A few months ago, there was a post on James Hoffmann’s blog about the words we use on coffee packaging descriptions. He asked whether the coffee industry is being informative in a way that is useful to consumers who might read the label on a bag of coffee they buy. He conducted an experiment where customers were invited taste 4 brewed coffees, then match them to their labels. You can find the very interesting results in this subsequent post, suffice to say that they (being Square Mile Coffee Roasters in London) learned something about the kinds of words that resonate with the ‘average punter’, as well as those that don’t.
But that got me thinking. On the one had, we could take from this that we need to ‘reign-in’ the language we use in describing coffee to make sure that the greatest number of consumers understand the same thing by reading the description. On the other hand, since the above will either prove impossible or else yield incredibly boring, over-simplified descriptions, should we allow roasters to embrace their creativity? After all, everyone tastes things differently, don’t they?
Before proceeding, I’m going to unpack the notion of describing coffee a bit more.
Describing coffee is a creative process; like all creative processes, it involves translating your perception of a set of stimuli into some other form such that others can appreciate it. While I’m sure that some lucky humans have a slight cognitive advantage over the average punter (ie. their tongues are more sensitive), I am certain that their main skill is their ability to accurately and consistently render tongue sensations into English (or another language). In other words, much of their skill is linguistic rather than organoleptic. What this implies is that anyone can learn to evaluate the taste of coffee (to mis-quote Chef Gusteau from Ratatouille!).
My impression of the general attitude towards descriptions on wine bottles is that their flowery, pretentious word are something that most people can only aspire to relate to – perhaps one descriptor in ten might resonate with us mere mortals. What may be closer to the truth is that the language used to describe wine is one which wine buffs learn how to interpret in negotiation with the sensations the wine provides them with.
I suspect that the average level of connoisseurship amongst coffee drinkers is not as high as amongst wine drinkers, yet even still there must be a growing collective vocabulary.
Prior to becoming heavily involved in all things coffee, I would still have recognised flavours in my coffee that I could describe as “chocolatey” or “nutty”. Are these the kinds of ‘real’ descriptors we should limit ourselves to? Should we define canonical flavour descriptors as those which 60% of novice tasters can identify, for example? But then, what is a ‘novice’, and do we really want them telling us what our coffee tastes like? (Apologies to the novice.)
On the other hand, neither do we want our favourite brews to be lyricised and set to music by the Legion of the Left-Handed. (Again, apologies; too much coffee can make me surly.) Of course, if you read my cupping notes, you’ll see that I am just as guilty as anyone of straying from “insightful, useful comparative description” into “wildly prosaic, fanciful concoctions”. As a lover of language, it is all too easy for me to stray into creating wildly unhelpful descriptions of coffee.
No, a cupper’s skill is not measured by their verbosity; the best writing is almost always the most economic. Furthermore, a writer who pays no heed to their audience is helping no one. And so we come back to using language that people will understand.
I’m afraid I have no real conclusions to draw from this yet. I’m afraid it’s going to be one of those “balance” type situations – coffee consumers will educate themselves as the specialty coffee industry continues to judiciously provide them with information about, and descriptions of their coffees.
Our roastery is under construction right now, but when we’re up and running I’ll be sure to take JH’s challenge and test our coffee descriptions with some volunteers.
I’m also planning on conducting some sort of content analysis on coffee descriptions. Might be a bit project, but expect to hear back from me.
As with a whole range of food products these days, the way we buy coffee is completely removed from its primary source. Whether we’re buying freeze-dried, granulated instant coffee, vacuum-packed ground coffee, or even a regular cappuccino, what we’re buying has come a long way from the shrub the coffee ripened on.
The coffee fruit is called a cherry.
The cherry is washed,
I don’t know about you, but considering how far the coffee goes from crop to cup makes me marvel at human ingenuity!
