When it comes to offering a product and service, the first tribulation a staff will face is setting a standard of quality. What caliber of excellence will we take on in our product preparation and service? What will make us stand out? How can we make people excited over a cup of coffee or tea or a latte? These questions are one of the first stages in research and development when considering menu items and how we want our clientele to perceive us as a local business worth coming to. We ensure that everything we serve is set to a certain standard that makes us proud to serve it, and we are confident that our our effort to do so will make our service desirable to customers.
The next big question comes next; How do we do that again? How can we ensure that such a level of quality and control is replicable, and we can ensure the same quality and care goes into every cup we serve to a customer? How do we make what we do consistent?
In short; we taste a lot of coffee.
Keeping things consistent in a busy shop environment takes a lot of effort. We are relied upon to produce a product and service that will always be delicious
Last week I talked about how we picked out a new coffee. We cupped a variety of Colombian coffees and chose the one that we liked the best - simple enough, right? Well now we start to get into the tricky bits - we just purchased an expensive and very large bag of this green coffee and now I have to figure out how to roast it to make it the best possible product to share with our customers. Preferably without wasting too much of it in test roasts.
How does a roaster go about doing that? Well, for me at least, it involves a lovely fusion of scientific theory and blind trial and error. Each new bean I deal with will behave differently, but there are general roasting theories and practices that usually carry through most coffees. This coffee we just got was well rounded and balanced with a very pleasant acidity when we cupped it at our supplier. It had great notes of green apple and juicy clementine with a dense sweetness like raw sugar to help give it a little bottom end to make it a very interesting cup while remaining accessible and easy to drink. Because it did not have any serious notes of heavy sugars or jammy fruits, I knew I would like to keep it a little bit on the lighter side and do what I could to accentuate the delicate fruit acidity. Still, I could push it a bit further than a coffee with fragile floral or herbal notes, so I could develop those sugars a bit to give the profile enough weight to keep the whole thing balanced. Overall, this would most likely not require an abstract or complicated roast, but I would need to make sure I payed close attention to it in the final stages to keep the temperature on target.
I haul the heavy bag into my warehouse and start warming up the roaster. I'll let it heat up for close to an hour - it's getting chilly and I want to make sure every part of the machine is at a consistent thermal capacity so I can replicate this roast in the future if it turns out the way I want it to. I weigh out my beans at a normal dose for the machine and I take it's moisture content. This information can be very useful as the releasing of moisture will effect how the temperature may fluctuate throughout the roast.
My beans are dosed, the roaster is hot, so I start a new program on my computer hooked up to the roaster that shows me a time over temperature graph. This will help me visually understand the roast development and control how the heat from the burners is being absorbed into the green beans. I load my beans into the hopper up top, start the program, and drop them into the machine. For the next ten and a half minutes, I watch the time over temperature curve tell me the way the beans are absorbing energy, and I tinker with gas control and airflow to keep control of the increase of heat. I keep decent control over the roast as it progresses, and when I drop the beans into the cooling tray I have finished a fairly simple, textbook roast - a good start to profiling a new coffee. I let it cool and I bag it, label and date it. It needs to rest now, freshly roasted coffee has a lot of gas inside that needs to dissipate before tasting begins, otherwise it may give off some uncharacteristic flavors.
The next day I open the bag and I grind up the new coffee, smell it, and pour hot water over it to begin a cupping of it. I let it brew and I taste it to evaluate what kind of roast I've given it. It's not bad, but it's not the same thing I tasted a few days ago when selecting it. The fruity notes have taken a bit of a back seat and the raw sugar notes are a bit too brown tasting - I've roasted it a bit too dark. I start the process over, but as I roast this batch I try to stretch it put a bit more in the second half to retain some acidity but keep the temperature a bit more mellow. I drop this batch a few degrees cooler than the previous one, and once again bag it and tag it. I taste it the next day and am welcomed with a spot on profile. I was fortunate that this coffee behaved fairly straightforward and only required two test roasts to nail down, it is not uncommon for a bean to take numerous educated test roasts to get down properly.
Satisfied, I saved the roast profile as is and began roasting for production, and I can't wait to see what the store staff and customers think about our new, special offering. If you're interested in trying a cup of the final product, pop into the shop for a pour over or fresh bag of the new Colombian Narino single origin, it's quickly becoming a personal favorite of mine.
.Last week we met up again with our good friends at Royal Coffee New York when they invited us to attend a cupping they were hosting. The event was to display eleven new micro-lots coming from the Narino region of Colombia, and we were educated on the farmers that offered each one.
Micro-lots are pretty simple but can be really exciting; small lots of coffee crops that are grown or processed in new or experimental ways are sold at a limited availability. It is often that the quality of these beans are generally unknown until they get unveiled at such an event, and it is common that some shining gems show themselves in places you might not be looking for them. It's a great opportunity to get your hands on something ephemeral and potentially magical - a cup of coffee that may never be replicated quite the same way ever again.
