I love starting each day with a cup of good coffee. Grinding the beans and brewing a fresh pot is a well-established part of my morning routine. I inhale the earthy essence as it fills my kitchen and builds anticipation of that first, warm satisfying sip. In truth, I’m addicted to this ritual.
Though I’ve been drinking coffee for years, I never really appreciated what goes into making my daily cup. Like most people, I know what I like but had no concept of the art involved in selecting, blending, and roasting the beans that make for truly memorable coffee .
That all recently changed, thanks to Sean Boyd, the owner and Master Roaster at Red Whale Coffee in San Rafael. Sean invited me to experience a coffee “cupping”; the process of smelling and tasting coffee from single-origin bean varietals. Like an onologist tastes different grapes to blend distinctive wines, “cupping” is the way artisan roasters taste and choose individual bean varietals to create unique blends of coffee.
Sean prepared a large table with twenty cupping stations; each set with a container of coffee beans, a cup, and spoons. All of the single-origin beans we will taste in this cupping were sourced from premium South American estate growers in Brazil, Peru, Panama, and Africa.
Our education starts by noting the differences in size and color of the various beans. Some are “natural” coffee cherries which are meticulously hand-picked when ripe, and then naturally sun-dried on large patios or raised beds. Other beans are “washed”; a process where harvested cherries soak and ferment in water to help soften the bean’s outer skin so it can be removed before being dried. Climate conditions, soil, and drying process are some of the factors that affect the flavor profile of each year’s bean crop.
Sean draws on his years of culinary experience as a chef to “cook” (aka roast) the dried beans which enhances their natural sugars and develops the wonderful caramel flavor that makes for great coffee. As a Master Roaster, he prides himself on achieving just the right balance to achieve consistent flavor profiles for Red Whale’s blends.
We begin by moving around the table and smelling each bowl of whole beans. Some have forward notes of spice, fruit, and citrus, while others boast more pungent scents of leather, moss, and even cigar smoke. Sweet overtones of chocolate and toffee are also present in a few samples. Sean tells us that each phase of the cupping process will reveal different characteristics of the beans.
Next, each tray of beans is ground into its own cup. More sniffing ensues before the cups are filled with boiling water and allowed to steep. After several minutes the grounds rise to the surface forming a “crust”.
We use the spoons provided to break the crust and inhale the heady fragrance of each fresh brew, then dip below the surface to retrieve some of the liquid (Sean demonstrates in the photos below).
With one swift slurp, we spray our palates with coffee–swishing the liquid around to reveal its essence before spitting the residual swill into another cup. I’m amazed how the flavor of the brewed coffees differ from the aroma of their beans!
Sean notes that taste is affected by several factors including the age of the beans, the grind, tamping, and water temperature. Coffee goes stale quickly, and naturally occurring oils in the beans start to degrade within two weeks of roasting. For optimal flavor, store whole beans in a cool, dark place and seal them in a bag or container designed to keep air out. Grind just before brewing. *Never store your beans in paper bags or in the freezer!
I have a new appreciation for coffee–thanks to Sean and his carefully crafted Red Whale artisan blends. This insider’s look at the complex process behind my morning brew makes the end result that much more enjoyable. Visit the Red Whale Coffee website or call 1-855-906-6277 toll-free for more information or to order one of their fine artisan blends.