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Roaster's Corner

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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Anna Canning, Special Correspondent

Roasting coffee has a romantic sound to it. One of the old-school trades that one rarely learns from a book, the delicate balancing act between science and art is generally learned through apprenticeship from another roaster and a lot of trial and error.

It's often a rather solitary pursuit that involves hours by a hot machine, the din of the motors drowning out the sound of anyone nearby. However every year the Roaster's Guild hosts an annual retreat that draws the solitary craftspeople out of their roasteries for a weekend of workshops, competition, collaboration, learning, and dialogue. I caught up with Head Roaster, Derek, to hear about his recent trip to scenic West Virginia, where this year's retreat was held. Derek's been roasting for over 5 years now, applying his chef's training and seasoned palate to a prodigious amount of coffee knowledge. This year marked his fourth attending the Retreat and, as always, he returned inspired, thoughtful, and thoroughly caffeinated.

Q: One of the highlights of the retreat always seems to be the opportunity to try out different roasting machines. Anything stand out in that regard?
A: It is always an amazing experience to be in the roasting tent at the Retreat and to have 4 different roasting machine manufacturers standing alongside their machines for us. There were two highlights for me this year. First, being able to roast a batch on a Probat Probatino. Probat is a major sponsor, so there are Probatinos at every Roasters Guild, but this was the first time that I had the opportunity to roast the coffee for the roaster's challenge on the Probatino. It was great, beautiful, functional roasting machine, and my batch turned out pretty good. The second was a new machine/manufacturer that I had never heard of: Geisen Coffee Roasters from the Netherlands brought their Geisen G1 all the way to West Virginia. It was the sexy beast of the roasting tent, but sadly I only ogled and never got a chance to operate the G1.  Maybe next year!

Q: What classes/workshops did you attend?
A: This year was different from past retreats because of the addition of a track schedule. This allowed for more diversity in class offerings, and you choose the class track best for you. That really made the difference in quality and quantity of the learning experience. I choose track 1 that included Defect Cupping and Identifying Roast Defects -- lots of opportunities to taste the things that (should) never make it into the coffee drinker's cup.  The retreat also included a presentation on the El Manzano project (more on that in a minute) and LOTS of cupping, some great round table discussions (especially on coffee descriptors and the fancy language we use to describe what we taste), and the annual team roasting challenge.

Q: I've heard a lot of excitement about the Manzano project.  Can you tell me a bit about what that was?
A: The course guide described it like this: "Emilio Lopez Diaz of Cuatro M single origin coffees shares the results of experiments carried out at the Beneficio El Manzano with 2010-2011 finca El Manzano harvest which examine the impact that coffee variety and processing style have on the cup, as well as a look at the coffee fruit selection and methodologies for grading coffee cherry."
Beneficio El Manzano is located in El Salvador at 1300 to 1550 meters altitude. Basically, the project focusses on understanding the impact of all the farm level variables on the resulting flavor of the coffee. Some of the experiments ongoing as part of the project are on the flavors of coffee grown at different elevations, different varietals, different harvest times, shade vs. non-shade, wet milling, and drying methods. The goal is to be able to predict the quality of the cup by knowing those variables.

Categorization is a method being developed to measure the quality of the cherries being received at the wet mill. All cherries that are received at the mill are graded with both the miller and farmer understanding quality grade given. This allows the mill to offer up quality bonuses to a farmer at the mill and for the mill to better blend incoming lots. It allows the farmer to better understand quality of cherries being picked and brought to the mill. All very exciting stuff. 

We participated in the cupping of the processing experiments from El Manzano. It was an amazing and hugely informative cupping. The coffee we cupped was of the Red Bourbon varietals, grown at 1450-1500 meters, and picked on Feb. 14th and 15th, 2010. The coffees were all processed on the same day by different methods: some were fully washed, some mechanically washed, some pulp natural, and some dry or natural processed. The results of the cupping were amazing! As you cupped around the table in order of processing (same as above) you could taste the coffee's qualities and complexity grow as you cupped. Each process added a little more to the coffee's qualities and complexity. I then understood how a farmer could raise his coffee quality specifically through processing. Not to mention how dramatically it increased my palate's understanding of the huge differences in the attributes that each method of processing brings to the cup. Emilio was an excellent instructor and his passion for coffee, coffee farmers, and sharing knowledge really came through and will always be with me.

Q: Of those, which was the most exciting?
A: Without a doubt the presentation and cupping on the El Manzano project.

Q: What are you most excited to bring back to the roastery from all the ideas and experiments?
A: The certification class on identifying roast defects was full of take-home knowledge. The class was well presented and organized, and included great hands-on labs. First we we're taught some very basic roast science/chemistry. Then we we're taught the physical characteristics, causes, and effects of the most common roast defects. Next we went to the roasting tent to create the two most common roast defects: scorching and tipping. Beans in hand, we proceeded to the cupping lab to analyze the cup profiles of the defects we'd created, thus completing the knowledge loop around roast defects. So having a complete understanding of roast defects and what to do to correct them and improve overall cup quality at our roastery was the most exciting take away.

Q: It seems like networking and roaster hijinks are another standard part of the agenda.  Anything noteworthy in that regard?                 
A: This year's Retreat was held around Roanoke, west Virginia in the Mid-Atlantic Regional Roaster's Guild area. The roasters from Strange Coffee Co. really represented their regional guild well with the hosting of our traditional Saturday night bonfire party. They put together a great evening -- one of the highlights was a latte art throw down. As a roaster more than a barista, I had never even seen a latte art throw down so I was excited to check it out. As I was minding my own business waiting for the throw down to begin, I was recruited to be the shot puller for the latte artist. Being partially inebriated, I accepted my duty and tried my best to create a good vibe around the espresso machine, hoping to aid in creating of the Art. It paid off with many drinks coming my way, and much art being created around me. And as I toiled in the spotlight of the latte art throw down-I met a lot of great people, had a lot of fun, and shared my coffee madness with like-minded individuals. On another social note I was also part of a great roasting team with awesome coffee professionals that I really enjoyed getting to know

Q: Overall,what was the highlight of the Guild for you?
A: Probably the closing ceremony. Chris Schooley, the chair of the Roaster's Guild Executive Council gave a heart-tugging closing speech. The importance of our Guild was really highlighted by the words and emotion of his speech, and the emotional investment that he and others made to make it the best it can be. To see someone so passionate and caring trying to help you is touching. After the speech I found him to shake his hand, look into his eyes, and to say thank you. I did, and he looked me back into my eyes and said "Thank You"!     

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