The real star of my visits to Zoka, however, has been the Colombia single-origin brewed coffee. Served as a pour-over cup of drip coffee, the cup I had on Saturday morning was a top twenty in my life kind of coffee. One of the most cherry-rich coffees I have ever had. All the best characteristics of high-grown Colombians with none of the nasty biting greenness or dirtiness. Deep, deep sweet chocolate and about three kinds of cherry flavors. I did not want that cup to end. Lucky for me, Zoka is just a few blocks from where I am staying, and the Colombia is still on the menu.
So it should come as no surprise that the Coffee of the Week is indeed the Colombia Villarica Cup of Excellence as they are serving it at the Zoka in Kirkland. I stopped by for another cup last night. Wowsers! Great stuff.
To add to my description a bit, I'd can say that beyond the cherry-bomb nature of this coffee it has a very smooth, even, and full-yet-not-heavy mouthfeel. Buttery in sensation, if not in taste. Zoka's website says, "Beginning with an aroma of jasmine, this Colombia opens up to a delicate balance of sweet and savory with mango leading into dark chocolate mace."
I'll be the first to say that I'm not familiar enough with mace to pick that out. I never really got the jasmine either... sometimes those lighter aroma notes are more obvious to the person doing the preparation than they are to the final consumer (something for all baristas to keep in mind!). I can definitely see the mango; this is a sweeeeeeet coffee. Delicate balance? Sweet and savory? Chocolate? Check, check, and check mate. Very chocolatey.
(Incidentally, when you click on the Villarica from Zoka's main page, it blurbs "balanced with black cherry and dried apricot notes..." and then there's no mention of these flavors on the actual page. I found that curious because the cherries hit me so hard, I thought that would be splashed all over the page.)
Okay, okay, so... if you are anything like me, reading other people's descriptions of coffees (or wines, or foods of any kind) when you don't have the actual coffee in front of you, makes your eyes glaze over faster than C-Span on a Tuesday morning. Ever get the feeling people are just listing flavor notes to prove that they can sound just as silly as the next person?
Nahhh... I kid. But seriously, it can get kind of boring. And while there's nothing more that I like in life than a cup of coffee like the one I am reviewing here, and while the flavor is a huge part of it (the most important part), there's always another story behind every cup. And that's where things get really interesting. So let's take a look at this funny-looking contraption on the left here, shall we?
Meet the desmucilaginador. That's right, the desmucilaginador. Or if English is more your game, the demucilaginator (de-mucilager?). There, is that easier?
It means "mucilage-taker-offer" and it's revolutionizing coffee production as we speak. We can learn from Zoka's description of this fine Colombian coffee that this coffee was prepared with a desmucilaginador. What does this mean? It has to do with processing, that crucial stage where millers take the fruit off the coffee and get it down to it's dry, green stage.
Traditionally in Latin America, machines take off the skins, then the fruit is fermented for 12 - 36 hours to loosen the pulp, which is then washed away. This is a water- and labor-intensive practice. And there is a high likelihood of error. Over-fermentation can ruin the coffee.
Desmuciliginadors are machines that take off the entire pulp at once, getting the coffee right down to the parchment phase. These are fairly new machines. They require an order of magnitude less water to operate, and they are available in all different sizes, so that big millers or tiny hillside farmers can use them. The distribution of these machines is just starting to get off the ground, so they are still remarkably rare. To begin with, while relatively affordable, they are still a huge investment for farmers and millers that are already operating on very thin margins. But I have seen them in operation in Ecuador and in El Salvador, and everyone I talk to who has one loves it.
The quality of the coffee produced this way speaks for itself. This method has its own pitfalls, as all methods do. No free lunch in coffee. But on the whole, the desmuciliginador is a fantastic development in coffee. Super high quality coffee, 100% scalable to the particular operation, and a development that could save millions upon millions of gallons of fresh water a year. The leading producer of this style of machines, that I am aware of, is Penagos, from Colombia.
These are the developments that don't get noticed at the coffee shop-level, or the blog-level. But these are the developments that truly change the structure of an industry. Try some of this cherry bomb coffee if you want to experience just how great technological progress can taste!
Thank you to everyone who participated in yesterday's cupping at Think Coffee in Manhattan!
Graciano Cruz was unable to make the trip up from Panama at the last moment, which left everyone to deal with me. Somehow they endured, and we had a great cupping session with some really interesting and fantastic coffees on the table.