Because of this long process, we sometimes forget that coffee is a food product. No we don’t! You might be saying. Of course coffee is food! Yet the way we often treat coffee says otherwise. As a food product, coffee is:
- seasonal – that is, not strictly available all-year-’round;
- perishable – that is, it goes stale (and faster than you’d think!);
- variable – that is, one year’s crop may be completely different to another’s.
These simple facts have quite serious implications for how we ought to buy and consume coffee.
Firstly, the fact that coffee is seasonal means that different beans are available to your local roaster at different times of the year. Beans from Indonesia are available at the beginning of the year (in Australia), whereas those from Ethiopia become available several months later. What does this mean for the consumer? Well, unroasted (green) coffee beans keep fresh for a while – but that ‘while’ tends to be less than 12 months, meaning that not all beans will be available (fresh) all year ’round. So if you see a roaster offering the same selection of beans year-in, year-out, ask them if they can tell you when the beans were harvested and whether they’ve been ‘cupping’ (ie. tasting) them periodically for deterioration.
Secondly, the fact that coffee (and here I refer to roasted coffee) is perishable means we need to know when the beans we are buying were roasted. Roasted coffee will stay fresh for up to 2-3 weeks if stored away from light, heat, moisture and oxygen – in a one-way-valve bag in the pantry, for example. But only as whole beans! Grinding coffee increases its surface area about 1000-fold so it is fair to conclude that the oxygen and water vapour in the air will ruin the coffee 1000 times faster. Thus, your 2-3 weeks becomes 20-30 minutes at the flick of a (grinder) switch! But even buying whole beans can be problematic. Most mass-produced coffee, including the imported Italian brands, allow 12 months on the use-by date of their coffee. You can be sure that after 12 months, even the best coffee will taste like burnt sawdust! I would recommend only buying coffee which has a ‘roasted on’ sticker showing that it is no more than 2 weeks old. Better yet, go to a local roaster and ask them to recommend you something fresh.
Lastly, the fact that coffee crops change from year to year means that what you drink this year will always be different from what you drink next year – even if you buy the same blend. This is actually a wonderful thing, as long as roasters and consumers are realistic about coffee as a crop and don’t yearn for absolute consistency. Unfortunately, both roasters and consumers are guilty of doing just that – and thereby treating coffee less like a food and more like a chemical essence with which we can flavour our lattes! As with wine-making, some ‘vintages’ will stand above the rest. Also as in wine-making, mere mortals like you and I will almost never get to taste these exquisite beans! But never fear: there is always high quality coffee available – the coffee-growing industry is huge a varied enough to ensure that there is never a bad year for coffee! Coffee production is a fluid thing – subject to drought, flood, frost and political and economic upheaval – so what is available and delicious one year may not be so the nest year. I am therefore somewhat suspicious when roasters claim to have a ‘special’ blend recipe created by monks in the Middle Ages (slight exaggeration). Rather, I think it should be the roaster’s task to use the best of what’s available (and fresh) at any given time to create a great product. The recent trend for roasters to offer seasonal blends and ‘in-season’ beans is a good example of people doing this.
So, coffee is food. So what? I guess the point of this article is to inform you, the coffee consumer, of a few ways to make sure you’re getting the best. To re-cap:
- Buy from someone who can give you the info you ask for;
- Buy fresh (and store your beans appropriately);
- Grind only what you’ll use immediately;
- Don’t bother finding a ‘favourite blend’ – embrace the diversity and ask for the freshest and the best!
The images used in this post are from the following sources:
In no particular order (except that in which I remembered them), here are some of my favourite beans from the plethora that we’ve roasted in the last 2 years:
- Ethiopia Harar – I’ve tried four different Harars and when you get the roast right they can be a delightfully complex, fruity coffee that has enough of those “mainstay” flavours (chocolate, caramel, etc.) to leave it nicely balanced. Further, at its best the sweetness goes beyond mere “chocolate” and into a complex, grainy, caramel richness – layered enough to be really moreish and satisfying. The best Harar I’ve had was MAO Blue Horse (bought mid-2008). With others it has been harder to hit that sweet spot where the acidity and fruit are “tamed” but still prominent. A good Harar seems to be hard to find!
