Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Brew Challenge

Writing their cupping notes on the 8 Estrellas.

Training continues in Towson for our new group of baristas. This weekend's exercise was to cup a coffee, identify its' components, develop a unified description of the coffee, then pinpoint that coffee's preferred brew method.

All of these steps are going to be an integral part of the barista's work. Our baristas need to taste the coffee, identify the flavors and discuss those with interested customers. They also need to understand why a particular brew method has been selected as our "default" choice for that coffee.

Let's say a customer walks in and wants to try the Aida's Grand Reserve. Our baristas have cupped that coffee and identified a brew method that we feel best exemplifies the flavor of that coffee. Of course, our customers have the prerogative to choose any of the brew methods available to them, but we will offer a brew method of our choice for that coffee for those who don't want to ponder aeropress, french press, chemex or eva solo.

Writing descriptions based on their cupping notes.

We started off by group cupping a lot of the Bolivian 8 Estrellas coffee from Square Mile Coffee Roasters in London. James and Anette were kind enough to share some of this coffee with us and I let our candidates loose on the cupping table. It was their second formal cupping and I think they're starting to get the hang of things.

When it comes to cuppings with people who are not very experienced, I tend to encourage them to describe the coffee in whatever way they can. I encourage colors, music, rock bands, seasons, whatever. The important thing for me is that they're expressing the characteristics in one way or another. This starts the dialogue necessary for them to develop their palates. Those "eureka" moments when they equate what they've tasted to a description.

And while the cupping itself is done in silence, the discussion afterwards can take a life of its' own. The 8 Estrellas garnered such descriptions as: woody, chocolate, yogurt, sweet earth, yellow, vanilla tobacco, maple syrup, cinnamon, syrupy, mahogany, wet leaves, slight tart, cider, autumn, heavy, wet chalk, semi-sweet chocolate, orange, peppermint patty and caramel.

Tasting the second round of brews.

Once the discussion was complete, the candidates were each tasked with writing a brief and concise paragraph describing the coffee in under four sentences. And while I was pleasantly surprised that all of them were well-written and conveyed the coffee accurately, only one could remain. So, after a couple of elimination rounds, the group collectively decided the final description:

"8 Estrellas is an aromatic coffee with a complex, smoky, yet tangy fragrance. Its' low acidity allows for a sweet balanced flavor concentrated on notes of autumn. A woodsy and full body leaves a pleasant aftertaste of semi-sweet chocolate and caramel."

I had cupped this coffee previously when it first arrived and this is the description I wrote for the coffee:

"...very sweet with strong notes of caramel. Rich and full with a light acidity. Chocolate, vanilla and toffee notes."

After reading the previous description to the group, they were pleased that they could taste very similar notes in their cupping. But the point I wanted to make was yet to come: that description was written on April 24, 2009. Nearly six months ago.

Between myself and one of the coffee growers I deal with, we've been freezing roasted coffee for over ten years now. While many in the business will argue until they are blue in the face that freezing is destructive to coffee, the unscientific tests I've conducted over the years don't support that destruction.

By now (presuming they're reading this), James and Anette are probably cringing at the fact that I've taken one of their wonderful coffees and subjected it to freezing. Rest assured, the coffee is still delicious.

White board filled with tasting notes, the final description, the brew vote tally and the blue notes are from an "identify the ingredients" challenge where they had to taste and identify the ingredients in a hot sauce.

After lunch, the crew regrouped and broke off into two person teams. The task at hand was to take the description and create hand brewed coffees as close to the description as possible. Thirty minutes to brew up to three attempts and bring the best example to the judging table.

The Spro isn't really a small space. As far as espresso bars go, it's pretty spacious. Over twenty-eight feet of linear bar space and a twenty-five foot aisle that's three feet wide with a back counter that's twenty feet long, which is ample for up to four baristas, but when you start cramming ten baristas, plus the actual working shift baristas, it starts to get really claustrophobic behind the bar.

As the girls broke off to prepare examples of Chemex, Aeropress, Eva Solo, Syphon, French Press and Pourover, I started to feel like Gordon Ramsay in the television show Hell's Kitchen during one of the challenges, barking out the remaining time and putting the pressure on. Three attempts at a brew but only one can be brought to the table. Definitely stressful.

With time running out, the girls were doing a good job brewing, tasting and evaluating their coffee, making adjustments and doing it again. As the clock ticked down the drinks started coming out from behind the bar to the judging table.

As we gathered around and started tasting, it became apparent that there were no cut and dry winners in the challenge. No one coffee exemplified what we had tasted in the cup. Back to the brew!

Round Two of the brewing challenge had the teams work up two more brews in twenty minutes, bringing their best back to the judges table. This time, the tastings revealed a distinct winner: french press, with the Chemex and Syphon in 2nd and 3rd. Sadly, neither the Aeropress, Eva Solo or Pourover had any supporters with the 8 Estrellas.

In the real world, a group of baristas will do exactly what we did today: cup the coffee, develop a description and prove the default brewing method for the coffee. Had this been an actual production coffee, the default brew would be french press. Rest assured that the new Spro will not be serving six month old frozen coffee.