Barista Camp EU – Day Three

And the slow crawl towards exhaustion reaches its climax..

The day started off with the combination of a sore throat, sniffly nose and a mild hangover from the previous evening’s boozing and presumably dip in the cold midnight waters of the hotel outdoor swimming pool.

Sensory Foundation

It also started off with an hour long lecture as an intro to the sensory evaluation of coffee and a surprising lack of coffee to be drunk about the place. In time both this and therefore my senses started coming to (thanks The Barn and Five Elephant!).

The lecture was a mixture of pretty basic stuff and a bunch of science that wasn’t really going to be relevant in the exam but was interesting nonetheless (receptors, chemistry, nerves etc). It was nice to have some formal introduction to the world of sensory evaluation that I’ve been practising with for the past year or so.

I had to bail out when the practicals came though as my throat and head were getting painful and stuffy, so while I had a quick dip in the cupping bowls of “Umami, Bitter, Sour, Sweet, Salty I didn’t spend quite as much time with this as I might have.

A two hour nap commenced, skipping lunch and leaving me in a somewhat better state for the afternoon of lectures..

Christopher Hendon – Performing a Good Experiment

I’ve sat through quite a few lectures from scientist types and fallen asleep through nearly just as many – thankfully in this case Christopher is a super engaging speaker with a humourous delivery and good content. Christopher is a scientist who has come into coffee via his research with Maxwell on a number of topics (including the water stuff!) and it’s good to see somebody else who is interested in coffee at a professional level (and beyond) but doesn’t want to get into it commercially

If I had to make money with it then it wouldn’t be so free to enjoy it

He started off with the art of asking the right question, with a preference towards asking questions with a distinct “yes” or “no” rather than open ended subjective answer as well as looking at whether the question could be answered within set costs (and how to drive down costs via collaboration).

A focus on big goals with small experiments to aim towards those goals and a critical attitude towards interpreting results with an entertaining real-life exhibition of the famous “Birthday Paradox”. Those graphs from the EK43 featured again too with the same data (grind distribution) displayed in “volume”, “surface area” and “count”. Once again showing that the oft-repeated phrase “the EK43 produces almost no fines” to be utter bunk ūüôā

The talk closed off with the “Great Coffee Experiment” whereby he wants everybody to submit their extraction results¬†for coffees from two regions that are close together but produce very different coffees so he can see trends (or lack of).

This can be found here¬†and is worth contributing to if you’ve got a refrac and you’re likely to have an Ethiopian and Kenyan side by side at some point (from whatever roasters).

Scott Rao – On Extraction Measurement

I was hoping to have my method or understanding of extraction challenged by this talk and ended up leaving disappointed on that end but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. He’s a pleasantly intense and passionate character with strong opinions on extraction (not experiencing confirmation bias here at all hah).

One little titbit that was interesting was pointing out how with batch brew with more coffee you should configure a shorter brew time as total contact time needs to remain a constant. This isn’t intuitive until pointed out at which point it makes perfect sense – coolio.

What was interesting in the cupping was that there was a clear preference from some people in the room (presumably londoners) for the “under-extracted” and acidic flavours and a clear preference from the local Italians for the “over-extracted” and bitter flavours.

While I myself would always aim for ‘sweetness perception’, there has been a growing part of me that wants to play with complex acidity and what that really means (see also the Brewers Cup entries this year). With modern and well roasted coffee the lines around “under/correct/over” are falling apart because you don’t get obvious “defects” at high EY but it doesn’t mean you necessarily want to push there. Refractometer to the rescue in understanding¬†the what¬†and taste buds for informing the why.

Christian Klatt – Heating (in) Grinders

We know a little about this from the WBC finals this year and there have been a few experiments done Рbut Christian (who works for Malkhoenig)  has done the research on how various temperatures of bean affect grind distribution and flavour.

My takeaway was that it can either be a positive or negative thing (more fines at cold temps, fewer fines at higher temps, chemical changes) but it’s entirely grinder/burr/time/etc dependent and there was so many variables that the best (current) option is to keep temperature stable and low if you want consistency (how this applies then to these pre-heated burrs¬†shrug).

Nobody knows, more research required. We did a cupping of frozen beans vs room temperature beans vs heated beans and my preference was the room temperature beans – go figure.

There were tons of interesting questions being asked during this talk but a lot of the answers were basically just acknowledging that they were interesting questions that couldn’t be answered yet.