- Ethiopia Sidamo – a large origin and probably hugely inconsistent. Offers dry- and wet-processed beans. The former will be intense and fruity (Sidamo Koratie would be the best fruity blender I’ve tried; strawberry, cranberry, blueberry…) while the latter will be more acidic and floral (think Yirgacheffe), hopefully with that juiciness and powerful vanilla aroma I once found (Rayan Highlands – also some Limus). Dry-processed Sidamos will be in good supply but the best ones will probably be hard to find! Wet-processed Sidamos (and other smaller origins) might be more reliable but offer less in the cup.
- Papua New Guinea Kimel Estate – the descriptions I read of PNG beans were unfortunately disappointed by my first encounter with one. (This was early in our roasting days so the fault was probably mine.) However, the Kimel Peaberry (bought late 2008) did more than restore my faith in this origin! The Kimel PB, roasted about 20 seconds beyond the start of second crack (surprising for a peaberry), may be one of the most well-rounded single origins I’ve tasted. Hugely aromatic, with vanilla, cocoa and sweet spices, and just the right amount of jammy, fruity acidity to round it out.
- Uganda Bugisu – only got a small sample of this, but one roast in particular was excellent. It fit my “ideal single origin” profile to a tee: full bodied; rich, rounded sweetness with chocolate and/or caramel; balanced by a touch of jammy, fruity acidity. Bugisu is a specific region in the Mt Elgon area, so some Mt Elgon beans could easily have these characteristics. Given the huge amount of low-quality robusta produced in Uganda, sourcing beans from there will probably be hit-and-miss – but that’s just a guess.
- India, various Arabicas – Mysore Nuggets, Tiger Mountain and Madikeri are the three origins we’ve tried from India (not counting Monsooned beans – which I only kinda like). All were wet-processed, I think, and all were quite similar in profile – hugely sweet caramel notes with low acidity and a nice buttery body. Essentially, these make a great base bean – or a rich single origin if you don’t mind something low acid and a bit one-dimensional (sometimes pure sweetness is just what I want!).
- Guatemala SHG – I’ve had two Huehuetenangos and one estate bean (Nueva Grenada). Being SHG (strictly high grown), these hard beans tend to handle a darker roast (compared to many Centrals) while still maintaining a firm acidity – sometimes but not always articulated as a zesty fruitiness. At this level of roast – say, 20-30 seconds into second crack – you get a really oily-smelling bean, darker than other beans at this level, with great dark cocoa flavours and sweetness. The acidy aromatics really get spicy and pungent at this roast level which adds a great deal to a blend. If pulled around second crack you’ll get a more balanced flavour for single origin use, though more acidic than some. I’d be looking for a SHG with some good fruit characteristics and smooth acids – this would be a great blend element.
- Peru, various Arabicas - Grace Villa Estate, closely followed by Ceja de Selva Estate, yield heaps of smooth, buttery body and a clean caramel sweetness. Almost sugary! We didn’t think much of this before second crack; best taken 20-30 seconds in. Right on second crack would probably leave some acid in the mix. This bean could be one of those “comfort food”-type single origins (if all you want is beautiful sweetness), but wouldn’t offer much interest. It is, however, one of the best base beans for blending.
- Sulawesi Toraja – my first few encounters with Sumatran coffees didn’t excite me as much as their descriptions made me anticipate; too often I’d find a “savoury” note in these Sumatrans. A couple of Sulawesis quickly restored my faith in Indonesians! Taken just into second crack, there was a huge, rounded choc/caramel flavour. Occasionally, this articulates more as dark chocolate, cocoa or even molasses – these are really great “interest” elements in a blend. We also tried a lighter roast and were rewarded with a range of fruity flavours including (of all things) lychee. Sulawesis should make a good single origin bean if pulled at or just before second crack – though not all of them will cup cleanly at this level. For blending, I’d push a little into second crack and enjoy the dark sweetness.
