I was talking to Scott Callaghan the Australian barista champion just before he left for London for the World Barista Championship and I mentioned to him about “densation.” It’s a clumsy word but its similar to the principle that occurs with the sorting of green beans in a good dry-mill where you have a ‘densimetric’ table that is on an angle and when it vibrates the larger beans go to the top and the smaller beans and the chipped and broken parts go to the bottom.
The same thing happens when you are making an espresso coffee when you bang a loaded porta-filter on a bench or as World Barista Champion Paul Bassett calls it: “settling” the coffee. By banging the porta-filter on a bench or a bar it sorts out the particle sizes of the ground coffee slightly so you get the bigger particles at the top and the smaller particles at the bottom to some extent. The finer the grind the less this will occur as the particles are a little more viscous due to the increased surface area and exposed oils. In other words the finer particles that are impregnated with oils tend to stick together a little more rather than separating.
Basically what it enables you to do is create a better extraction.
It is somewhat similar to how some espresso machines maintain a constant temperature at the brew-head by not having a repeated identical interval where the thermostat comes on. Rather it comes on in ever-diminishing intervals to stop the brew head from getting too much momentum and over-heating. A constant series of regular intervals going on without paus actually increases the temperature. By reducing the intervals to say 0.9 seconds, 0.8 seconds 0.7 seconds etc it will actually maintain a more constant temperature and stop the temperature from climbing.
As water passes through dry coffee particles in the porta-filter, if there is an apparent even sorting of particles from top to bottom, the water will become a ‘saturated solution’ very quickly. And once you have a saturated solution the water can’t actually absorb anything more. That’s the nature of a saturated solution in scientific terms. (By the way: a saturated solution is actually the main principle by which Swiss Water Process produce their decaffeinated coffee.)
So what happens as a result of the ‘densation’ effect is that coffee grounds are densimetrically sorted, and the water will flow more easily through the top part of the coffee puck. And when the water comes to the bottom of the coffee it will tend to extract the optimum flavour from there as well as taking some from the coarser particles at the top. So ironically you actually get a more ‘even’ extraction out of the coffee grinds than you would out of an even particle size distribution.
One of the other factors that it enables you to do is to grind the coffee a little coarser and that again enables you to sort the particle sizes out better again and that is all, of course, intertwined in a complex way with the brewing temperature which permits a higher temperature which will of course bring out a different flavor profile. Altogether it creates a slightly sweeter and cleaner style of espresso coffee.
I should add that I got this idea from Carl Staub of Agtron who demonstrated it for me using a Swift grinder where he served me three espresso shots and he actually adjusted the grinder while it was actually grinding. So he created the densation effect by adjusting the grinder itself.
He gave me three shots and the taste difference was phenomenal. It was like having three completely different coffees. The first one was great much cleaner and more complex; the second one was just OK, and the third one was not nice at all. # 1 was coarse at the top and finer at the bottom; # 2 was even from top to bottom, as you would normally have it, and # 3 was fine at the top and coarser at the bottom.
I was working on developing a grinder that could repeat this in a commercial way with a lovely guy by the name of Mike Del Zoppo who is now no longer with us. He has gone to that espresso machine in the sky, so we never ended up making a grinder that could repeat this time after time but it is certainly a potential new challenge for manufacturers.
I read an article today in an industry newsletter that Starbucks/Seattle’s Best Coffee is joining forces with Subway and Burger King to improve their coffee to try and compete with McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts success with espresso coffee. Espresso coffee has now contributed to an enormous profit turn-around in several of the world’s largest corporations. So we are obviously talking about very big business here.
Espresso coffee as some may know is my area of specialty! (Please see my book “The Espresso Quest” available from Amazon. Even though they say it is out of stock – it is still available. They do this to reduce their stock holdings!) Now that I have got that gratuitous promotion out of the way, let’s talk espresso.
Espresso of course in Italy means a single shot of concentrated espresso coffee: Black, short and not ‘long’ as in an Americano. So to clarify, I am actually talking about espresso-based drinks, i.e. an espresso-based menu if you like.