I've done a lot of events for/about/thanks-to El Salvador over the last few years. I've gotten to know the industry there so well that at times I think I begin to take it for granted. Or I assume that people know more about it than they do. I'm hoping to do another event featuring these great coffees in another week or two, in Seattle, and leading up to that event, I intend to write more about exactly why they are so great.
In the meantime, I can tell you we did one table of six washed bourbon coffees, and one table of six washed pacamaras and two natural coffees (one bourbon, one pacamara). The bourbons were very nice gems: sweet, medium-bodied, good acidity and clear as bells. But, as anyone who's cupped it before knows, the pacamaras were the real stars. There's such a unique, exotic edge to those coffees: a buttery mouthfeel and a peculiar herbaceous quality, on top of the chocolatey sweetness found in their bourbon cousins.
Of course, the other stand-outs were the natural coffees. People don't expect these flavor profiles from Central American coffees. I overheard a couple of people discussing how much they tasted like Ethiopians or Yemens, but cleaner. There's a lot of potential for natural-process coffees in Latin America in the coming years. Very, very few producers in Latin America understand how popular that flavor profile has become in the United States. The savvier ones are starting to get wind, and you get coffees like the ones we cupped yesterday (and reactions like the ones I witnessed). I want to feature the farms that are experimenting with this kind of processing on this blog, but first I want to get some more information from my friends in Central America.
Finally, a huge word of thanks to Think Coffee. If you ever want to see a really well-run coffee shop, stop by Think, get a table near the register and watch the baristas work their high-speed magic. Special thanks to Jason and especially Sarah, for allowing us to do the event and for their hard work and kindness.
For people who can't do it (and sometimes even for those of us who can), latte art can seem like the hardest thing there is to do in coffee. Well, it's the second hardest. The hardest thing in coffee is getting that damn sticky mucilage off the parchment.
I'm talking, of course, about coffee processing. If you don't know what I'm referring to with mucilage and parchment, Wikipedia has a fairly good, succinct introduction to coffee processing.
I want to talk about the origins of sweetness in the processing stage, but it might be more accurate to talk about the preservation of sweetness. Processing has a huge influence on the flavor of a coffee, but most of the time it's a matter of not ruining the coffee. You can put in the ripest, most delicate and beautiful high-grown coffee cherries in one end of the coffee mill and get rotten, spoiled, fermented coffee out the other side.
Geoff Watts, green buyer for Intelligentsia and all-around coffee savant has an amusing and apt analogy for the creation/preservation of quality in coffee. He says the bean is like a cowboy walking down the main street of an Old West town in a shoot-out. It's trying to get from the farm to your cup, and the whole way it's being shot at. The coffee has to dodge many bullets to make it to your cup in good condition. Well, the processing stage is like the saloon where most of the bad guys are hiding out... the coffee's got more dangerous bullets to dodge in that stretch of road than anywhere else.
In the processing stage, the two main goals are to get the fruit off the coffee, and to dry the coffee out. There are too many variations in how coffee is processed to get into it in detail here, but there are some universals. If the fruit doesn't come off cleanly or efficiently, you have problems with fermentation and dirty flavors in general. If the coffee is not dried properly, you have problems with phenolic tastes, mold, and a whole host of other problems. And all during these stages, there is the possibility of contaminating the coffee with unclean equipment and/or storage facilities.
So to sum up, sweetness is not created during processing, it is only ever really destroyed or preserved. Good processing is all about preserving the wonderful sweetness that Mother Nature and the farmers cultivated in the first place.
There is one possible exception to this rule, and that is "natural" processed coffee. (I'll use that term to encompass the varied natural styles, like sun-dried natural, "pulp natural," etc.) In these cases, the fruit is being dried onto the parchment coffee. As you can imagine if you've ever eaten a raisin or a dried apricot, it tends to concentrate the sticky sweet sugars in the fruit. The bean inside this fruit then tends to "soak up" some of this sticky sweetness, resulting in the unique flavor characteristics you get from natural-process coffees.
There's a lot of controversy surrounding natural coffees in the specialty industry. Some consider their flavors to be, by definition, defective. I don't particularly feel like wading into that quicksand right now, but I will say that I happen to adore well-cared-for natural coffees, and some of the greatest coffee experiences I have ever had were with natural coffees. Any discussion of sweetness and processing would be incomplete without mentioning naturals.
In general, though, with naturals as with washed coffee, it's all about not getting shot, so to speak. That bean has a lot farther to go before it ends up in your mouth as sweet, delicious coffee....