Yesterday, a friend called to ask if I was interested in giving a lecture and tasting of Rioja wines to some British customers of the company where his brother works – a coffee importing and distributing company here in Logroño. It turns out that they were ‘baristas’, or owners of coffee bars, visiting their supplier.
The intriguing part of the deal was a comparative Rioja and coffee tasting, to see if certain types of Rioja were similar in style to different types of coffee. This I had to experience!
The lecture and wine tasting went off without a hitch. Then we began to taste different styles of coffee, served freshly brewed in expresso cups.
The first cup was from the Sidamo region of Ethiopia, an arabica coffee (one of the two species, the other being robusta), which I was persuaded to believe showed citrus notes. We were encouraged to then retaste the white Rioja, whose aroma seemed to be enhanced by the coffee.
The second cup was from Kenya, an arabica, with toasty notes from a long period of roasting. It reminded us of the oakiness of the Rioja reserva we had tasted a few minutes earlier. I was beginning to be convinced!
The third cup was a 100% robusta from Vietnam which smelled like graham crackers to me. The coffee taster at the company mentioned that the characteristic of this type of coffee was roast cereal grains and low acidity, at which point I began to believe that I could actually become a coffee taster. Then the bubble burst when we were led into the tasting room where it was explained that tasting freshly roasted cups of hot expresso was a lot of fun, but that real coffee tastings are nothing like that.
The tasting room looked like one at a winery with lots of little sinks into which we were to spit the coffee, a large lazy Susan with glasses of a pale liquid ranging from light brown to almost black, and spoons which were about the size of a tablespoon but with a round bowl.
The coffee taster explained that this was a ‘Brazilian’ tasting. Here, 10 grams of coffee beans are ground and somehow dissolved into cold distilled water. She proceeded to dip her spoon into the first glass and loudly suck it into her mouth, swirl it around for a few seconds and spit it into the sink. “Ah, an unroasted Brazil, the most popular coffee used in Spain for blends”. The rest of us loudly inhaled the contents of our spoons and tried to imagine what we were tasting.
Professional coffee tasters take many years to learn the trade. The manager of the company explained that he had been working there for 14 years and was only able to distinguish an arabica from a robusta. Two flavor wheels (one for defects, one for flavors) showed how incredibly subtle coffee is – a series of concentric circles, starting with four characteristics. Once tasters learn to master these, they move to the next tier and so on. The outer circle has about 45 characteristics. (Aside for wine lovers: if you’re familiar with the wine aroma wheel (http://www.winearomawheel.com) developed by Dr. Ann Noble at the University of California at Davis, the coffee wheel is twice as big). Next to this, wine is a snap to learn about!
Among other facts, I also learned that:
- coffee is tasted like this three times before a shipment is accepted (when the company is thinking about buying a batch, when the ship has landed and when the batch arrives at the company;
- coffee bushes are often grafted onto resistant rootstock just like grapevines;
- coffee companies sell 100% varietal coffee as well as blends;
- tasting a certain type of coffee after tasting wine positively or negatively enhances the aromas of the wine.
It was an amazing experience that I’d like to repeat soon. Coffee ‘culture’ is nowhere near as developed as wine ‘culture’ so people never return a badly brewed cup to the waiter like corked or oxidized wine. But, according to my friend’s brother, several restaurants in Madrid actually have a coffee menu, so change is in the wind. I can imagine it already: “My wife would like a blend of Vietnam and high altitude Colombian and I’ll have a 100% Kenya, please!”