This was an interesting cupping because all of the coffees were from the same region and similar elevations with similar terroir. So, one would thing that they would all taste the same, right?
This is the part where farmer individuality really expresses itself. Whether it's the plant variety, growing and feeding practices or processing methods, each farmer puts their own fingerprint into the coffee they sell, and we get to taste them all back to back and see what impacts their decisions have on the final cup. Most of the coffees tasted during this cupping had some similar overarching characteristics on a base note, but these similarities make it easy to pick out subtler notes that might be overlooked in a more casual setting. Most of these coffees could have been described as "sweet", "bright" and a little "fruity", but specific tasting notes for each one of these categories varied greatly over the eleven coffees tasted. An of course there are always outliers - coffees that are totally unexpected or different from the rest of the group. It was interesting to see a flavor note of "buttered popcorn" written on the community tasting board.
We tasted all eleven coffees to see all these possibilities and to make some judgement calls. Personally, I always look for something with great balance - I like coffees that are interesting and vibrant, but don't necessarily require a whole lot of thought to consume. Simple things done well are surprisingly difficult to stumble upon, and when I do find something like that I really enjoy the beauty that can come with it. We were lucky enough to find a coffee that suited our needs to replace our Costa Rica single origin offering that is about to sell out (get it while you still can!). Something simple, sweat, and beautiful. We picked up a bag and drove it home that night, and now comes the fun part - dialing in the roast.
This week I will be taking this coffee and tossing it into the roaster to figure out how it behaves, and how best to roast it to display every trait it has to offer. If you would be so kind to tune in next week, I'll clue you in to how this process works! Until then, keep an eye out for the simply beautiful, you may not expect to find it where it pops up.
Blends are interesting.
As a roaster, it is really fun to be able to take a bunch of different coffees and figure out how to fit them together to create a rounded and whole flavor profile. In many cases, or at least here at Boxwood, we tend to work backwards and construct something big from small pieces regarding what we want our final product to become. At the risk of sounding way too pretentious, it's not incredibly unlike an artist looking at a blank canvas or block of untouched wood - we have a vision of what we want the result of our efforts to be but we may not know 100% how it will truly turn out in the end.
When the air started to cool a bit and the grass stopped growing so quickly, we knew that we would need to break out a new seasonal blend in time for fall and to carry us through the holidays. I called up our coffee seller, Brittany at Royal Coffee NY to see what coffees she had that we could utilize for something savory for this year's chilly season. She asked me what we were trying to construct so they could help us find pieces to the puzzle. Now, I'm still kind of a rookie in the professional coffee world, and sometimes I come at things from an angle that isn't as clinical and straightforward as those I'm working with would appreciate. Brittany was asking for tasting notes; specific flavors that could be intertwined together that certain coffees could lend their strengths to. I asked for the finished painting.
I wanted something cozy, something rich, something that would go absolutely perfectly with Mom's pumpkin pie and ice cream at the end of Thanksgiving dinner as the plates were piled high and belts became loose and the air smelled of turkey and stuffing and crescent rolls and cranberry sauce and apple cider. Wasn't that obvious?
Brittany is a patient saint.
She calmed me down from my excitement and got me to focus on what the heck I meant by this extraneous and oddly specific picture that I had in my head. What were the flavors in my head that complimented these other flavors, and more importantly this feeling of comfort and warmth and fullness? What was seasonal and festive and relevant to the weather and all it brings?
Chocolate. Nuts. Dried fruits. Baked goods.
And just like that, we're on our way. We start looking at what coffees we already have in stock, and what Royal could provide us to fill in the gaps. Chocolate and nuts? That El Salvador we use in another blend has milk chocolate and toasted almond notes, I can roast it a bit dark so it can act as a sweet and dense base for the blend. We don't have anything with a dried fruit note, but this awesome Costa Rica just came into the warehouse that tastes like baking chocolate and dried cherries. We add that guy to the shopping list and keep it at a nice medium roast to add a pleasantly sharp cherry chocolate cordial profile to accent the creamy base. Oh, and we have this Congo on reserve that's spicy and earthy. Keeping it light will preserve some zippy baking spice notes and really make the whole blend pop to compliment a good pie crust.
And in one afternoon, we constructed something new and delicious. We made Bed Head. Something perfect for staying warm in body and soul, to wrap you up in it's silky brown sweetness and carry you lazily to that big comfy chair and just take a moment to be still and happy. When we deal with single origins it's really exciting to see where an individual coffee can take you, but when you get to create a blend from the bottom up, you get to plan your own trip.
Hayden Kaye is our Master Roaster and head of the Say Interesting Stuff department.