“Didn’t you say you’ll never open up a cafe again?”
A friend reminded me while he sipped his coffee that I, once again, made as paid barista behind the counter.
“So, what happened?”
Well, coffee happened.
Great, glorious beans by the hillful have been finding their way to Australia - now finally becoming a respectable bean destination rather than the repository of past-crop detritus. These beans come just after harvest with details of provenance readily available. A few years ago it would have been the exception, rather than the rule, that I could trace the beans back to farm. Details of the Colombia I bought in 2003 remain as unreturned phone call from a broker.
While what’s in the cup that ultimately matters, traceability is becoming a dependable barometer. And while traceability is by no means the sole benchmark for great coffee, it speaks volumes of the pride that people have taken over their product:
Farmer: mark my name on that bag. I planted these bourbons seedling by seedling and tended every shoot;
Farmer/miller: mark my name on that bag; I daren’t dilute it with lesser lots, every phase supervised, every bean scrutinised;
Importer: mark my name on that bag, I invested in the crop because I believe in it;
So, as Roaster: I know whose hands tended these beans, my minutes of labour with the roaster by no means match the years and months spent under sun, rain and dirt, but I’ll try to roast them in ways that express the farmer’s intentions.
And, as Barista: though I prepare the coffee, my ultimate skill is to render my hand invisible, and present the coffee inviolate as if the farmer him/herself is offering it from the farmgate.
I am glad things are very different from 2003. I am glad coffee is happening.
The journey back from a learning experience is one of my favourite times. It provides inspiration in light-year mileage.
Thinking back to the weekend’s Palate Training and Sensory Analysis of Coffee workshop I attended, I’m happy to have consciously and singularly slurped the likes of Linalool, 4-ethyl guaiacol and Cathecol and committed their organoleptic properties to memory. Happier still, I finally found the compound responsible for that Islay single-malt signature: 4-ethyl phenol. Mmm, band-aid!
Looks unassuming. All the action’s in the palate!
During one of the breaks I discussed mouthfeel with the presenter Lindsay Corby as the journal articles I have referring to mouthfeel in espresso expounded on 6 identified mouthfeel categories. He pointed to the SCAA Coffee Flavour Wheel poster on the wall.
â€œIn the wine industry, we have that on mouthfeel alone,â€ he quipped.
After I was able to pick my jaw from the floor, I told him it would be interesting to discuss his mouthfeel wheel within the context of coffee. Next workshop perhaps.
Jill Adams’s presentation on the various cultivation, harvesting and processing methods employed in Sumatra, Bali, PNG, Ethiopia and Hawaii, and the subsequent comparative cupping of 5 different varieties (out of many more) being cultivated in Aceh, struck a very loud chord.
Firstly, the slideshow on the varying cultivation and processing methods spoke volumes on how the unique practices evolved in response to the climactic, geographical, cultural and socio-economic conditions specific to regions. Conversely, coffee has also changed many communities, and it continues to, for better and worse. The dry-processing of Harars, for example, is quite intertwined with the cultural and social aspects of the communities involved that there would surely be repercussions should we, in consuming countries, start demanding washed versions of this coffee.
It was most fascinating to see the different varieties in tree form being cultivated in Aceh. So different they looked from each other. We cupped 5 different varieties, each one with a fully-washed and a wet-hulled version.
This one I like. Since weâ€™re only provided with codes, I name thee “Lovely Long Legs”.
One sample stood out on the cupping table for me. It was fully-washed but it was quite hefty in the mouth as only a Sumatra could offer. It had most excellent balance with satisfying acidity and lasting deep notes of cocoa and almonds. I wonder what Jill plans to do with the rest of this sample.
Andy Freeman’s offering of the Malawi Mzuzu Kanga Gesha, rendered 5 different ways was most intriguing and proves that experimentation and crafting are truly thriving among roasters. Everything else the same, the only variation among the 5 was the profile between equalisation (or bottom-out, or turn-temp, however one may prefer to call it) and first crack. Most interesting and distinct cup outcomes.
The days to come look smattered with retrospective fat-chewing and light-bulb moments.
It ain’t broke.
But it can be better…infinitely.
There are many things involved in making coffee. Many work very well. Thankfully some of these things can work a little better if they can be pulled apart and put back together in better shape.
Better encompasses not just faster or bigger. It can also mean easier, and in the world of coffee, tastier. All this just makes the inner tinkerer in us sleepless with ideas and questions.
After a few twilight meanderings, I set out to tinker with my BNZ conical grinder.
I have done away with the doser, and here it is in [non]dosing action. Much faster too as the redundant thwack-thwack pulling of the doser lever is obviated.