McDonalds who pioneered the world’s largest rollout of espresso coffee to an unsuspecting public, got the idea, wait for it, from my home ‘hood: Australia. McDonalds couldn’t sell their regular coffee in their stores down-under because Australian consumers preferred the milk-based/espresso-based coffee on offer from independents. So, a McDonalds franchisee trialed a new store and they called it: McCafe! And rest is history in the making.
But at the heart of the espresso-based menu that Aussie consumers liked was a milky coffee called a ‘flat-white’. My uncorroborated theory in regard to the origin of the flat-white is based on my experience in my own espresso bars down-under, the first of which I opened about 15 years ago.
I used to get customers, usually older ones who had been reared on instant coffee. (How ironical is this: instant coffee was introduced to Australian consumes as a result of USA GI’s who were stationed in Australia during World War II.) Anyway now that I have indulged in a tiny bit of my passion for history, back to the customers.
These customers would ask for a coffee with milk in it, really hot and with no froth/foam on top. “I just want it flat” they would stridently exclaim. If you left one speck of foam on top they would almost kill you! (Maybe they spent too much time with those GI’s!) I reckon they just wanted to replicate their old instant coffee, which comes out at just below boiling point after a dash of cold milk is added.
In any case this beverage had to be differentiated from the traditional Italian espresso-based menu which only included a cappuccino with up to an inch of foam on top and a latte with about half an inch on top. So it became known as a flat-white.
And so via McDonalds, a coffee culture that began with American GI’s down-under has now been re-engineered and re-exported back to America and beyond. In this same report I read, it also pointed out how Costa Coffee, who is very big in Europe, produced a very healthy profit result based around, you guessed it: the humble flat white!
Recently I was involved in a couple of tasting programs. One was a roasters’ competition for espresso and another was research for a rural industries organization evaluating coffee cherry maturity on taste quality. In both cases it was necessary to use tasting sheets.
For the cherry maturity tasting, we used the Cup of Excellence® Tasting sheets devised by George Howell. These sheets were a huge leap forward in comparison to the old SCAA cupping sheets which automatically gave the coffees 50% and evaluated only five characteristics. George based this sheet on wine tasting sheets to try and introduce some more sophistication to coffee tasting. There is no doubt he succeeded with this as the SCAA proceeded to modify its very basic form to its current form which is largely based on the COE one.
For the World Barista Championships the tasting forms were originally based around the Italian Espresso Tasters wheel, which I had a hand in adapting for the judges of these competitions.
The trouble with tasting sheets is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (HUP). It was Tim Castle who pointed out to me in a rather philosophical conversation we were having some years ago about the best coffee tasting sheet being a blank sheet of paper. Although at first it sounds unrealistic, there is actually a lot of sense in this statement.
The reason for this is that in very laymen’s terms, HUP basically means that the very act of measuring something interferes and alters the very thing you are trying to measure and so it is impossible to be accurate. In other words by having prompts on a tasting sheet this will pre-dispose us to think about a coffee in a certain (biased) way. If for instance acidity is not mentioned on a sheet then you can’t evaluate it. The COE tasting sheets introduced sweetness for instance, whereas previously it wasn’t on the SCAA sheet. So suddenly sweetness becomes more important. It could be body or any other characteristic that is affected in a similar way.
For the research project I was responsible for placing a range of coffees from a particular terroir within an international benchmarking configuration: i.e. exactly how the coffees would fit in internationally in relation to all levels: NY Exchange, >70% Specialty Coffee Association >80% or Cup of Excellence >84% whether for drip, plunger or espresso.
These simple bench-marks make it a bit easier for a context without bending your perception too much and most professional cuppers are somewhat familiar with them. Keeping in mind that acidity still tends to be the most defining single characteristic for both Specialty and COE coffees.
While tasting the roasters’ competition I came under fire for not filling out all the boxes. I was aiming to be as consistent as possible but also trying to place the coffees in this international context with more of an emphasis on body rather than acidity. As a result I put a final score of where I believed the coffee sat in an international configuration.
I always insist on no collusion between judges during scoring unlike some barista competitions where there is considerable discussion by judges about their scores behind closed doors. Consequently these barista judges tend to be very uniform and I might add timid, rather than expressive. In COE competitions, new and inexperienced judges tend to be very conservative as they don’t want to stand out on their own in comparison to everyone else. Having all the judges within a narrow range is not necessarily good judging.
