The October CoffeeGeek tasting at Vancouver's Bump n' Grind Café (located on Commercial Drive at Venables) couldn't have been more perfectly timed for yours truly. The night before was a vigorous celebration of my 29th birthday, and the promise of quality coffee to sooth my aching liver certainly spurred me out of the house with a burst of energy that I shouldn't have been capable of at the time.
With the September tasting under my belt and additional education gleaned from regular visits to the new Italian-style espresso bar on my block, I also felt more confident in my ability to assess the roasts that would be sampled on this day, care of San Francisco's Ritual Coffee.
I arrived at the café 30 minutes before start to find it hopping with group meetings and laptop-equipped persons rooted in their seats for the long haul. A moment of panic - did I get the date wrong? Did I miss the event entirely? A check-in with proprietors Joe and Audrey confirmed otherwise, as they began the tenuous task of informing their customers of the upcoming seminar. By then, a few attendees had already streamed in, and it wasn't long before the dais was prepped and guests were settled in their spots. The crowd on this day was substantial: almost all the seating space was filled and it was standing room only by the stage and entranceway.
Mark Prince, founder of CoffeeGeek and emcee of the day, greeted the group with a warm hello and described the format for the afternoon. Unlike the September tasting, which consisted of a vertical flight of 3 Ethiopian Sidamos, the October event would provide a free sampling of roasts from two different parts of the world.
Matalapa Coffee Beans
Grinds from the Matalapa
The first hails from the Matalapa region of El Salvador, grown on a farm called La Libertad; these farmers garnered a prestigious Cup of Excellence finals standing for this particular bean in 2008. The second was a Kenyan - from Muburi, Kirinyaga to be precise - grown 1700 metres above sea level in volcanic loam.
I was excited by this change in format. I found the September tasting overwhelming for a coffee beginner. While it was indeed eye-opening to discover the variances in flavour that could occur between crops grown within 40 kilometres of one another, it was a little early in my acquaintance of coffee nuances to be able to appreciate it in full (and in one taste). I had to go back for repeat sips: sip of #1, sip of #2; a comparison of #2 with #3; and so on and so forth with all the permutations that were possible. By the end of the Sidamo evaluation, my senses could not process the bonus Brazil that was being brewed on the Clover. It was therefore my hope that the horizontal bean selection and reduced sample size would not cause my tongue to fizzle out this time.
As the Matalapa was prepared in a 1.5 litre press pot, a cupful of the freshly ground bean was passed around for a sniff test, with instructions from Prince to give the side of the cup a quick tap during the inhale, provoking the grounds into releasing more of its essence into the nose.
Eyes closed with my olfactory tuned into the grinds, and I'm reminded of an alpine hike I did in a few months ago in Garibaldi Park. It smelled cool and earthy with a dry, cedar chip quality. Visually, the pieces themselves were coarse shards - a setting optimized for a press pot brew. It contrasted greatly with my recollection of my husband's fine and sandy grinds for our (gasp) drip machine at home, and the salt or sugar crystals that Prince described as the typical ground size for espresso.
First impressions with the brew itself: nutty, oils shimmering on the surface, with a heavier presence of body than I recalled in any of the Sidamos I'd tried in the previous month. Prince had recently tried Intelligentsia's roast from a similar Matalapa regional crop and communicated how he found the Ritual roast to be less acidic, with more body in comparison.
Prince called upon the bevvy of talented Vancouver baristas that were in attendance to chime in with their tasting notes. Spencer Viehweger of JJ Bean was similarly taken by the fullness of the Matalapa: "It has lots of body and is quite clean, too - especially for a press pot coffee."
"If I could liken it to something sweet, like candy, I'd say Amaretto," replied Sammy Piccolo of Caffé Artigiano. Piccolo also discovered elements of hazelnut in his cup.
Checking Samples Attendees compare samples of the beans and grinds that were being distributed for a sniff test
The grounds from the Muburi bean did not capture my imagination or evoke memories of times past quite like the Matalapa did. Taste-wise, it was more bitter, lighter in body, with a greater hint of fruit swirling in its depths. As I have a low tolerance for bitters in both coffee and alcohol, I vastly preferred the Matalapa to the Muburi.
"I got red fruit; a peppered raspberry," described Colter Jones of 49th Parallel Café. "Something like a white pepper...but maybe that's just me."
Prince also commented that Kenyans like the Murubi are often described to have blueberry or wine-like characteristics. Nod after nod from the assembled masses signalled their accord, with a murmurs of agreement after others took in another swig to test this claim.
Muburi grind sample
Pouring the Muburi
Tutorials and Champion Espresso Brewing
Handouts of Imbibe Article
Another new item on the agenda was the inclusion of a French press how-to. Prince has already authored a number of popular tutorials on this topic on CoffeeGeek.com and Imbibe Magazine. During the day's session, copies of this article from Imbibe were distributed to participants and were referenced throughout the in-person demonstration.
