Whenever we need to learn about the finer points of java, our good friend Velton Ross of Velton’s Coffee Company is only too kind to drop a lil’ science in our direction. So when we wanted to learn more about blending/roasting theory and about why you might choose an espresso blend over a single origin bean (or vice versa), we headed up to his roastery in Everett, WA, to get his perspective.
If you’ve ever had similar questions, then this field trip video is right up your alley! In addition to the great information he imparts, he also busts out a few exceptional dance moves with Bunny. Who doesn’t love that?
You may be wondering, what is the Cup of Excellence (COE)? How will my cup measure up? Will it give me an inferiority complex? I was first introduced to the COE on a recent field trip to Zoka Coffee Roasters, where Sam and I got a tour of the facility and the low down from head roaster Celeste Clark.
The COE is one of the most esteemed awards given to coffee roasters. Over the course of three weeks and at least five tasting rounds, coffees are rated based on the following criteria: cleanness of cup (can the coffee’s terroir show through?), acidity (does it have a brightness to it?), mouthfeel, flavor (a combination of taste and aroma), aftertaste, balance and overall score. Each round eliminates the lowest rated coffees, and the last ones standing that receive 85 points or higher are Cup of Excellence Winners. Among the highest quality coffees in the world, consider yourself lucky to get your hands on these beans.
Zoka is no newcomer to the COE and coffee roasting accolades, their founder Jeff Babcock having previously judged the Guatemala Cup of Excellence competition. On our recent field trip, we tasted their Espresso Palladino Blend, Tuscan Blend, Colonel Fitzroy and Java Nica according to COE standards. We started the cupping process by experiencing the aroma of the ground coffee in each cup, three cups per blend to compensate for any inconsistencies. We then combined equal parts ground coffee and water, allowing the coffee to bloom and steep for four minutes. While breaking the delicious brownie-like crust (see photo for action shot), we got to experience the aroma a second time.
Celeste and Dana, pros in the coffee world, then went to work removing the grounds from each cup, and we waited six more minutes before we had our first sip. Like tasting a fine wine, a loud slurp from the spoon was key to getting enough air on the palette to highlight various flavor profiles. To prevent caffeine overload, it’s commonplace to spit post-slurp, rinse your spoon and repeat with the next cup. Slurp, savor, spit, rinse and repeat. As the coffees cooled down even further, different flavors began to shine through, and I tasted more cinnamon notes in the Java Nica, hints of pecan in the Colonel Fitzroy and the Palladino’s deep molasses undertones. It was a coffee revelation!
I’m often so eagerly awaiting my cup of java in the morning that I throw it back quickly to feed my inner-beast, but this experience reminded me to take the time to indulge in each cup. Savor your coffee as it cools from piping hot to room temperature – you’re guaranteed to taste more complexity with each sip.
Thank you to Zoka for sharing this meticulous cupping technique with us and being so generous with their time! If you’re a lucky Seattlite, stop by one of their cafes and treat yourself to an artfully crafted coffee beverage this winter.
When it comes to coffee, many may wonder, ‘What’s the difference between coffee and espresso beans?’ Some people think they are a specific strain of bean, while others think that it’s a particular roast. Ultimately, it’s a blend (or a single origin bean) that stands up well under the high pressure preparation that is the hallmark of espresso extraction.
According to the aficionados at Home-Barista.com, ‘Espresso is almost always a blend of beans…The most basic rule of espresso blending is that espresso must have subdued acidity, be heavy bodied, and be sweet enough to balance the bitter and acidic flavors in the blend.’
To better illustrate how different beans might have different flavors (after all, coffee beans are coffee beans, right?), we’ll discuss some general information on basic coffee plants, tastes by region, post-harvest processing and, finally, roasting.