My ideal blend would have three layers:
- A smooth, rounded sweetness to underpin everything.
- Some acid. I prefer a citrussy or otherwise fruity acidity rather than just tartness or wineyness.
- A “hook” – this can be a unique flavour like molasses or aniseed, or an alluring aroma like vanilla or sweet spices, or an intriguing, moreish texture like that dusty cocoa feel or a pleasant woody dryness.
[Some people might get annoyed at me for describing sweetness (a flavour) as being smooth and rounded (textures). My explanation is that a great many coffees exhibit these characteristics in unison - smooth, rounded body/mouthfeel and those caramel/choc/nutty-type flavours very often go together. Thus, I associate them! Of course you can have either without the other, as well.]
This isn’t much of a recipe – it could take a huge variety of forms – but it describes the best combination of my favourite coffee flavours. Some beans have a lot in common with my ideal blend as single origins: Yemen, PNG Kimel peaberry, Uganda Bugisu AA, Ethiopia Harar MAO Blue Horse, Ethiopia Rayan Highlands, Guatemala Nueva Grenada Estate… and more to come!
As for actual blend suggestions to fit this ideal:
- Body and sweetness: Peru Grace Villa Estate, India Madikeri etc. A dry-processed Brazil would be a more typical choice for this aspect of the blend but I haven’t found one with enough “richness” or character. Keep the roast to around second crack to provide a less intrusive base. 40-60% of the blend.
- Fruit bomb: Ethiopian Harar can be good, but a fruity, dry-processed Sidamo would be better. Could also use any number of Central American beans, but fruity ones aren’t all that common. 20-30% of the blend.
- Interest: a good Sulawesi would give that rich cocoa element; Guatemalan for candied orange peel; dark-roasted wet-processed Ethiopian for the dusty moutfeel; PNG Kimel for spiciness; Sumatran for a woody, earthy kick… Endless choices, but not all will “play nicely” with your other blend elements, so cup carefully. 10-30% of the blend.
NB. Some beans might straddle two categories here. Harar gives a nice chocolate base as well as fruit (1 & 2); Guatemalan is fruity and has a great zesty hit for interest (2 & 3); Sulawesi has everything but the fruit (1 & 3). Some, as I said, have all three characteristics.
There you go – plenty of beans I haven’t tried yet, but those are some of my favourites so far.
I was just offered a position roasting coffee 3-5 days a week, beginning as soon as Elly and I return to Australia in April next year. They’re even holding the position for me until then. I heartily accepted and I’m ridiculously happy about it – joyful to the point of genuinely not-quite-believing it: No, wait; this sounds like one of those stories you hear about someone pursuing their passion and actually getting somewhere – this can’t be what’s happening to me?!
I thought the experience would be worth blogging about.
The role will be at Peak Coffee in Launceston working with Tim and Mel who myself and several other home-roasters have come to know over the last year or so. They’ve bravely relocated to Lonny to start a branch of the Port Macquarie-based roasting company. They’ve chosen a challenging but, in my opinion, appropriate location for raising the profile of specialty coffee. The growing interest in good coffee throughout Australia is pervading Tassie too, but I think that Launceston is at a stage where no one has “made it” yet. In other words, it’s ripe for the picking. Giving cafes access to some really high-end beans, locally roasted and delivered fresh along with training for the staff is a great thing!
So, the role I will have is that of “roaster-cupper-blender-bean-sourcer”. Something like that. [Obviously it's 7 months away so things could change between now and then] Incidentally, if you were to ask me to describe my ideal job description, I’d have to say something like “roaster-cupper-blender-bean-sourcer”. So that’s nice to know, isn’t it?