Back to the Sensory Room

With a quieter practise room I decided to go and subject my nose to the Cafe Nez experience – picking out various scents between floral/vegetal/herby/resinous/spicy/carbony/etc¬†around the tasting wheel is¬†fairly easy although identifying the individual scents as “peanut” or “blueberry” less so – I guess this is just a matter of resetting the brain’s instinct to identify certain aromas with their real-life counterparts. This ties in nicely with what Sang Ho was saying yesterday about creating a common language and vocabulary for describing taste.

Anyway, bed early because feeling crap..

The next morning (and beyond)

There is no “Day 4” in this series of posts, Day 4 is finishing off day with the sensory theory exam and the sensory practical exam (the former I’ve done already and the latter I’m hanging around waiting for while I write this).

I’ll probably pass the practical (I passed the theory) if my nose just holds out a little longer (I am a day off getting a pretty hefty cold from the feeling of it) and even if I don’t I’ll be continuing my sensory training.

While the courses I chose for this barista camp were seriously basic I didn’t feel that they were patronising in any way and I really enjoyed them. They have piqued my interest in going for the full coffee diploma and from discussions with various ASTs yesterday I think I’d manage intermediate/professional barista level without too much hassle.

The sensory and green however are things that I want to pursue further as I have less experience with them in a formal setting and you can’t just pull out a refractometer to measure them. Being able to pull out and calibrate myself with professionals around the world when describing taste would be super useful and fun so that’s what I’m now setting myself to do. (These two tracks alone would get me the diploma).

Education Engage.

Barista Camp EU 2015 – Day 2

Yesterday was quite an interesting and packed day.

Barista Foundation

At 9am it was back to the machines in the Barista Foundation course and because it had been realised that the lever machine was a pretty bad thing to be setting noobs on we were 6-7 to a machine for the morning dial in and milk learning (ouch!).

The instructor did an admirable job of managing this rather chaotic set-up and I largely just sat out the espresso re-cap because I’d have just got in the way and stepped back in when it was milk-o-clock because I need all the practise I can get on commercial wands.

By 11am it was time for the practical exam and half of the people in the room who had never used a steam wand before had now used a steam wand once or twice and were not ready for it. Thankfully the instructor (Alessandro) decided to delay and stagger the practical exams over the afternoon after the lectures and we all got to get a bit more practise in on the steam wands. (When your wand can steam a jug of milk in 5s vs your home wand of 40s it’s something that needs getting the hang of!).

Here is a little chap that we put together with some fairly badly steamed milk

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I just don't even #baristacampeu

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Rina Paguaga – Stories from Origin

This was a super engaging talk from somebody who makes their living running a coffee farm. Forced out of Nicaragua by war when she was young with the rest of the family (across the border to Honduras) their family had to restart the entire business when they returned on a new farm in the early 90s when her father was already 70.

A picture of her father got a huge cheer as he’s still around and kicking twenty years later.

The farm is now ran by her and her brother and they’ve really focused on the quality pipeline from the plant to the barista, educating the pickers to only pick the properly ripe cherries and doing the processing on site where they can supervise it properly. They’re in the top 3% of the CoE because of this and have started branching out into naturals and honey process coffees (which is a risky but rewarding business if you can get it right).

This was a really insightful talk that really brought across how much of a story most of these farms probably have behind them (In My Mug from Has Bean would agree!).

Sang Ho Park

Obviously I like Square Mile and know who Sang Ho is and a little about what is going on with their taste standardisation initiatives but I didn’t realise quite how in depth they were going.

Sang Ho is a really engaging and humorous speaker and his anecdotes about being a young korean growing in Britain and how this influenced his own perception of taste were both funny and insightful.

The mile high takeaway was that we need a common language¬†and understanding of what the flavours are in coffee and other products and the research and materials they are trying to produce are about trying to make that conversation more precise so when two people say “Blueberry” they are refering to the same thing rather than some emotive recall from childhood.

There was also a good discussion of how the barista when describing coffee was typically subjective and the roaster usually has to be objective because they’re looking at quality control of the bean and trying to find defects and remove then. They also need to calibrate with the other roasters in the team and language is a large part of this.

(This goes back to what I keep saying about preferences being subjective and flavour being an objective and quantifiable thing, but I digress).

