Posted in Uncategorized on October 16, 2009|
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The SolCafe beneficio stands beside the main road into Managua, a collection of dispersed concrete buildings and warehouses surrounding a large concrete patio and field that is completely covered with coffee beans drying in the sun; its here that the farmers of the CECOCAFEN cooperative bring their coffee beans from the surrounding region to be weighed and sold. Emerging through the front gate with Rachel, with whom I’ve been lucky enough to spend the last week understanding more about the world of ethical trading, we commence a tour of all the buildings to greet everyone on-site and search for Rachel’s partner Simon who, it turns out, is being shown large and complicated coffee processing machines in one of the warehouses by a proud figure of authority. We’re here to do a tasting, comparing the coffee that the owners of the cooperative are currently selling to the national market against a range of other coffees that Rachel has taken from the local supermarket shelves.
Assembled in the beneficio’s coffee lab and surrounded by the rich odour of toasted and ground beans, Rachel, Simon and I are joined by the resident tasters and a couple of guys who are responsible for the beneficio’s nationally distributed consumer coffee brand, Café Nica. Solemnly, cups are placed around a rotating table in groups of four for each of the six varieties that we will perform a blind taste test with, and ground coffee is distributed among the cups. We are duly handed marking sheets, and instructed how to engage in the process of evaluating a cup.
The first step is to describe the odour of the dry ground coffee. Following instructions, I place my hand over the top of the cup and sniff deeply through the small aperture between my thumb and finger. Owing to my enthusiasm for the exercise a notable amount of coffee goes up my nose and while I try I ignore the tickling in the back of my nasal cavity I focus on the list of adjectives in Spanish on my sheet, which include vocabulary such as ‘nutty’ and ‘floral’. The table spins in front of me and I realise that I have no time to ponder the poetics of my cup; there are another twenty three to go. I frantically sniff and write, extending my nose to the very limits of its abilities.
Next the granules are soaked, with boiled water poured over them, and a fresh round of sniffing commences. Each cup is ‘broken’ by stirring the layer of floating granules on the top of the water with a spoon, causing them to sink and release an aroma. I succeed in not inhaling any hot coffee through my wary nostrils.
It’s time for the tasting. Rachel shows us how it’s done with a cup of water for practise, sharply sucking in the liquid from a spoon with a slightly open mouth before swilling the liquid around the mouth and spitting it out into a big metal bin beside the revolving table. We try with varying degrees of success, and are firmly put in our place when one of the in house tasters demonstrates the technique, producing a sound when taking the liquid like a sheet of heavy material ripping. We are all suitably impressed.
Table revolutions begin anew, and this time I juggle the descriptions of the acidity, body and flavour of the coffee (earthy, buttery, full, bitter…) and I finish the tasting with a scruffy sheet marked seemingly randomly with descriptive words and give a rather faltering explanation to the group in Spanish as to my decisions on the best and worst coffees. I’ve fortunately managed to avoid insulting the beneficio’s coffee (it came up at number two of six), but sadly my Neanderthal palette fell foul of the cheapest and nastiest sample, which in a fit of confusion I decided was worth of the top spot.
It’s all a very interesting exercise and fascinating when you start to think about the almost infinite variations of flavours possible by tinkering with the different types of beans, blends and various stages of processing, but to be honest I’m a long way off being able to brandish lavish descriptions of something that I usually just use as a tool to pull me out of my early morning semi-comas.
16th October 2009
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