I’ll be learning on a 15kg electric roaster which I’d have to say wouldn’t be my first choice. Gas seems more controllable and the capacity is about 20 times the size I’m used to – but as if I’m going to complain! I can’t wait to learn its quirks and master them… can’t wait to stand there as it spills its smoking, brown beans for the first time… can’t wait to gaze over the sacks of green beans thinking hmm, what next?… can’t wait to get people’s reactions to a new bean, or new roast profile, or new blend.
Basically, it’s the greatest thing ever. That’s all I have to say about that.
Here’s something I knocked up based on looking into a range of drum roaster sizes and styles out there – most of these are from homeroasters.org.
Refs for these are:
- RK Drums;
- Open Sky Roaster;
- One from ebay;
- Jim’s 2-pounder;
Of course there are other factors to consider in a drum roaster. These include:
- Solid or perforated metal on the drum (all of the above are perforated, if I remember correctly);
- Heat source(s) and amount of heat available;
- Volume of roasting chamber (relative to volume of drum);
- Insulation around roasting chamber (and if so, how much?);
- Airflow (where and how much?);
- Agitation of beans (what kind of vanes in the drum?);
There are no doubt other factors that I haven’t thought of!
Conclusions (ie. what I’ll need for my hypothetical 2kg roaster):
- Drum volume of around 12 litres – this would be a drum 40cm long and 20cm in diameter;
- Heating equivalent to around 4000W or 14000 BTUs/hr;
- A mainly convective heat source (heat gun – 2000W) AND a mainly radiant heat source (IR or halogen @ ~2000W) – these are highly adjustable heat sources;
- Because of radiant heat source, drum will need to be perforated or (preferably) mesh;
- Smallish roasting chamber (aim for drum volume to be about 80% of total chamber volume) will be hexagonal or octagonal around cylindrical drum;
- Heavily insulated roasting chamber so as to conserve all the heat applied;
- Heat gun also provides an adjustable airflow (some models);
- Airflow will be directed over/through the beans and chamber, with small exit on opposite side to inlet;
- Vanes will be fitted on outside of drum to act as an additional fan;
- Large vanes for maximum agitation – vanes may be used to “scoop” the beans closer to radiant heat source.
A few sketches I worked up:
When Elly and I return from Bulgaria, I want to build a new roaster. This is partly for something fun to do, and partly because I’ve been thinking about the coffee roasting process and how we might make a roaster which ticks a few more boxes.
Here’s my wish list for the ideal roaster for our requirements:
- Designed such that the beans are roasted evenly and gently;
- Powerful enough to bring 1-2kg of green beans to second crack in 15-18 minutes;
- Consistent and reliable – able to reproduce a given roast profile;
- Highly adjustable and reactive heat source(s);
- Gentle, preferably adjustable air flow;
- Adequate removal of chaff from heat source(s);
- Efficient use of heat.
I suspect that there are many commercial 2kg drum roasters which more or less fit this list of specs. They would, of course, cost me over AU$5000 and this is not really an option!
For comparison, here’s what we’ve been roasting with (in one form or another) for the last 18 months or so:
I won’t embed it here, but there’s also an (outdated but cool) YouTube video we made.
Our Corretto is fantastic, and has served us well for about 200kg of green beans, but I suppose I’m always looking for ways to improve stuff. Pretentious, I know.
Problems with the Corretto (some of which we’ve encountered in the past):
- batch size is limited to about a kilo – not a problem for most people, but I’d love to be able to do 2kg!
- heat source (a heat gun) produces a fairly concentrated, quite hot stream of air. This can cause tipping (burnt ends on the beans) because it’s too harsh.
- air flow is quite high, which may dry the beans out too much (that’s my theory – our beans average 17% loss of original weight and I suspect 15% is adequate).
- chaff flies everywhere (unless you build an ingenious chaff catcher like we did).
- depending on your heat gun model, reproducing previous roasts can be a challenge.
I’ll be addressing how one might improve the Corretto in another post; I just mention that list here as a comparison to my wish list.
