Taking a trip down the coffee lane

September 4 - 10, 2019

Gulf Weekly Mai Al Khatib-Camille
By Mai Al Khatib-Camille

Gulf Weekly Taking a trip down the coffee lane

Thanks to the perks of procrastination in University, coffee became the most trusted tool of this caffeinated correspondent, as GulfWeekly readers may remember from our Chilling Out review of the Crust & Crema (C&C) a few weeks back.

This week, the team returned to the Seef establishment for their monthly Coffee Cupping afternoons, diving further into the single-origin of coffee offered by the Woo family and their bustling baristas.

Coffee, which originated in modern-day Yemen and Ethiopia, has become ubiquitous around the world and over the last century, coffee culture has experienced three waves of demitasse deviations.

The first wave came in the 1950s as part of the mass marketing era, during which coffee became a major worldwide commodity. For the first time in history, stores near and far from the equatorial homes of coffee stocked grounds and beans in tin cans, creating terms like, “good to the last drop” and “gourmet coffee” to advertise their products.

The second wave, starting in the early 21st century, came with the advent of chain coffee outlets like Starbucks and Costa Coffee, which turned its consumption into a social activity and brought specialty brewed beverages like espressos, cappuccinos and lattes to a posh neighbourhood near you.

The third wave, a synthesis and antithesis of the last two waves, has started in the last decade and focuses on the quality, origin and flavour of coffee grown in different ecosystems.

As Chorok Woo, the founder of Crust & Crema and professionally certified speciality coffee barista, puts it: “The third wave is about the consciousness of the supply line. End users in retail shops, not just producers and large-scale purchasers, are interested in where coffee comes from, its quality and the methods employed by the farmers. C&C is part of this third wave and we further ensure top-notch quality by roasting our beans in-house.

“Unlike chain coffee, which can be stuck in a warehouse for months sometimes after being roasted before it gets to a customer, we import dried green beans, roast them in-house based on our needs and ensure the coffee is fresh and at its most flavourful when it reaches our customers’ lips.”

The coffee cupping is integral to the third-wave café; during a five-round process, the roasted coffee beans are tested to ensure that they have the freshest aromas, flavours, after-tastes and acidity levels.

The popular myth is that coffee beans are freshest right after roasting. However, Coffee man Chorok is quick to correct that.

“We have had some customers looking for the latest date, often within the last couple of days,” said Chorok. “But when roasted, moisture in the beans is removed and the heat and gas-fuelled ‘fire’ trigger a chemical change. This isn’t done when we finish roasting. After this, we have to leave the beans aside to rest and ‘de-gas’ till they reaches their flavour climax. This can take anywhere from five to seven days or more, depending on the beans and the flavour profile we are going for. So we often recommend coffee that was roasted about 7-9 days before consumption. And then the flavour is potent for generally one, and up to three months.”

While readers may know the difference between Arabica coffee’s sweeter, softer taste and Robusta coffee’s harsher, deeper flavour, there can be an almost infinite number of further variations, depending on growing altitude, processing methods, soil conditions and other ecological factors.

As a result, Arabica beans grown at higher altitudes and naturally processed can sometimes command prices higher than USD1,000 for a pound and over USD100 per cup! However, even this coffee has to be roasted by a professional to expose its finer flavour notes.

Bikram Gauchan, C&C’s professionally certified roaster walked us through the process of roasting coffee beans in their roasting machine. Taking anywhere from eight to 18 minutes depending on the intended darkness, the roaster-in-charge has to constantly monitor the colour of the beans, roasted at 200 degrees Celsius, which goes from green through golden-yellow, orange, cinnamon and brown until it reaches the familiar coffee brown.

The coffee is then cooled in a tray for another few minutes and then ‘de-gased’ over the next few days before being ground up and brewed. Even the brewing process can be quite nuanced and has developed over the centuries. Much of the art of brewing was hidden till the end of the second wave of worldwide coffee, at which time, words like V60, Moka, Aeropress and Chemex entered the vernacular of your uppity hipster coffee snob.

Before talking to Chorok, this roasted reporter believed that using a French press to brew coffee was the pinnacle of coffee brewing. However, the conversation quickly made him feel like a coffee caveman as he learned about how steeping, distilling and even pouring coffee differently can affect the flavour.

V60, for example, is a pour-over technique utilising a goose-neck kettle, a cone filter and the Hario V60, a Japanese contraption that controls the drip. Then, based on how good the barista is, people can end up with a smooth and slightly sweet cup of coffee. The baristas at C&C were incredibly adroit but this boorish writer almost desecrated their hard work as he prepared to add the customary sugar to his cup.

However, Chorok jumped in and gently suggested trying the coffee without any accoutrements, leading to a flavour revelation. For the first time, I experienced the elusive fruity, smooth and sour aromas of Colombian coffee that I had read so much about.

At this time, to civilise this cretin, Chorok led me to the Coffee Lab which is located at the back of C&C filled with beans, beakers and distillers. It is also surrounded by two massive and two smaller roasting machines. Simultaneously, it looked like a lab out of Breaking Bad, and smelt like Pablo Escobar’s pantry.

As I took in the atmosphere and chatted with Bikram, other guests arrived just in time for the coffee cupping. On the docket for the afternoon were Colombian Popayan Supremo, Ethiopian Yirgacheffe and Yemeni Mocca, all grown at altitude of more than 1,000m above sea level and each bean was free of any faults and taints, making them, officially, specialty coffee.

Attending the cupping ‘ceremony’ was a wide spectrum of patrons, ranging from the rookies like yours truly to what might be the start of the fourth wave of coffee consumers, the home roasters.

New Zealand expat Andrew Walsh and his Canadian wife Jonna Paziuk were on this end of the spectrum. Andrew’s eyes lit up like a child on Christmas morning as he chatted with Chorok about his roasting machine at home and as we tasted and discussed the flavour notes of each variety. He said: “My interest in coffee began when I started working in a coffee shop at age 17. We have since gone on coffee vacations all over the world, finding the perfect beans and then bringing them home green to roast at home. It’s amazing to see the growth of ‘micro-roasteries’ in Bahrain and the GCC. It’s great to see the Arab region reclaiming the coffee!”

As we went through each variety, we first smelled the beans. Then Chorok guided us on proper smelling etiquette as Bikram grinded up the beans. After a second smell test, we noted the aromas on our evaluation forms before being thrown for a curve ball once the baristas added water to the grounds, leading to a third round of sniffing with the raised nose of an instant connoisseur. 

The fourth round had us finally “breaking” the crust of grounds which formed at the top of the cup and in the fifth round; we slurped up tiny spoonfuls of coffee.

I cannot overstate the gravity of the moment that I could finally step into the shoes of my coffee copywriting compatriots. I could smell berry, carbony and caramel aromas, taste nutty, sour, fruity and intense tones and feel velvety and buttery aftertastes, albeit just for a few moments.

By the end, I had a favourite single-origin coffee but more importantly, I realised how differently each person could appreciate the same cup of coffee, based on their personal and cultural histories.

I cannot recommend the Coffee Cupping enough, especially to interested amateurs and those looking to deepen their palettes and embark on a journey through grounds that will have you flying high for the rest of the evening.

For more information and to book your spot in the next C&C Coffee Cupping session, contact 17214155.

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