Above: A Japanese vacuum coffee maker
I've been a caffiene fiend (caffiend?) for almost half my life now. But until I visited Yahava KoffeeWorks in Margaret River, Australia, in April this year, I never had or took the opportunity to do an extensive side-by-side coffee tasting to tease out the subtleties between different beans and different roasts.
I'm not sure when coffee started to become a visibly artisan business or what triggered its upswell. But certainly in Australia, Singapore and the UK at least, new generation caffiends are approaching coffee with tasting notes that sound like more like wines or cheeses, and brewing ceremonies I would more likely associate with traditional Chinese tea.
Above: A coffee tasting session at Yahava at Margaret River comes complete with a spittoon, much like the hundreds of vineyard cellars surrounding it
My knowledge about coffee vocabulary and technicalities is very much still fetal. Kudos to the Papa Palheta guys in Singapore for showing plenty of patience and good humour when trying to nudge me onwards about the subtleties between brews when Babs and I popped in for a donation-only tasting at their Bukit Timah HQ in April. There I was saying, I basically like 2 types of coffee: For business, a very strong black expresso to slap me awake and shave the fuzz off my brain in the morning. And for leisure, a gentler but tasty cheap old school Singapore coffeeshop "kopi", roasted with corn and butter and filtered through an overused sock et al. With ice and condensed milk, if I'm feeling particularly relaxed.
Who knows what they said behind my back after, but points for not batting an eyelid or wrinkling their nose at me to my face. They passed the snobby connoisseur arse test.
Above: Papa Palheta in Singapore. Amazingly chilled out and lovely laid back folks despite all the coffee they must ingest all day.
So when the folks at Union Hand Roasted Coffee invited me to their Taste of London festival booth for a talk and tasting last month, I jumped at the chance to drip feed my coffee education a little more.
Union Roasted is owned and run by Jeremy Torz and Steven Macatonia, who work directly with coffee growers around the world on sustainable terms. They're so serious about quality over quantity that if they find a farmer with a tiny lot of beans they really like (say 8 sacks, nowhere near traditional commercial scale), they'd rather just buy the lot and price it accordingly for scarcity, rather than push the farmer to scale up and risk diluting the quality of his produce.
So goes the story for our first tasting of the day, La Esperanza, Geisha microlot from Colombia, priced at £65.20 / kg. Probably the most expensive coffee I've ever had. Brewed very gently in a Japanese vacuum coffee maker, the Geisha is indeed light, flowery and fragrant. Much like a Patron tequila -- better for sipping rather than knocking back.
Above: Jeremy primes the Geisha in a Japanese vacuum coffee maker
Next up we watch Tom brew a very fashionable version of filter coffee. These are the moves that remind me so much of traditional Chinese tea cermonies. I'd love to get the Union guys and Pei Wang of Teanamu together, and watch a dance of caffeine kungfu moves ensue.
Just a different perspective shot at Papa Palheta to show the water-in, coffee-out magic. Their preferred brewing method for 1-cup brews, they say.
The last coffee toy demonstration for the day is the very intrguing aeropress, which looks like a giant syringe. Plastic and lightweight, it works well as a travel coffee kit (if you're the kind that neeeeeds to travel with your personal stash of coffee). Your caffeine kungfu moves better be practised, however, as even the best of them have been known to accidentally press a whole mess of coffee and grounds all over their hotel bathroom counter and floor! (Not that this is deterring Babs of course, who thanks to my reporting notes and photos is now in the market for one.)
If I remember right, the brew we tried with the aeropress was the Gajah mountain from Sumatra. If you've ever noticed that Sumatran blends taste particularly earthy or even a bit peaty, well Jeremy found out why by going right to the source. Not so much to do with the plant varietal or terroir as it turns out, but rather because most Indonesians store their harvested beans in giant piles, husks and all, unsunned. In sheds. In the equatorial heat and humidity. Which means a good amount of fermentation occurs before the beans get shipped off to their buyers!
I wonder if this means that Sumatran beans are best suited for making expresso martinis. Hmmmm....
Thanks for helping my drip-feed coffee education along, Jeremy, Tom and Gail. There's a ton more to learn, I realise. But given how engaging and patient the coffee connoisseurs I've met so far have been, I could stand to keep going for a bit!
Also, kudos to the City Caphe team. Their Union Vietnamese iced coffee is the best I've had in London so far, the lovely bitter of the coffee sweetened but not smothered. Exactly what slapped me awake and got me off my arse to finally write this post!
Yahava KoffeeWorks Margaret River
Corner of Bussell Hwy & Rosa Brook Road
WA 6285 Australia
+61 8 9757 2900
140 Bukit Timah Road
+65 9799 0420
Union Hand Roasted Coffee
7a South Crescent,
London E16 4TL
+44 20 7474 8990