There are two varieties of plants, Arabica and Robusta. Arabica originated in Ethiopia, is typically grown in higher altitudes and accounts for 75-80% of the world’s production. Robusta, on the other hand, is a lowland coffee species that originated in West Africa. It features greater pest resistance and a generally heartier plant, which results in higher overall yields — but its high caffeine content gives it a intensely bitter and inferior taste. Some very carefully grown and processed Robustas can be found in premium espresso blends, however, as they can improve the crema and body. Additionally, human-initiated cross-breeding of Arabica and Robusta, which attempt to blend the low caffeine content and smoother taste of C. arabica with the heartiness and disease resistance of C. canephora, have resulted in new varietals which are highly adaptable, hearty and commonly used in commercial coffee plantations.
Depending on where they originate, the weather, temperature, altitude and soil contribute to different flavors; you can get a general idea of different tastes by region here.
Another element is how the coffee is processed post-harvest. Processes include natural or dry process, wet process and pulped natural.
Dry processing usually takes place in areas with limited rainfall and lots of sun light. This process allows the coffee cherry to air dry on patios before their skin and the fruit itself is removed from the coffee bean. The bean outcome is usually heavy-bodied, sweet and smooth with subdued acidity. It also can develop more crema during espresso extraction.
The wet process requires the cherries to be sorted in high pressure water tanks which then removes the skin but the fruit stays on the bean while it dries. These beans usually taste cleaner, brighter and fruitier.
Pulped natural uses a combination of the wet and dry processes. Beans grown in areas with low humidity allow them to dry faster without fermentation. The end result is a full bodied bean like those of the dry process, but with the acidity of a bean that has been wet processed. The bean usually is sweeter.
Once the coffee is grown, picked and processed, it’s time for the roast! Roasters create different blends with a specific flavor profile in mind. And, since coffee is an agricultural product that changes every season, they play a little mad science by swapping out different beans in the blend in order to maintain a consistent flavor over time.
Roasting occurs in a Four Stage Process: endothermic, first crack, pyrolysis and second crack. For more information on how different roasts inform the end coffee flavor, check out this handy chart, sourced from Kenneth Davids.
Hopefully, this primer provided you with some insight as you’re selecting a blend for espresso preparation. Got questions? Leave them in the comments and we’ll answer away!
We laughed, we cried, we lost a few brain cells — but we did gain valuable insight into home roasting! As a recap to our series on the four home roasters we currently carry (the iRoast 2, Nesco, Behmor and Hottop), Rob shares with us what he learned about the different models, how they compare and tips he learned along the way.
Now it’s time for the Cadillac! Next up in our roasting series with Rob is the Hottop, a high-end home roaster that looks like a traditional commercial roaster was just shrunk down by 85%.
Watch as Rob takes us through features and specs of the KN-8828B model, we roast our first batch and then taste it a few days later.
Is third time the charm? Will Rob finally prevail over Velton’s expert roasting? Watch as he walks us through the features, specs and initial assessments on the very popular Behmor roaster, which is akin to a modified toaster oven (only with a shark cage inside!). We do a couple of test roasts and then we test a more successful roast a few days later.
Next up in our series on home coffee roasters is the Nesco, which is another air roaster, similar to the iRoast 2. One of its special features is a corkscrew in the roasting chamber, which rotates the beans to potentially achieve a more even roast. Also, Comic Sans.
Rob takes us through his initial assessment of features and functionality and we then roast up our first batch of Velton’s Bonsai Blend. While this roaster purports to have a catalytic converter in order to reduce the smell, we found it only had minimal effect.
Rob has agreed to become our master roaster! The first model up in his journey of self-improvement is the iRoast 2, a popular entry-level home roaster that basically functions as a modified popcorn popper.
Watch as he takes us through the features and roasts his first batch of Velton’s Bonsai Blend; then we meet up a few days later to see how they compare to the master!
Unless the roaster is using some type of preservative measure (such as the nitrogen flush used by large roaster Lavazza), coffee starts aging within its sealed bag from the moment it’s roasted. We set aside bags from March and June batches of Velton’s Bonsai Blend to compare the aged coffee against coffee roasted last week.
Check out our test and take a moment to appreciate our dedicated commitment to science — we tasted some seriously nasty shots for the team, people!