Without the doser, the grinder’s velocity is laid bare and the funnel shapes the torrent of grinds into a clean vortex. The descending tornado is dangerously mesmerising.
The result of the coffee alchemist’s tinkering: a static-free, clump-free, well-distributed mound of ground coffee.
There are things to relish about plunging into the chasm that is barista competition. One is that competition becomes some form of purification of practice, of discarding assumptions and other attachments that are extraneous to coffee. Through competition I realise new disciplines:
Every bean ground is expressed in the cup.
Every lifting of the hand is for the purpose of making coffee.
Everything the barista does uniquely is because the coffee dictates it.
Coffee is imaginary until tried and tasted.
Given the recent CoffeeSnobs discussion around the Mountaintop Bin 549, the last discipline gains relevance. This is the coffee I chose to compete with in the Australian Barista Championship 2008, and thus come to try and taste and know very well. So it is with slight surprise that I come across discontent with the “greenness” of this coffee and suggestions that it should be rested a few months before trying. Like rough cut gem, “green”, that quality indicating the freshness of the crop and hinting at undeveloped, unripe and sour attributes of fruit, can be transformed by a curious hand. There is less promise in squeezing life out of an old crop.
For those with some greens and eager to leap out of the imaginary, here are my encounters and some things I’ve learned about the Bin 549:
Moisture-laden - this bean is heavy with moisture, though also rather soft. I usually apply a bit more heat in the early stages of roasting, but not too much as I want a bit more material to work with once first crack starts.
Super exotherm â€“ when it reaches the crest and starts to spew forth heat, the rapidly flickering temperature readout reflects the monstrous energy release of this bean. If I do not apply heat restraints before first crack, the roast can easily bolt and difficult to rein in during first and second cracks. I still want a fully-realised first crack, but I don’t want it to take the rest of the roast with it.
Green gives good play - I achieve a more balanced cup and tone down the greenness if I stretch out the time from first crack to end of roast (between 4-5minutes; 4 minutes for more fruit, while 5 result in more body and balance). Providing there is still a lot left in the bean, it will yield to more shaping beyond 5 minutes, though I am not personally inclined to this style.
Green inspires art - I achieve the cup I want (abundant fruit, good body) if I extinguish all heat just before the beans enter second crack, let them come into second, apply a bit more air to cushion the impact and ease the momentum of crackling, stretch it, stretch it…then quickly into the cooling tray. Further shredding of the green is possible by letting the beans languor in their afterglow in the cooling tray for a few seconds before turning on the cooling fan.
May the flame be with you.
There are many coffee places in the world I would like to visit, for their blends, but more so for the staggeringly wider range of specialty coffee they offer. I’ve done imaginary cuppings of these mythical things and they are as cold as my nose against a glass window. Australia feels like a coffee outpost sometimes.
Then some kind friends, returning from far-flung coffee metropoles like Portland, drop by with contraband. As reward for my tips of reliable coffee haunts they come bearing Stumptown’s Hairbender and Ethiopia Tega and Tula repacked in my zipped valved bags.
As espresso the Hairbender is every bit the legends make of it. It breaks in your mouth singing, seeks to fill the nooks and crannies then leaves with a deep lumbering hum. Bright, deep, complex.
The Ethiopia, is, well…grace. How does one describe grace bestowed in a demitasse? I can say groves and groves of ripe bursting fruits berry citrus and musky passionfruit succulent and sweet my mouth gurgling and guilty with juice. There are better words out there for this.
I wish coffee isn’t so ephemeral as I cling to a waning fistful hopeful that a coffee kindred can also see. But Mr Snuffleupagus leaves before anyone arrives.
In August last year, I fell in love with this single-estate Australian coffee and I’ve been drinking it since then almost every morning through my vacuum brewer. In a realm ruled by espresso, I wished more could catch a glimpse of this coffee brewed this way.
So for my 15 minutes of competition time, in the NSW Barista Championship 2008, I decided to introduce this coffee to the judges through a cupping before I proceeded with the competition drinks - espresso, cappuccino and signature drink. With this extra course not having any bearing on the scores of the actual competition drinks, I still took time to offer judges a cupping of my coffee. I wanted them to experience the coffee in its barest form, before the mediations of espresso machine, milk and other things.
All the NSW sensory judges appreciated what I did and encouraged me to continue on the same path to the national competition. Things could not have been more different at the Australian Barista Championship 2008 finals.
I was informed that the judges will not be permitted to drink anything I offer them other than the competition drinks as I quote in the emailed notice:
“Baristas may choose to serve extra elements as part of their performance, but the judges will not be permitted to consume them or interact with them at all.”