Prince performed the six-step process described in the article while extolling the virtues of a quality grinder. "For a press pot, having a quality grinder is even more important than for drip coffee, because you want to have as little dust (fine grinds) as possible in order to have a cleaner cup. The larger the press you use, the more difficult it is to plunge, as these grinds often get stuck in the mesh filter."
Also explained was the ratio of bean to coffee, which for the average press is approximately 7 grams per "cup" (the actual volume of a cup is dependent on the specifications of press pot's manufacturer but is often 3 or 4 ounces). "Manufacturers often include this with the pot," as Prince holds up a small scoop, "which, when it's rounded, is roughly equal to 7 grams of coffee. You don't need a scale. In fact, I recommend using just a tablespoon measure, which is also roughly 7 grams."
The basic French press walkthrough met with enthusiastic applause. But Prince did not stop there. For the more adventurous, he demoed a "stir and scoop method" where an additional 2 grams of coffee are added to the typical 7-gram dose of grounds (per "cup"). The grinds are agitated and the plunger is ignored until the very end; a saucer is used in its place throughout the steeping time, and two spoons are used to scoop off the grinds before the plunger is finally applied and pressed, and the brew is poured.
Plate covering press pot
Steeped grinds, ready to remove
Scooping off grinds
As a special treat, two additional espresso roasts were available for a nominal charge following the tasting and tutorial, pulled at the Synesso by Piccolo, who also happens to be a 4-time Canadian Barista Champion and fresh from his 2008 win in Montreal. Attendees raced to the counter for a taste while I paused to snap some shots of the action.
My first sip was from a ristretto of Ritual's single-origin espresso roast, drawn from the same Matalapa bean that for me was the winner of the day's press pot tasting.
I didn't sip at it for long. It was awash with silt, burnt toast, and a strange gumminess that I sought desperately to erase off my tongue. But I wasn't the only one who wasn't a fan. Prince found it far too bright and acidic. Audrey, co-proprietor of Bump n' Grind, found it much too lemony; she pulled a grimace of distaste so acute that I grieved at the loss of that picture-perfect moment.
Prince chimed in on some reasons: "It's very difficult to get a satisfying shot from a single origin coffee, and I say that not from a lack of trying. S-O shots, as they're called, are all the rage with a lot of US and Canadian roasters and cafes, but for me, they don't represent everything espresso is capable of. Espresso brewing is the most torturous thing you can do to a coffee bean and still hopefully have something that tastes good, great or better. To do that, you need complexity and elements in the ground coffee that compliment and contrast each other. You get that from a blend crafted by a master roaster. With single origin, you tend to get one hit wonders and more often than naught, the flaws in a particular bean are exposed as much, if not more so than the highlights. Espresso brewing is a magnifying glass for everything good and bad in a bean."
Espresso please Seminar guests and customers alike lined up for the afternoon's espresso bar offerings.
The other espresso roast up for grabs was Ritual's Lifesaver Espresso blend, so dubbed for its sensory resemblance to the fruity hard candy of the same name. It was such a crowd pleaser that the 1-pound bag was completely emptied within the space of 45 minutes. None was left by the time I lined up for a cup. Fortunately, some of the lingering audience members were happy to share their reactions. Joelle, a barista with Caffe Artigiano, found it sweet on the onset with a bitter endnote. Michael also enjoyed it but found it "too sweet to drink on a regular basis". Brent, a regular patron of Bump n' Grind, liked the sweetness that his Lifesaver ristretto provided.
Angie Lof, ex-barista trainer for JJ Bean, expounded on her experience with the Lifesaver blend. "What I tasted did not reflect what it said on paper," said Lof. "It was tangy, a bit tart, but I wasn't getting a lot of the sweet, fruity notes. As I added milk, it did get a lot sweeter."
Joe, co-owner of Bump n' Grind, also shared his opinion: "It's well named; sweet with a really bright acidity that is reminiscent of 49th Parallel's Epic Espresso blend." Two pounds of the Lifesaver blend were sent for this tasting, but Joe put one pound in their Anfim grinder that morning; it proved so popular and was met with such rave reviews by their loyal customers that it was gone in just under an hour.
Overall, I walked away with a positive evaluation of Ritual's coffee offerings, a connaissance with the coffee regions of El Salvador and Kenya, and the knowledge of how to operate a French press for the day that one will bless our household.
I now await with bated breath on what November's month-end tasting will hold in store for us all.
Editor’s note: we’d like to thank the following companies for their help and support for this event: Bump n Grind Café, 916 Commercial Drive, Vancouver, BC, Canada Ritual Coffee for supplying the great coffees this round. 49th Parallel Roasters for loan of 24 3.5oz cups and press pots. Elysian coffee for the loan of a hot water tower.
Karen Hamilton uses her keyboard, camera, and kitchen to expound on her favourite subject: food. Her exploration of all things edible in Vancouver, British Columbia is diarized at TinyBites.ca.