What makes coffee exceptional?
“Today I want to ask a question. What makes coffee exceptional?” Thus opened Maxwell Colonna Dashwood in his winning presentation to the judges of the UK Barista Championships at the London Coffee Festival this weekend. It’s a good question, and one which takes quite some answering.
Colonna Dashwood answered it on the day with a series of superlative espressos, cappuccinos and his ‘signature drink’ for the competition: a Rwandan espresso served alongside freshly squeezed ruby grapefruit juice and a spice infusion of liquorice root and star anise. The first to “tone [the] acidity down and to highlight the caramel in the coffee - the floral becomes hoppy”, and the second “to bring those tart, sharp, fruity notes back to the cup.” The tasting process is as exacting as every aspect of exceptional coffee: the sourcing, the roasting, the brewing, the serving. The myriad flavour notes mimic the complexities of the relationships between the farmers, producers, importers, roasters and baristas. When we decided we wanted to know more about exceptional coffee, we had no idea the depths we were getting into.
Maxwell Colonna Dashwood presenting to the UK Barista Championship judges
Steve Leighton of Has Bean, a specialty coffee roaster based in Stafford, (and supplier of beans to several barista champions, including the current World Barista champion), outlined that coffee “is the most complex food known to man. It has 1200 flavour components... The nearest comparison is red wine with 450 chemical compounds in the flavour make-up. And then we go and roast it – different chemicals are burning away, others changing – this all adds to the complexity.” This is a blessing and a curse to the coffee industry; on the one hand you have a stunning range of products – but how do you tame the volatile compounds and make them communicable to the public?
Traditionally, this has been done with ‘roasts’ – Italian Roast, French roast - these terms stand for something in our minds, but we’d struggle to pin down how they taste. In the commercial coffee world “your skill is to produce something year round that delivers on a brand promise” Colonna Dashwood explains - consistent is king. “In most commercial blends there are 10 to 12 different coffees , from different farms. And imagine you sit in the cupping room and you get a really interesting coffee – you’d never put it into the blend – because when it goes, the blend would change.” Interesting coffees therefore have little place in the commercial world. But where these guys leave off, the specialty guys get going. Rather than going for consistency of flavour, they sell consistency of quality.
To ensure quality, as a supplier, you need to be on top of your game; roasters check samples from farmers and importers, visit farms and build relationships with the growers. Landing a shipment of beans can take many months; Has Bean’s latest shipment from El Salvador has involved four months of planning, and started with a visit to the farm. But on location is not where the deals are done. Steve “can’t decide at origin” whether or not to buy – “the sun’s out, you’re chatting with the farmers” – quite a different scene to Stafford in January. Instead, samples are sent back to base, where they will be roasted and ‘cupped’ – a simple roast process, ground and filtered for four minutes in hot water. Once approved, the beans are shipped “green, in parchment” and when they get through the door, the roasters “play with the roast profile …tweaking time and temperature to … highlight particular flavours – chocolate, fruits, vanilla, caramels - thousands of different flavours. A high temperature at the end [of the roast] gives acidity, a short roasting time lends sweetness, and a longer roasting time gives body.” When they’re happy – it’s time to sell it to the specialty baristas, individual enthusiasts and coffee shops.
At the coffee shop, each batch of fresh roasted coffee is given a ‘brew recipe’ outlining the time, temperature, weight in grams, measure of shot, to be used. Then each morning, the batch is tested again, and the brew recipe altered, to allow for the changes in the beans over the 3 or 4 days it’s served up in the shop. Colonna Dashwood can even programme his coffee machine to change the pressure during the espresso-making process – all to get the most out of those beans. When I asked if this was a manual or programmed process, he laughed – “You programme it – I don’t believe in the manual thing because it’s too variable. Why have another variable?!" Even champion baristas have their limits.
Other short-hands exist; notably the Cup of Excellence programme creates a clear route between growers and specialty roasters or baristas to access great coffee. The not-for-profit scheme started in 1999 as a way to boost sales through an all-time price low of under $1 per lb. Any producer can enter to be assessed by national Cup of Excellence jury, and the best 60 lots to go through to an international jury. If the coffee scores higher than 84/100 it goes to internet auction for buyers to buy. This cuts out a lot of leg-work which can be prohibitively expensive for small outfits.
What’s interesting is that the Cup of Excellence judges are not looking to make all coffees the same, nor are the baristas, nor the competition judges. The move away from ‘roasts’ and to a more sommelier culture of individual taste reinforces the point that the skill, for everyone, is to adapt to the coffee. “A coffee is really judged on how these parts come together to form a cohesive structure of flavour called character.” There is character aplenty in the specialty roasters, baristas, competition judges, Cup of Excellence promoters, and customers – all the passionate individuals who want to find something interesting and satisfying from a simple cuppa joe.
What do you look for in coffee? Do you seek out exceptional coffee? What was the best cup of coffee you've ever tasted?