I would rather a judge is confident and expresses their view of a coffee, honestly openly and without inhibition as long as they are consistent. If one judge consistently scores low and another consistently scores high it will not make the competition unfair as long as they are consistent. But in the end I tend to agree with Mr Heisenberg: the less interference in the scoring process the better, so to speak anyway.
I head off to attend a friend’s wedding in India. It happens to be at the same time as the beginning of the monsoon season so I can’t resist the temptation of organizing to visit the coffee monsoon processing town of Mangalore on the Malabar coast. It is the only place in the world where this most unique of coffees is processed: Monsoon Malabar
I land at the new Bangalore airport which is now world-class, slick, big and impressive. It is so far removed from the old Bangalore airport I last visited sixteen months ago where you were jolted into a profound awareness that you were in a foreign country for real: with hordes of people lining the exit ramp and traffic going in six directions at once and a cacophony of horns, calls and mass humanity pressing on all sides. The new airport is much more sedate and orderly and the immersion into the wonderfully varied and exotically, pungent Indian culture is now a little more gradual.
I am taken to my overnight lodging where I bump into Toby Smith of Toby’s Estate coffees. As coincidence would have it, he is on the same pilgrimage to attend our friend Nithya’s wedding and to explore Indian coffees including the unique and rare Monsoon Malabar which Nithya imports. Great minds think alike or fools seldom differ; never mind, we are destined to enjoy the ride together regardless.
I am interested in this coffee because it is ideal for espresso coffee. Traditionally it was primarily exported to Scandinavian countries but now it has seeped out into the broader specialty coffee world. I am continuing my quest to push the boundaries of the espresso coffee world. What is it that makes Monsoon Malabar world renowned as being suited to espresso? Its cup profile of soft, low acid and smooth, full body is definitely likeable and truly ideal for anyone on an espresso quest.
There are about 6,000 tonnes or 96,000 bags of Monsoon Malabar produced annually. This is not a lot in comparison to global output of approximately 120,000,000 bags. The hoary old legend about how Monsoon Malabar began is up there with the often repeated stories about Kaldi the goat-heard and Baba Boudan and his seven seeds coming to India. And since we are in India we hear the Baba Boudan story ad-nauseum. So just in case you haven’t heard it, the story of monsoon coffee goes like this: a sailing ship with its load of green coffee destined for Scandinavia gets held up by a monsoon and by the time the ship arrives at its destination the coffee cargo is no longer green but a pale white color and has swollen up to double its original size and its taste is obviously going to be altered markedly. The Scandinavians thankfully decide like Kaldi and friends, to try it anyway, which is always a very good habit with coffee and they find they like it and they want more. Any acidity that might have been there has gone and it is much softer and fuller in the cup. So this demand inspires some unsung pioneering hero to figure out how to reproduce this process commercially on the Malabar coast.
Malabar is one of those mythical coffee names like Mocha. It immediately conjures up exotic and remote images. In the case of Malabar it is perhaps of swaying coconut trees beside a sandy beach with dusky, workers labouring patiently and lovingly over their precious and rare harvest. The reality in the case of ‘Coehlos Gold’ monsoon Malabar is not far from that at all. In fact Mr Coehlos turns out to be a seventy nine year old gentleman who literally processes monsoon Malabar coffee in his backyard while in his coconut tree dotted front yard, the monsoon seas sometimes actually wash in through his front gate. He gets a couple of his workers to cut down some coconuts and insert a straw and we drink fresh delicious coconut milk on the spot. In between his front and back yards he is building a three story magnificent retirement home for himself.
But his is a professional approach none the less. For instance, he uses water sprinklers that spurt around his curing sheds to make up for any inconsistency in the moist, humid, salt charged monsoon breeze. He has several large wells on his three acre property and tells me that potable water is readily available only ten feet below the surface of his land. His father was a roof tile manufacturer and his family name is inscribed on each and every roof tile above the precious coffee.