This blog is so I can talk (at length, let’s be honest) about roasting coffee. I won’t be advertising the blog widely – except where I feel like there might be something that the home-roasting community would be interested in – but may do so in the future. For a start, here’s my coffee story:
I’ve been into coffee since I was about 11 (at a guess). My great friend Alice and I used to make each other (instant) coffee after church – I can imagine we did so because it made us feel adult and sophisticated. I still remember the quickly-concealed look of surprise when we proudly asked the morning-tea ladies for Two Coffees Please. My parents were keen (though, at the time, indiscriminate) coffee drinkers and when they noticed my interest in coffee they offered me the occasional cup of their evening plunger brew. Yuk! I thought. What’s this bitter rubbish? I wanted the passive, nutty, cardboardy flavour of International Roast! Thanks, but no thanks, Mum and Dad. (To my shame, I even insisted that they buy me some Nescafe Blend 42 for home!) From those heights of coffee connoisseurship, things improved a little. I eventually tolerated, then liked, then loved the flavour of those plunger brews.
A compulsive tinkerer – I can’t stand not knowing why you do something a certain way! – I started to look into what made a good plunger. I discovered that you could burn the coffee if the water was too hot … I learned that coffee grounds go stale and need to be stored carefully … I discovered that heating the milk makes it taste sweet (while also satisfying my Mum’s requests for scalding hot coffee). Soon I was made put in charge of most coffee-making duties.
My interest in coffee continued to grow. Years later a couple of friends started working at a whole new style of cafe – one which roasted its own beans! This opened up a whole new slant on the appreciation of coffee. I guess it also lent the notion of gourmet coffee an enigmatic edge – there were so many factors which I didn’t understand, and so few sources of information on them.
Another couple of years later I had just moved to a new city (Launceston, Tasmania) and was searching for the best coffee beans available. Soon, I was also looking for the best grinder available (is this story of a sudden downward-slide into spending lots of money on one’s home coffee set up sounding familiar to anyone?). It was around this point that I found CoffeeSnobs (while looking for grinder reviews) and found information on roasting coffee at home. I’d heard of a select, insane few who roasted coffee beans (with a heat gun, for goodness sake!) but here they were in the flesh. Well, photos of them, at least. But there it was. All that information I craved that would (and did) dispel the enigma of roasting coffee.
I mentioned the idea to Humf (good friend and fellow obsessor-of-coffee) and within 2 weeks I’d ordered our first beans and we’d bought a heat gun. What the? When I’d mentioned the idea my wife Elly had raised her eyebrows emphatically. She’s not prone to cynicism but I knew those eyebrows were telling me (emphatically) that this sounds like another Stu-project, my dear! I’m pleased to report that Elly’s feelings of doubt-verging-on-embarrassment were steadily reduced with each cup made from freshly-roasted coffee. She’s now our number one fan. Officially. We’ve been roasting for nearly 18 months now and our roaster (and other gear) has improved greatly in that time. We even started selling beans through our little creation, Zombie Coffee. We also met a couple of other keen roasters as well as checking out Peak Coffee – a new roastery that set itself up in Launceston – where Tim and Mel are doing a great job at breaking into the coffee market with some seriously tasty beans, freshly roasted!
Like every other home-roaster out there, I dream about starting my own cafe, or roastery, or something (anything! as long as it’s all about the coffee!). Like every other home-roaster out there, I love the discovery process of researching new beans, new roasters, new profiles… I love the conversation you can have with a new coffee bean as you roast it by all manner of methods and unearth its secrets.
Now? My wife and I are living/working in Bulgaria for a year doing some other fun, amazing things and so our coffee adventures are on hold for now. One of the things I want to figure out during our time away is What next? I would love for that future to include a role in the coffee industry. I spent a year as a barista just prior to our trip and that is certainly an enjoyable and challenging job. But roasting coffee is what it’s all about for me.
Here’s a possibility: I’d love to return home and have a go at building a roaster capable of doing a couple of kilos at a time – something with which we could make a real go of starting a business that would get our noses in the door of the industry.
Bring it on.