Anyway, it’s possible to create the equivalent of the pantone colour chart for taste and what’s what they are doing with FlavorActiv. Creating pre-prepared concentrated flavours with the appropriate chemicals from the study of the composition of the flavours. The session ended with a cupping session of some pre-prepared “defects” which made the room smell awful and brought out the best of my gag reflex. Super effective though – fermentation defects and phenol are going to be staying with me for a few weeks.

Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood – Water

Read the book, this talk was just an entertaining summary of that ;). There was a fun cupping between the various different waters that he was talking about and I successfully picked out which one was whihc (because water does make a huge difference).

I did pop over for a chat and to talk about brew ratios and equipment and how various combinations of these things could also make huge differences alongside water. The end result really though is that coffee from soft water areas are usually going to taste pretty guff on hard water or vice versa.  (Obviously this is super generalised and the actual talk contained the usual spiel about Ca, Mg and bicarbs).

Foundation Barista – Practical and theory exams

With a bit more practise, milk was super easy on the commercial machine and passing the practical was easy (again, ¬†should have proabably done intermediate haha). The theory was the equivalent of asking a secondary school student about their ABC – I think that it’s a great intro if you’ve never touched a machine before but I guess that’s not what we’re about on this blog!


We headed out into a british pub full of british people (guided by some wonderful Serbians who wanted to go and drink beer), new friends were made and we ended up in the pool at 1am when we got back. Oh what fun.

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Out with some fine people from #baristacampeu

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Looking forward to today!

Barista Camp EU 2015 – Day 1

I’m at Barista Camp in sunny (hah!) Riccione learning more about the coffee industry.

Yesterday started off at about 2pm with everybody turning up and being given a cupping spoon (very important) and briefed on the importance of always carrying this with us. I can get behind a conference that has a tasting element to it :).

Coffee Shop Economics

The first talk of the week was from Andrew Tolley (of Taylor St / H+H), and was a basic intro to the economics of running a coffee shop; as my colleague pointed out if you’ve ever seen a profit and loss sheet there wasn’t anything massively new here but the talk was really well delivered (Andrew seems like a stand-up chap and I’ve enjoyed a few conversations with him since). I’m pretty excited about their plans of roasting for themselves as well as the retail market and will be checking that out come October.

Barista Foundation

After this was our first session for the Barista Foundation course hosted by Alessandro Bonuzzi. I’ve chosen to do the foundation units because I wasn’t sure what I knew from the standard coffee diploma syllabus and thought I’d have knowledge gaps but it turns out I needn’t have worried as most of the people in class haven’t used an espresso machine before.

This is actually super cool because it shows how accessible this event is for people who aren’t in industry but just want to learn more about coffee (there were a few remarks before I left about this being for professionals and it’s nice to see that this worry wasn’t founded in any reality).

Alessandro is a great teacher and I enjoyed his delivery very much, in hindsight I should have probably chosen to do intermediate but it’ll be nice going in next year with foundation already behind me (assuming I pass the written exam haha). If anybody was thinking about doing Barista Camp and were put off because they weren’t sure if they were really qualified enough hopefully this will change their mind for next year.

Evening Fun

Developer conferences usually have quite a party scene and involve a lot of beer both sanctioned by the event and pushed by the developers themselves. In complete contrast there aren’t really any bars on site and while there is the occasional bottle of beer most of the activity so far has been very inclusive towards the non-drinkers.

Last night involved events such as

  • Blind latte art smackdown
  • Sensory test (guess what foodstuff has been dissolved into the water – smoked salmon almost made me hurl)
  • Beer Competition (try and sell a bottle of becks or a local beer to a judging panel, how well can you do it?)
  • Capture the flag on the beach

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Cupping challenge! #BaristaCampEU #teambuilding #team6tho

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This is really nice; bringing people together over team events rather than trying to break social barriers through the use of crazy amounts of alcohol. Perhaps developer conferences should do more of ¬†this (or perhaps the developers would complain but perhaps that’s a cultural issue that needs stomping on).

After all of this was done a lot of us headed across the road to the bar and commenced the drinking until well after 2am – but we were already united via the fun team events and the wine became an excuse to hang out at a bar rather than the driving force behind our socialising.


I am really enjoying the camp experience, everybody is super friendly and willing to engage on almost any topic. I’m getting a bit bored of hearing the phrase “Oh you’re just a home barista” but this sentiment doesn’t come with any malice and once the conversation has started everybody’s opinion is taken just as seriously regardless of background so I’ll forgive this small (and repetitive) transgression.