His green coffee is spread out a few inches deep in three large open-sided sheds. This is shallower than his competitors. And his workers turn or rake the coffee more often as well: approximately every hour throughout their eight hour working day. The atmosphere is extremely warm and humid, and as it cools at night he tells me, there is no need to rake it then. His coffee is also closer to the Arabian sea than his competitor’s coffee too. I’m not sure, but my bet is that all these little differences make his coffee possibly the ultimate monsoon Malabar coffee.
It takes about 2 to 3 weeks for the coffee to absorb its moisture and increase from 11% to 17% moisture content and then another 2 to 3 months of tipping one half full bag into another empty bag several times a day to avoid spoiling, while the moisture content reduces back down to about 13%. This is indeed an amazing labour of love and patience for any producer. Finally this coffee is then shipped to a growing list of discerning customers around the world. I can’t wait, along with my fellow monsoon hunter Toby Smith, to taste the end result in a few months time. Oh and Mr Coehlos has invited us back to stay in his new house when it is completed, where he is happy to expire while sitting on his porch, overlooking the wonderful Arabian sea through swaying coconut trees. This is one of the rare times reality is not far removed from the myth.
This year’s World Barista Championship and Specialty Coffee (SCAA) conference in Atlanta America was outstanding. I have attended most SCAA conferences since New Orleans in the mid 1990’s. I have attended all WBC finals with the sole exception of Japan and the combination of the SCAA and WBC is always an invigorating alignment of the planets.
I really enjoyed the new Symposium which was introduced this year. It was very stimulating, particularly the talk by Tony Marsh on Sumatra, wet hulling and how there is so much more research that needs to be done in regard to the influences defining coffee taste. An irony here is that even though I had heard about Tony Marsh a fellow Australian, I had to travel to Atlanta Georgia to meet him for the first time.
I think 2009 was probably a record for the number of Australians attending the SCAA conference. This was partly because, of course the WBC always attracts contingents of supporters from each country represented. But there wasalso an unprecedented crowd of newly aspiring, up and coming baristas, roasters and green importers who wanted to learn more about coffee and cupping.
I remember for years when attending SCAA conferences I felt like Burke without Wills in the outback. For non-Australians you’ll have to ask your Aussie mates about Burke and Wills, but the reality was I was often on my own!There was the occasional compatriot who attended, and then increasingly more, every time the WBC co-incided with the SCAA conference.
As I said, there are a lots of Australians who now want to learn more about cupping. There is a real irony in this. When I first attended the 2002 Guatemala Cup of Excellence, I found instinctively that I cupped completely the opposite to some very good cuppers who were there like George Howell, Mane Alves, Steve Hurst and Danny ONeill to name but a few.
Because I was so programmed to search for espresso coffees with big body, lots of sweetness and low acidity I would rate the coffees completely opposite to all the other cuppers. Acidity in coffee is accentuated by espresso extraction so you don’t need too much to start with. With drip coffee you can really have as much acidity as you like, and for manycuppers, the more acidity the better.
After I had been doing this a for while, someone said I was evaluating the coffees exactly like the Lavazza cupper fromItaly who had been there the year before. He too was evaluating the coffees as if for espresso. He never came back, but I did. There were too many great coffees being unearthed through the Cup of Excellence program for me to stop paying attention.
I subsequently bought the winning Cup of Excellence Guatemala coffee from that year because it was so outstanding. It was so powerful that I ended up using it discreetly in Paul Bassett’s World Championship winning blend. I think this may have been the first time a Cup of Excellence coffee was used in a WBC competition, whereas now it is pretty common place.
One of the great new initiatives the WBC introduced this year was the bank of Nuova Simonelli espresso machines to serve coffee continuously throughout the competition. This line of machines however exposed a great divide in the coffee world. The same divide I experienced in Guatemala. The divide between cuppers and baristas. It is a clash of cultures. It can be a healthy clash but it can also be painful and full of conflict and it is definitely real.
I witnessed a little barista from Australia, Anya who is extremely passionate about coffee and the WBC and who was really looking forward to the experience of getting behind these machines and using all her barista skills to showcase some great coffees. And she is a really good barista. She is in fact a really good barista trainer. She knows her stuff because she tastes espresso all the time.
