accreditations like Fair Trade, Organic and Rainforest Alliance. Green Country Roasters is a conduit for growers in developing nations who can’t get organic certification but are using green methods and producing high-quality beans.

Being a rare woman in the industry has made Jaime especially aware of the single-mother coffee farmers out there who need help. “We met a mother who was feeding her kids newspaper soup to fill their stomachs,” she says. “In an industry dealing with the second biggest commodity in the world, it’s really a crime.”

To help those mothers and other small-scale growers get leverage, Jaime is creating Quest Coffee Kobeh Yah, an international bank of coffee profiles. With it, she hopes to help bring some intelligibility to the buying, selling and trading of a commodity whose value many claim is second only to oil. Jaime is beginning her program with 1,300 growers in Chiapas. The data collected from those growers will then be available to importers who want to work directly with the growers.

At the opposite end of the transaction are the restaurant and coffee shop owners, vendors and chefs. By teaching tastemakers the nuances in coffee that they’re used to discovering in wine, Jaime is establishing higher standards here at home. She’s amazed at how even devout foodies go to a great restaurant and order nameless coffee. Besides learning which coffee is good for espresso, which is best for Thai food versus Italian food, which does well in a French press and which begs for milk or cream, a chef can also learn from Jaime how to make ethical purchases. Fair Trade, as a phrase, is sometimes obscured by rhetoric and policy, but it’s crucial for modern consumers to be responsible for what happens along a bean’s path to our kitchens.

Ferra Coffee and Green Country Roasters