My opinions on the subject of food and drink are well documented on my culinary Vancouver blog Tiny Bites, but I have a dirty little secret: I know next to nothing when it comes to coffee. This arms-length relationship is mostly a result of memories as a young girl, sneaking furtive sips of my father's morning brew. Bitter, black, burnt, and tinny touched my blank palate, leaving unpleasant impressions of a bean that should not have been introduced so joltingly through a cup of instant coffee.
In the years that passed, coffee did eventually re-enter my diet, but the stuff that I gulped down at late night diners and fast food stops was hardly indicative of anything that could be elevated beyond the grade of commodity. It took years of refining my palate on wine and fraternizing with lovers of coffee before the drink began to show promise. But something was still off. I began to suspect that great coffee was not to be found in a cup flooded with milk and sugar, and that the Starbuckses of the world aren't necessarily where one would locate a profound taste experience.
Cue Mark Prince, coffee aficionado extraordinaire, with whom I have recently become acquainted. Going on cafe crawls with a bona fide CoffeeGeek have finally flung open the doors to a world of specialty coffee, and I'm hooked. Yet I still lacked a vocabulary to express what I tasted in each cup, nor did I have any base knowledge of the particular bean or region that was dancing on my taste buds at any given moment.
It was therefore with much excitement and nervousness that I attended the first of Prince's free monthly coffee tastings in Vancouver, held on September 28, 2008 at Bump n Grind Café, ready to capture the event with my trusty lens and notepad.
At the Tasting
The Crowd While a core group stayed for the whole event, many more stopped by for one or two samples.
Sammy Piccolo 2008 Canadian Western Regional Barista Champion, 3 time former Canadian Champion, and top 3 in the World Barista Championships, 3 times.
I was relieved to see that I was not the only coffee newbie in the crowd. There was in fact a spectrum of attendees present, from the uninitiated like myself to 3-time Canadian Barista Champion Sammy Piccolo of Caffe Artigiano.
I thought it was also appropriate that this inaugural tasting explored coffees from the Sidamo region Ethiopia, the nation which is widely touted as the birthplace of coffee. Lots from three Ethiopian Sidamo producers, situated within a 40-kilometre radius of one another, were the stars of the show – care of Ecco Caffe, a California-based roaster with a reputation of sourcing beans of exceptional quality.
These coffees were part of a new initiative in Ethiopia called Operation Cherry Red, which is funded by the government of Holland through the importer Trabocca, the same importer that most of North America's top roasters use to get their Ethiopian coffees.
In a nutshell, OCR is set up to provide better equipment, logistics and training to individual farmers and communities, and as part of the program, pickers are paid a 25% premium over and above their negotiated prices for green coffee if they harvest only the ripest cherries at a given time - their pickings are examined by the importer, and if they meet quality standards, the bonus is paid. The result is some of the best coffees each farmer is capable of producing and selling.
Back at the tasting, Prince welcomed the gathered crowd and described the format for the day: each sample would be brewed via French press with communal tasting notes and open discussion throughout. First up was a 2008 certified organic crop from Birbissa, which Prince promised would deliver a huge hit of body, low acidity, and a sweet, balanced flavour.
Table of Sidamos and Cups
The Grinds The fragrant grinds were passed around before each sample was tasted.
As I swirled the first buttery sip in my mouth and savoured the tartness and slight bitters that hit my senses, participants were encouraged to voice their first impressions. A few ventured their thoughts, with descriptors ranging from sweeping to precise.
Descriptives Reading the data sheet on the Birbissa coffee
Joe Enjoying With the cap on, Joe from Bump and Grind describes the flavour as cherry pie.
As the group got comfortable with this open forum conversation, more people chimed in with tasting notes of ever increasing complexity and enthusiasm. It was a little intimidating, to be honest. My palate, used to the vibrance of wine, was befuddled by the relatively muted tones of coffee, and I was perturbed by my inability to discern things such as red fruit, floral bouquets, or hints of citrus.
So I kept my thoughts to myself and tried to see whether I could detect the notes that others threw out about me. Sometimes it worked (ooh, yes, there is walnut there!), and sometimes it was beyond my ken.
Guji Ethiopia A roast sample from Gerbicho Rogicha, another Ethiopian Sidamo Natural (and short-formed as Guji) is poured.
Darcy and Flavours Darcy of Culinary Underground shares his thoughts on the Guji.