Behind her, hovering over her were a couple of demi-gods from the coffee world who we shall call Priam and Hecuba, from ancient Greek mythology, the Illiad. One is a legendary cupper and another is a seriously successful coffee business owner. And I have enormous respect for both of them as coffee professionals and as cuppers.
But they interfered with the way Anya was setting up her grind and dictated to her how she should extract the coffee.First of all she wasn’t allowed to set the grinder and then she was ordered to use 7 grams per cup and a certain volume for the shot. Anya was dismayed as she knew the coffee could taste so much better if she was just left to tweak the grinder and the dose herself.
The barista moderator became involved as one after another the demi-god cuppers became increasingly strident and belligerent insisting that their way was the only way to extract the coffee. The moderator, brave mortal barista that he was, dared to disagree with the demi-god cuppers who then became even more outraged that a young barista would dare to question their authority and coffee credibility. This in fact wasn’t the case. The barista moderator just happened to agree with cute barista Anya about the best way to showcase this espresso coffee.
This conflict became quite heated to the point that the baristas became very upset and the demi-god cuppers became very upset. This was a real conflict. It is a clash of cultures within the specialty coffee world. After all what is specialtycoffee? In the past it has been defined by drip coffee. That is where specialty coffee began. But it is changing and fast. Espresso-based coffee is taking over America as it is the rest of the world and increasingly the old school specialty cuppers are having to come to grips with espresso.
I remember some time ago there was a light hearted thread about this perceived clash of cultures on coffeed.com but I have seen it growing in America for some time. In Australia ironically this conflict has largely been avoided because we never had the same strong cupping culture that America has developed. This is largely because espresso based coffee completely replaced drip coffee so long ago, (when I was a boy)!
Someone asked me at the conference how I tasted my espresso blends, whether I cupped them initially and then tasted them as espresso. I replied, unless I go to a farm and have to do a lot of pre-screening, I only ever develop and evaluate espresso coffees as espresso in my factory. It is harder to do because it takes so much more effort to pull a good shot for every coffee. But it doesn’t make sense to evaluate all the components of an espresso blend by cupping and thenonly taste it as espresso once you have put the final blend together. If the final blend doesn’t work you have to work backwards and taste each component individually anyway, to sort out the best coffees to go into it. So why not cut to the chase and taste every coffee as espresso in the first place. There is no real point in cupping in my factory for production blends when I do 100% espresso coffee every day. So we taste as espresso for production and cup for fun.
Good baristas taste their espresso coffee every day as they dial in their blend. As a result they end up tasting more espresso coffees than most cuppers. Herein lies the problem. Many young and seemingly ignorant ‘freshman’ baristas actually have a lot more experience tasting espresso coffees than many cuppers do. This is apart from the fact that experienced baristas probably pull a better shot than most cuppers as well. But many professional cuppers often don’treally have time to taste all the coffees they must evaluate as espresso anyway.
As Specialty coffee increasingly becomes defined by espresso this clash may evolve into a happy mix. Lots of baristas who want to become coffee professionals are diving into cupping and will develop into true professionals as long as they stay open to the different place required for cupping.
I heard the ludicrous comment recently from a barista that Australia doesn’t have good coffees like other leading cupping nations do. As a result international demi-god cuppers were shipped in to make their pronouncements from on high about what coffees should be used. Funnily enough one of the coffees they offered was already on offer at about half the price from a local green broker, HA Bennett (who incidentally have an espresso machine in their cupping room which they use regularly)!
By the same token when I set up 49th Parallel coffee factory a few years ago in Vancouver, we ended up shipping in a whole lot of green coffees that traditional cuppers weren’t offering in North America at that time and that I could only get by usng HA Bennetts. I had to do a similar thing for Paul Bassett in Japan.
This is a classic example of baristas falling prey to the cupping propaganda: “as baristas you don’t cup as much as I dotherefore I as a cupper must know more about espresso than you”! I don’t think this is necessarily the case at all.
The ultimate irony for the demi-god cupper Priam in Atlanta, was when he went to a booth where a barista he had worked with previously, (a former US champion) proceeded to make the espresso almost exactly how Anya wanted to: i.e. with a higher dose and different grind and tamp, only he wasn’t aware that she made it this way. Priam pronounced from on high that his barista had got it exactly right without even realizing he himself had got it way wrong.