New crop Nics
It was a big day in the cupping lab. Starting with a sample roasting session that went well after dark the night before (I got started a bit late thanks to a fan belt breaking on the company rig coming over the coastal range from San Francisco—that’s another, not so fun story) and picking up at 8am I had a chance to sort through, taste, and ponder this year’s crop from Cooperativa Solidaridad, in Aranjuez, Nicaragua. The exciting (and labor intensive) part of this cupping is that each of the cooperative’s farmers processes their coffee on-farm, and then keeps their beans separate all the way through to shipping. This enables us to explore the variety of flavors being produced by different farmers spread out over a mountainous area of about 30 square miles high in northern Nicaragua.
I came to work with my game face on (and a hearty bowl of oatmeal in my belly) and settled into a final check of the coffee roasts. Roasting each of the 100gram samples identically is critical; any difference in roast profile, time, or color will impart a variability that makes it impossible to compare one coffee to the other, which is the simple (and challenging) goal of this exercise. I spent about 5 hours yesterday roasting, checking, and re-roasting the samples. It’s an exhausting and enthralling task. There is a rhythm to the process, and pretty soon you find yourself immersed in a world of steam, smoke, flame, and smell. The end result, double and triple checked this morning, was 15 samples identically roasted, and ready to be scored and ranked.
I have to do this blind, otherwise I start to think about the farmers. I know these people, and have spent time on their farms taking shelter from a rainstorm, eating a delicious meal of chicken soup and potatoes all raised within 50 feet of their kitchen, or underneath the shade of their trees talking about coffee, farming, and their cooperative. They are friends, teachers, and partners, and I can’t help but think of them when I taste their coffee. Knowing that tasting with this kind of relationship is quickly an emotional experience, the first thing I do when the coffees arrive is number them, and tear off the tags identifying farmer, quantity, etc. Quite the scientist, I knowâ€¦
Then there’s the moment of truth: small 10gram samples are scooped out, and ground. Water is boiled. The perfume of sweet fresh coffee fills the room. And the hints of Aranjuez begin to float around tooâ€¦I move from sample to sample, spinning the rotating table underneath me smelling sweet maple syrup in some, deeply carmelized butterscotch in others, yellow raisins, and lightly toasted cashews. I pour equal amounts of freshly boiled water, and smell again. The aromas intensify. It’s almost as if the coffee blossoms. A timer sounds. 5 minutes is up. I break the cap, smell deeply, and clean away the wet grounds. Spoonful by spoonful I taste the coffees. Bright and lively they score well on acidity. Most are fantastic. A few really jump out. They are round, deeply toned with the clean characteristic sugary maple syrup-caramel that is the hallmark of these coffees. A number of the best blossom in the cup: their taste begins sweetly and with a lively citric acidity, a new dimension of flavor opens a second later (deep maple syrup rich sweetness) and a full buttery richness envelopes your palate. The flavor fades gracefully, and exits leaving a sweetly toned cacao bitterness. Damn, that’s good coffee!
More than half score over 90 on a scale of 100. That’s a full step up from previous years. The farmers’ hard work and our shared investment in the future of coffee is paying off.
We’ll load two shipping containers, the first with the 90-plus coffees. These will head for single origins, and our espresso blends. The balance will add a deep sweetness to our dark roasts. While the coffee heads north from Nicaragua, copies of my scoring sheet will head south. Benjamin Rivera, the Cooperative’s quality control officer and I will confer on the scores, and he’ll visit the farmers one by one to share the results. Where coffees are great, we’ll try to replicate the farmer’s craft at his or her neighbors. Where the coffees need help, we’ll dig in to identify and fix the problems. Already these coffees are greatâ€¦they get better each year, and I’m looking forward to sharing the new crop Nicaraguans with you soon—you can find them in our new single origin â€œJoya de Aranjuezâ€ 12oz. package.
Tags: New Crop Coffees