I gave this much thought and I decided to still go ahead with a cupping. Cupping coffee is not incidental to what I do. It is fundamental. And I am not afraid to cup alone.
To my surprise and glee (an invitation to cup is the most heartfelt respect one coffee industry person can give to another and acceptance is respect reciprocated) the judges cupped with me. The ecstasy continued the rest of the 15 minutes I was accorded.
To my surprise and consternation, much later after the competition and during the judges debriefing, it was revealed to me that the judges handed me heavy penalties for the cupping. My cupping was considered a palate cleanser even though I made no mention of it being such and apparently it stood as my espresso offering. Thus all my espresso taste and tactile balance points were nulled, though it confounds me that the other espresso components like colour and consistency of crema etc. remained intact and counted. The judges’ total impression scores were also adjusted for penalties.
The agony sets…heavy, hanging and at times inextricable. Coffee has always guided me through bright constellations. In rare instances like these, it seems, coffee cannot repel the voids and holes.
Not all is dark as I leave the competition. A South Melbourne roaster offers the bright sparks of his cauldron and invites me for cupping. I accept. Ahh…the ecstasy and the agony and the ecstasy.
…and the slow burning fury.
It was no doubt a most eye-opening
experience! What a thrill, to have cupped
alongside some of the world’s best cuppers
- from coffee-growing origins to green
bean suppliers in coffee-buying countries.
Congratulations to Anette Moldvaer
from Mercanta in England whose
performance was nothing short of stellar.
It was unnerving to be in the first set
of cuppers to go up on stage (actually
I was in the No.1 slot - a slot I never got much joy in any competition) and not have the slightest idea where the bar is at in terms of time. I did very well registering 7 correct cups (out of 8 ), though a fraction faster time may have secured me a spot on the semi-finals.
As I sat down to watch the rest of the cuppers, I was in awe. Alf Kramer, who designed the competition and presided over the proceedings, mentioned the 3 skills at play: natural skills, concentration skills, and skills developed by experience. There was great depth of skill displayed by the cuppers in the semi-finals. They may have cupped only 24 coffees in one round, but you get a sense of the thousands of coffees that have passed through their spoons.
I return to Sydney rearing to sharpen further the skills and insights I have developed. How much further, I am only too thrilled to imagine.
All these just make coffee an even bigger universe to marvel at.
We have always photographed the pours of both our blends and some single origin coffees, you’d be surprised how much you can learn from a picture. We thought we’d share some of these shots of coffee, this is how Paracelsus Punch flows.
These are what we’ve defined as Stage 1 and Stage 2 of the Coffee Alchemy Pour Spectrum.
This is Stage 3 and the final moment just as we stop the pour.
Some time ago I stumbled upon a pot of gold…not quite, just an airtight barrel of Sumatra Blue Batak that I decommissioned for underperforming. A few months later I sampled a few kilos of this rested Sumatra as it was the Sulawesi’s turn to give me grief. The Blue Batak was heavier, plummier, raisiny sweeter and had cleaner aromatics - almond, hazelnut, butter - after several months in airtight hibernation.
To this day I remain haunted by it, even more so now that it has acquired the mystique of a pot of gold out of my reach for ages because a certain transnational corporation (known to char the living smithereens out of beans) has bought out future crops. So I have gone accustomed to working with the accessible and consistent, but less vertiginous, Sumatra Kuda Mas.
…until a few days ago when I picked up a
new crop Kuda Mas and ran my fingers
through the beans. The smell was fresh
turned forest floor with a mixture of moss
and must in the distance, and the beans
were unconventionally less patchy, more
uniform throughout the bean, larger, denser,
cooler… The cup had heft but the structure
was gangly and awkward, trying to assert
its baritone birthright but crackling along the way.
I will research on the impact of airtight storage on polysaccharides and low-molecular weight sugars in green beans, and in turn what this does or doesn’t do to some of my favourite odorants and their derivatives - phenols, furans and pyrans. In the meantime, I’ve to find me some empty barrels…
One of the most precious pieces in the Cauldron’s arsenal is the La Marzocco Linea - its powers of transmutation are phenomenal. Alas, even at the tender age of two and with regular water filter replacement, its inards unduly labour under a layer of scale. The water at the Cauldron, it seems, is quite hard. The signs hint at scale, and the cup declares it.
So apart it comes: panels, pipes, fittings, probe and boiler - all destined for descaling and scrubbing. The temperature probe suffered the worst and was wasted. A new one adorns the boiler neck now.
Then, when the parts are gleaming and free, reconstruction takes place with new gaskets, o-rings and sealant. All become one again.
Taking in new water, the pipes hiss and the fan hums. I watch as beads of water break out under the hex screw and tighten. The Linea awakes…!
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