Very much looking forward to the upcoming sensory modules and the next few days.

Most coffee sucks

(There are terms used in this blog post and I know most of my readers aren’t coffee folks yet, please refer to the glossary for help and then ping me on Twitter and I’ll try and fix it)

I have been struggling with coffee this year.

Most coffee at most shops is not good, most coffee I’ve made at home has been also not good; I can say that I have maybe had two dozen coffees this year that I’ve truly enjoyed (most of these in the last month at my own house but more on this later).

I have been travelling a lot less (yay!) which means I’ve not had the chances I would have usually to pop into the “very best” that various cities/countries have to offer. That’s okay because it has meant I’ve had more time (and money) to spend at home trying to re-create some of those very best experiences in my own kitchen.

It has been a very frustrating experience as I got way ahead of myself and purchased beans from dozens of roasters across Europe and found that

  • Most of the recipes that people tend to talk about don’t work with my grinder/water
  • Most of the recipes that people tend to talk about don’t work with most beans
  • The beans themselves are all over the place in terms of roasting profiles and grind settings for both ‘spro’ and filter

It doesn’t help that when I’ve mentioned recipes that have actually worked with the more renowned roasters’ offerings the local baristas have often responded with scorn, bemusement, or even outright dismissal! (To be fair I’m bloody annoying at times in my attempts to eek out learning from anybody who might have something to offer me – sorry!)

Beans do come in a wide spectrum of roasts from “touching it with water makes it taste like burned toast” to “I can’t get anything out of this if I try replicating what baristas¬†tell me in coffee shops”. Oh – and let’s not get into the number of times I’ve been sent beans that are baggy, papery or simply¬†past their best, not helpful.

Trying to understand this without the tools to measure it has been one of the most frustrating experiences of my life. Two major changes to my arsenal have alleviated this hugely:

  • A refractometer
  • re-mineralised water (thanks to Maxwell initiating the research and Spencer for experimenting with ways of achieving this).

The latter most of us can’t do – especially not in a commercial environment until gear inevitably shows up to fix that (although it has brought more sweetness and accentuated flavours¬†to my cup it is very much the last 20% of a far bigger picture)

I have started achieving the results I wanted to re-create in the first place and started to understand why I’ve really stopped enjoying coffee in most shops and why I haven’t (and probably never will) enjoy most efforts from the current batch of third wave coffee shops across the UK.

Quality is not subjective

I get this a lot, “What you like isn’t what other people like”, and I fall firmly into Kaminksy’s camp at this point in stating that quality is not subjective. Some aspects of quality are definitely measurable and most people when it comes to coffee (or indeed food, alcohol or any other consumable) simply haven’t been privileged enough to have experienced the quality that others elsewhere in the world are creating. It is enough that there has been a step up from commodity and that’s where the journey seems to stop¬†(Make no mistakes about it, I recognise I’ve been lucky in eating and drinking the way I have this past half decade and it has absolutely turned me into an insufferable bore – first world problems).

It has felt a little like I’m explaining the unexplainable at times when trying to get an idea across of what the coffee is that I *want* to experience or *have* experienced. Och – No more – this stuff is measurable and I’m going to talk a little about where I have ended up on this journey and what it is in terms of numbers that I deem to be drinkable coffee.


It is measurable. If we’re not measuring it then we’re probably under-extracting because there is an illusion of safety (either by using coffee that’s been over-developed and presents hints of sweetness at low levels of extraction) or simply serving something that doesn’t taste awful because we’re stuck in a local maximum where it’s tolerably ‘fruity’ (read: sour but roasty enough to keep that at bay, note: this is not true sweetness).

An awful lot of the coffees that I have absolutely hated have presented huge amounts of bitterness and roastiness beyond 18% EY (or even lower), they have been optimised to present some levels of sweetness (with a complete lack of sublety) on average gear, sub-standard water, and more importantly easy-to-use-and-understand recipes on the shop floor. Good quality greens can still shine through this unfortunate set of circumstances but these are rare cases indeed.

These are *low quality* roasted coffee beans, it is a measurable fact by how easy it is to “over-extract” them and these are rarely worth the effort or time of day. (Over-extraction as a roast-defect – anyone?)

