Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Anna Canning, Peace Coffee Project Manager
We're optimists here in Minnesota. As soon as we get a day or so above freezing, we're ready to call it spring. In preparation for those days (we always seem to get a tantalizing handful of them around mid-February), we're pleased to announce that the Pollinator, our beloved spring seasonal, is back. While spring is often heralded as a time of new beginnings, it’s every bit as much a time of returns and re-imaginings: the birds return from their warm winter hiding places, the grass returns to green, and the sun slowly creeps to its rightful place in the sky. And, of course, the Pollinator returns. A blend that exemplifies spring with it's combining of spicy new growth and heavy earth, it is, like the spring, fresh every year.
I sat down with, or rather, paced in an over-caffeinated state, behind our Head Roaster Derek to understand more about this year's version of the Pollinator. Just as any gardener can tell you that each spring has its own character, each season's version of the Pollinator is a little different, the new season's harvest dictating the palette available to our roasters with which to paint the flavors of the cup. Metaphors of birds, bees, and color palettes make the process sound flowery and vague. It isn't. While there’s an art to what Derek does, his decade of experience as a chef makes him minimize that part of his craft: it's a given that there’s an idea, a flavor picture, being painted by his choices (it's what he thinks of while lying in bed at night).
How to paint that picture again year after year? The answer's not a short one and I spent a morning QC session with Derek to better understand.
While the rest of us were distracted by opening our coffee shop, the lab acquired a new tool -- the sample roaster. A beta version from Renegade Roasters, it's a cherry-colored beauty. Before a pound of Peace Coffee even makes it to the production line, long before it makes it to your cup, the first step of understanding the bean and deciding how to roast it take place. Derek weighs out a 350g sample into a flat blue tray and spreads the coffee across a black mat to grade it. This isn't the process that yields the appetizing adjectives and similes that allow a coffee drinker to choose his brew of the day; these are the bare-bones, technical terms of the trade. Instead of notes of flowers and nuts, the notes here are of primary or secondary defects per sample weight, how dense the beans are, and what their moisture content is. In addition to informing purchasing decisions and providing a useful bank of information to be shared with our producer partners, these numbers guide the roasters decisions in roasting. A dense bean or one with lots of moisture each call for different roasting strategies: more heat at the beginning, a steeper or a slower ramp rate to bring out the best of the beans.
Only then are the beans ready to be roasted in wee one pound batches. The first task is what's called a sample roast, a uniform, controlled, straight-forward very light roast designed to roast the bean to the level at which it’s taste-able but not necessarily tasty. The goal is not, as is usually the case, to develop any particular qualities of the bean, emphasize its sweetness or allow its brightness to bloom; instead, the goal is to deliver the bare bean to the cupping table with all its virtues and any of its flaws exposed.
Each new lot of coffee comes before Derek in this manner and he spends many mornings in the lab slurping and scoring.
And so when it came time to formulate this year's Pollinator, he was able to draw on a bank of information connecting each coffee with numbers for sweetness, brightness, body, and notes on precise flavor characteristics. The ginger notes from last year's blend were resurrected in a blend of Ethiopian coffees from the Yirgacheffe & Sidama regions, while our new partnership in Brazil contributed nuttier notes and body to the mix. The big surprise of the year was the Apecaform: we’ve been buying their coffee for eleven years and it’s been a stalwart feature in our Guatemalan Dark Roast. We thought we knew its chocolate notes and its richness, but on the cupping table, the beans revealed more zing, more bright, sweet citrus notes than we’d thought possible from our old friend. And so this year’s Pollinator features the renewal of the old blended with the brand new in one bright, spring-y cup. Enjoy!