I had the great pleasure of judging the Eastern Canadian Areopress Competition this past weekend. It was a blast with a impressive turnout and seriously delicious coffee. In between competitors, I had an interesting chat when an audience member who asked: what are you looking for in coffee?
Those poor souls who read this every week will already know the answer: sweet! juicy! clean! It’s a mantra that I borrow from Ralf Rüller for its succinct and accurate articulation of the core elements of a great cup. Sweet meaning no green, grassy, or sharp sour flavours. Juicy as in none of the gripping or astringent qualities of an undeveloped roast. Nor any of the flat and hallow emptiness caused by a baked coffee. And lastly, clean as in well-structured. The coffee showcases a clear and balanced set of identifiable flavours.
After I went on my typical loudmouth rant, a fellow judge pointed out “buuuuut Lee, you always talk about the importance of tasting origin, isn’t that what you actually look for most in coffee?” As you can imagine: audible gasps, record-needle scratch sound, table flipping, burning of Cut Coffee shirts, etc.
It was a good point because while I understand these qualities as interlocked, I could certainly do a better job of explicitly explaining how they connect. When profiling a coffee, there are ways to draw out particular elements of origin. Given that not all coffees can taste like peach or strawberry or lemon, a good roast will accentuate or minimize the inherent qualities of a coffee. The problem with an undeveloped, baked, or too dark roast is that it masks origin with universal (and unpleasant) flavours: vegetables, hollowness, or char. Equally important, poor quality green will lack any engaging or delightful attributes, so there is nothing alluring to pull out through the roasting process.
When you travel through the coffee tasting wheel, you go from ‘green/vegetative’ to ‘sour/fermented’ to ‘floral/fruity’ to ‘sweet/nutty/cocoa’ to ‘spice’ and lastly ‘roasted’. This roughly mimics the act of roasting, so while a light roast may give prominence to the bright acidity of lemon, it also comes with the clawing sharpness of celery and pea-pod. Alternatively, while a dark roast could highlight walnut and nutmeg, it also draws in the blunting effect of smoke. Sweet, juicy, clean roasting creates the most dynamic portrait of origin as it stresses the individualized/non-universal qualities of a coffee in that vast swath between floral, fruity, sweet, nutty, and cocoa.
Allow me to make one last point here: a fundamental problem in specialty and third-wave coffee is that the interest in origin is limited and narrow. There is no shortage of South African coffees out there with black tea and bergamot on the bag, which is totally fine. But, I would love to see more diversity in sourcing. My favourite coffee on offer right now is the Reje Gayo from Sumatra because it so unique. Through the sweet, juicy, clean approach it shines with cooked pumpkin, a thick creamy body, and a intricate finish of stewed plum and sugary bourbon. It is absolutely unlike anything I have tasted before in a cup.
tl;dr: the sweet, juicy, clean trifecta for roasting ensures you can taste the particular qualities of origin. It is a cause-and-effect relationship.