Monday, April 21, 2008

A Five Star Coffee: Guatamalan Cinco Estrellas


I'm happy to go out on a limb and presume that Spanish is the main language spoken in Guatemala. (Go ahead; wikipedia it up and tell me I'm wrong.) This being the case, "cinco estrellas" means nothing more than five stars. Whether this is a grading or a trade name, I don't know.

The terrifically uninformative start to the post is really just to draw attention to the nature of the coffee trade in Australia and to underscore the importance of cupping as a commercial roaster; how much do we really know about the green that is on offer? I would argue that we don't know much, in stark contrast with some of the top-end roasters overseas, who can give you full details of the family trees from which their farmers pluck both their coffee and their workers. Fortunately, the depth of the brew in the cup doesn't depend on the length of the name on the bag ... it just means that roasters have to be shrewder about their purchasing decisions.

The Cinco Estrellas draws together a few different lines of research that have kept me amused of late and over the past few years. The first line of research concerns role of the washed coffee. My much-neglected regular readers will probably remember my linking to this thought provoking piece on the subject. It so happens that this coffee is a washed coffee. In fact, it more than so happens ... according to Edwin, it might even be illegal to sell naturals in Guate. Washed coffees tend to produce a clean, bright cup, perhaps with some subtle flavour accents and/or sweetness. See In fact, I'm sure that many people would think of washed coffees as one-dimensional when it comes to espresso. This last trait made the 5* an excellent feed into the second and third lines of research; learning how to use my gene cafe and learning how to brew drip.

On Drip Brewing Generally ...

The humble drip brewer seems to be becoming a bit sexier. The revolting idea of the day old carafe sitting on the hotplate at McDonalds has long since left my mind and been replaced with a willingness to actually give it a shot ... admittedly brought on, at least in part, by involvement in the cupping comps. (Including my atrocious 5/8 score in the last one.) It turns out that there is more than meets the eye to drip coffee equipment - for example, the k-mart drip brewer at work definitely brews a less flavoursome cup than the old royal boiler co thing that we found. As far as I can tell, the much-lauded Technivorms aren't available in Australia ... a fact that I regretted until I realised that even I have no use for a litre of drip coffee.

For $20, I was game to find out how the humble plastic pour-over and melitta filter fared. This brew method carries the weighty approval of Paul at Mecca, so I figured that it couldn't be that bad. It turns out that if you pour water straight off the boil, the brew stays between about 95C and 92C for the whole brew time. (That sound you're hearing is of a million k-mart brewer owners slapping their foreheads.) Anyhoo, 15g of ground coffee and 250mL of water right off the boil seems to yield a tasty cup in something like a minute. Comments welcome.

The cup profile is very clean; totally sediment-free because of the paper filter. The cup changes a fair bit as it cools; at the beginning it is too hot to taste anything, then you hit the optimum temperature to get a flavour explosion, then it cools down and all that you can taste is brown and acid. It's kind of like Clover ... although that statement seems to be pretty cool since the big green mermaid plucked the little green plant.

Drip Tasting Notes

Over the first few days, the 5* simply tasted ashy and quite acidic. Surprisingly, letting it sit for a week improved it immensely - something that I expect for espresso, but not for anything else. After a week, the cup was clean, relatively acidic and had an interesting potpourri-like character that I can't quite put my finger on. I was quite surprised to see that subtlety emerge after a week, as opposed to retreating.


The roast must have been quite close to second crack, so I decided to give it a shot through the Maver. The resultant espresso was quite bright, very sweet and very clean. It actually reminded me quite a bit of Klaus Thomsen's WBC winning blend. It did an admirable job in milk, with little body to speak of, but a fair bit of caramel. I only wish that I had left myself enough to experiment with lowering the dose.

# Update 27 April 2008 #

I found myself with a little 5* left over from the last roast and decided to experiment with a lower dose, as I alluded to in this post. It turned out to be a good call. The resultant espresso was a bit less sweet this time around, but it presented a fantastically balanced shot, with the elusive floral/potpourri flavour from the drip brewed shots making it through into the cup. The shot was light in body, but otherwise exceptionally rounded and complete. Perhaps the most interesting feature was a distinct bitterness that was not at all unpleasant.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

While I Was Away ...

OK, so heaps of stuff has happened since my last update. Heaps. In brief:

*Back from Sydney. (Miss y'all, Mecca.)

*Lots of training and behind the scenes stuff for the Vic Barista Comp.

*Super Jolly went missing; slumming it with a Kony.

*Robur becomes a permanent addition to the bench at work. That thing is so good that I'm embarrassed to have ever served coffee without it. We have had a heap of different grinders on the bench, but I'd trade all of them for a single Robur.

*Currently drinking the first iteration of Andrew's new blend for Maling Room. It's a simple, chocolate-bar style blend, done very well. Clean, but not afraid to stand up to milk. I respect Andrew's take on just going with the basics in times where fruity coffees are disappointing.

At the moment, I have mixed feelings about a number of trends happening in the coffee industry. When we talk about raising the bar, we are always implicitly talking about raising two bars; the lower one, representing the average standard, and the higher one, representing the state of the art. The lower bar usually represented establishments that quite overtly didn't give a damn, whilst the higher bar was usually held up by people willing to invest serious time and money. On the one hand, I'm concerned that we're starting to see a flocking to the middle, in which people are talking the talk, but failing to even put in a decent effort at walking the walk ... if not cynically ripping people off. On the other hand, we are also seeing an increase in establishments pushing up the top end. This blog will focus on the latter, as will I.

Until next time, when I hope to talk about some dudes who are doing it right, a teaser ...

... guesses welcome.