It's a funny thing driving from northern Maine into Canada. Ever done it? Well, here is a simple way one could describe the terrain. Maine = woods, woods, a few ponds, funky eclectic general stores (where you can finally locate the red wool union suit you've had on your Christmas list for years!), more woods, maybe a moose, and more woods. Canada = no more woods, rolling hills, farms, pastures, yard sales, even more eclectic general stores (did I mention the stuffed house cat), no more woods, did I mention a lack of woods?
Recently, Megan and I had 14 hours worth of driving time to make these notes and observations. Our travels were propelled by a coffee roasters retreat in Montreal, Quebec where we would spend 2 intense days talking coffee and, of course, drinking and tasting LOTS of coffee.
To give a little background, 44 North purchases our coffee from various farm cooperatives around the world. We do this through an organization that has the model of cooperatives on both ends of the chain--the producer and the buyer. Currently, there are 24 roaster members part of the buying cooperative. Due to reasons of volume, 44 North Coffee is not yet a member, but instead, we are graciously allowed to purchase green coffee through this organization via the support of another member. We attribute much of the quality aspect of the coffee beans we are buying to the care and concern that is evident when fair prices are paid to farmer's, and when both environmental and health needs are met in the coffee growing communities that we work with.
In Montreal, we met with the great folks who make the farmer-to-roaster relationships possible. In the "coffee quality lab" we introduced ourselves and our business to fellow coffee roasters and the discussion began. Coffee standards...why is it important to have standards within specialty coffee? And what the heck is specialty coffee in the first place? [stayed tuned for a future blog about specialty coffee]
One of the first exercises we participated in focused on our sensory skills (primarily smell) and getting familiar with the essences of freshly ground coffee. Ever heard of a supertaster? A supertaster is a person who experiences far more intensity on the tongue pallet than the average human being. Women happen to dominate in this category. Aroma is important in the coffee world for a variety of reasons. When we drink coffee, we first taste with our noses. Ahhhh....the aroma as we freshly grind those beans & inhale before our first actual sip. Most of the tasting is done right in the sniffing stage, before the liquid ever enters our mouth. While in Montreal, Megan, myself, and the fellow roasters did our best to bring out the supertaster cowboy hat to analyze the different coffees using a chart similar to this:
In the AROMA section, you'll notice there is a category within called Leguminous. A sub-category could be alfalfa or cabbage. Hmmm? How could this be? Coffee tasting like cabbage! Yuck! But perhaps that very bag of green coffee traveled over wild seas in an ocean container next to satchels of green cabbage. You just never know. And as a green coffee buyer, you may have to reject that coffee. What a tough decision, but without a keen sense of smell you could be signing a contract for 100,000 of lbs of coffee that might taste like green cabbage in the cup.
One of a roaster's regular jobs is to consistently sample their hand-crafted beans. This sampling is known as "cupping." In the cupping process, you take multiple sets of notes including the dry aroma and wetted taste. It's all about the slurp! And from there recorded impressions of sweetness, acidity, flavor, body, and the coffee's finish in one's mouth. With this detail, a roaster should be able to pick up on defects or miscalculations that might happen in a roast.
As Megan and I continue to sample different origins of beans (currently, we have a new Mexican organic from Chiapas region that we are really excited about), we remember that all craft takes maintenance and a revisitation of skill and intention. We thank the kind folks at the coffee quality lab in Montreal for making this angle of the business so fun.
To conclude, here are a few photos of our time at the coffee lab. Enjoy!
Melissa (& Megan)
1) The cupper's table - nose deep!
2) Aroma of the wet coffee grounds
3) Break and slurp!
4) Megan at the sample roaster - first time for the 44 North gals to use this sweet machine.