As we moved into the second sample, it became clear that others also shared my trepidation. One brave soul aired his alarm at not being able to distinguish specific characteristics. The aficionados in the room were quick to reassure him (and through him, the rest of the anxious beginners) that articulation of taste takes time, practice, and familiarity with one's own preferences. One does not need sophistication of palate to enjoy a good cup of coffee, nor does one need to qualify as a supertaster in order to be a master cupper.
While reception of the first coffee was already positive, the reaction to the second was even more intense, and participants excitedly called out their impressions. Lemon rind. Raspberry. Coriander. Blue fruit, which I could actually identify in the cup. (That discovery made me grin happily to myself in my little corner.)
"This is really good," exclaimed a woman with a voice brimming with delight. Another taster found nuances of broccoli. Darcy, who hails from rock band catering company Culinary Underground, drew from his experiences in professional kitchens and further noted an off flavour, akin to "bad veggies".
This comment led to a lively discussion about the dry processing of these Ethiopian beans. Allowing the fruit to ferment off the bean as it dried in the sun could be the reason that Sidamos tend to have a wine-like characteristic. My head spun at the barrage of information, but I was wholly impressed by the expertise of the gathered collective and how the conversation still managed to be accessible to those that had little familiarity with the coffee growing industry.
The last Sidamo to be had was grown in Korito Koran, only a few kilometres away from where the first coffee, the heavy-body Birbissa, was grown. Despite their proximity, these crops were wildly divergent in body, acidity, and finish.
Third Coffee Katie Wu, 2nd best Barista in Canada last year, helps pour the third sample, the Korito Koran.
Cooling down As people were tasting, they were encouraged to let the coffees cool down.
Robert Dall A local blogger of Vancouver's Indie Coffee scene taking pictures of the event.
In this case, my mouth was assaulted with sour from the moment I pressed my lips to the cup. It was a shock after the toasty bouquet of its grinds, which for me was the best of the bunch. Others touched upon this brew's oily nature and surprisingly non-existent aftertaste. Orange blossoms were detected on the nose while Angie Lof, the former barista trainer for JJ Bean, likened its flavour profile to a dry wine.
Participants were asked to take sips as their drink cooled over time. According to Prince, the ability of a coffee to taste just as good piping hot as it does lukewarm is an indication of a thoroughbred bean. In the case of Sample #3, the Korito's acidity intensified as it cooled. It was consequently not to my taste, but others were quite happy with it, including Robert Dall of CoffeeVancouver.ca, who voted it as his favourite.
After the formal tastings, the group was invited to an optional sampling of another roast from Ecco Caffe–this time from a Brazil farmer who at one time garnered the highest score in the history of the Cup of Excellence back in 2006. The coffee we were sampling today was claimed by several experts to be the best bean at the 2008 Slow Food Nation conference in San Francisco. The Brazil was prepared on the Clover and 12 oz was offered for a nominal fee of $2. Most sauntered over to the counter to take advantage of this terrific deal.
My cup was pleasantly low in acidity with an earthiness that wasn't present in the Sidamos. Wish I could have enjoyed this as the start, as it seems to warrant higher praise than what I'm able to articulate…but at this point, I was simply coffee’d out.
As the tasting drew to a close, the room was buzzing with the neighbourly chatter of the participants, who by now were comfortable with exchanging opinions on this cup and that. Some of the original attendees had departed to be replaced by passersby-turned-tasters.
A steady traffic of customers approached Bump n Grind owners Joe and Audrey with their orders, cricking their necks in the direction of the crowd and taking in the dialogue while they waited. Latecomers were welcomed into the fold and extra pots were brewed to the delight of the remaining guests, who lined up for another sample of their faves. All told, about 35 people took part in this event.
Our Hosts Bump n Grind proprietors Audrey and Joe - gracious hosts of the day's events
Chandra Meyer Chandra Meyer of Latin Organics, a Vancouver-based importer of fair trade and organic coffees
From my conversations with other attendees, the tasting was an enjoyable and highly educational event. I know that whatever apprehensions I had felt in participating in such a roundtable dissolved into my first sip. Much was learned, much was savoured, and much anticipation was built for the next CoffeeGeek tasting at the end of October.
Hope to see you there.
Editor’s note: we’d like to thank the following companies for their help and support for this event: Bump n Grind Café, 916 Commercial Drive, Vancouver, BC, Canada Ecco Caffe for supplying the great coffees this round. 49th Parallel Roasters for loan of 24 3.5oz cups and press pots. Elysian coffee for the loan of a hot water tower.
Karen Hamilton uses her keyboard, camera, and kitchen to expound on her favourite subject: food. Her exploration of all things edible in Vancouver, British Columbia is diarized at TinyBites.ca.