Often the shops serving this coffee will also guest high quality (and expensive) stuff from a big name roasters in Europe and then use very similar recipes for filter (and sometimes even for espresso ūüė•). Maybe some small changes will be made based on taste and¬†but because the coffee has been designed for higher EY it is often harder to extract and we end up falling miles and miles short of anything resembling a good cup of coffee.

At best the baristas might acknowledge “it’s not as good as we’d have expected”, and at worst they’ll tell me it’s amazing but then it’ll turn out to be a major disappointment. This stems from a lack of experience with tasting well extracted coffee and isn’t meant as an insult or overly negative remark.

It might¬†taste okay if we haven’t experienced what that coffee is supposed to taste like at higher extraction yields but more often enough it’ll be a local maximum where it tastes inoffensive and if we’re super¬†unlucky it’ll make us pucker our mouths with the excessive dryness that sourness can cause (and be mistaken for the edge of high extraction because we’ve been told that over-extraction is drying). Local maximum!!

Good quality coffee *demands* high extraction. High extraction yields on average gear and sub-optimal water requires more work and can require drastic changes to brew ratios and brewing times. Guided entirely by taste it might be possible to get to this point entirely by chance if we’re feeling like a bit of a maverick and adjusting our variables beyond what we might ordinarily do. (Similarly low extraction yields on amazing gear is not only possible but amazingly prevalant and sometimes far¬†worse!).

We seem to have these numbers (or similar) fixed in our heads

  • 18g->30-35g
  • 60g/1000ml
  • 30seconds
  • 2m:30s

We are either roasting coffee to suit these numbers on the gear we have or abusing coffee that doesn’t fit our mental model of what our outputs should be and then complaining that it’s underdeveloped and hard to extract.

Kaminsky talks about this in his lectures (and they are years old and do show some signs of being dated but if you are a professional barista and haven’t watched them yet then you’re probably missing out) and yet things are not changing fast enough – how do we fix this?

Measure measure measure

If we are making coffee on a daily basis either for ourselves or for other people and we are not measuring extraction yield then we are failing ourselves and those other people.

The refractometer is not a toy for the rich geeks, it is not a tool to be kept in a drawer and used once a week by a single privileged person. The refractomer is a tool to be used almost (if not actually) daily with each coffee to understand what it is we are serving and how to get the most out of it. The refractomer should be out on the shop floor being employed by the baristas in order to fully understand what it is they are serving.

  • It is as essential (if not more) than weighing scales for in and out
  • It is more reliable than our taste buds and does not lie
  • It is an educational tool in the absence of any real taste experience in understanding what well extracted coffee actually tastes like

A brief example

I was working with a coffee from London recently that was tasting both dry and dirty in my mouth (using a traditional recipe for brew of 16g dry to 230g of output). I could have spent an age trying to push this by changing grind settings and times but instead I took out the refractomer, realised I was only getting 15% EY at best and no matter what I did at this brew ratio I was never going to get it above 18% EY at the solubility I was seeing.

The ratio I ended up with was 12g of coffee to 250g of water (allowing a reasonably fast time with a relatively tight grind). This might have only led to a TDS of 1.0 but tasted just as strong as a poorly extracted coffee at 1.3 (with the added bonus of sweetness and complex flavour).

Would I have ended up at this ratio without the refractometer? Possibly, in my total blissful ignorance and with a lack of “experienced” people repeating dogma at me I try a lot of crazy things, but I’d definitely have not ended up there as fast and wasted a lot more coffee.

The refractometer told me that this coffee was going to be difficult on the water and equipment combo I had at hand and I made a change based on the clear evidence to push to a higher EY (and then see if it would taste better).

If we’re not measuring our coffee, our coffee probably sucks

  • It probably sucks because it’s at low EY and roasted dark to be acceptable at low EY
  • It probably sucks because it’s at low EY and it’s designed to be acceptable at a high EY
  • ¬†It may suck because it’s been roasted for low EY and it is being over-extracted (unlikely and unusual in specialty places!)

In that first case having the roaster close to the baristas serving it just encourages that horrible downward spiral of death and this direct feedback isn’t the positive one that it could be. Seriously go and watch that Kaminsky video already.

Here are some more truths

  • It’s no longer 2005, we shouldn’t be dealing with espresso brew ratios less than 1:2 (we’ll never hit acceptable EY at these lower ratios)
  • ¬†It’s no longer 2005, we have the research available to make our coffee better
  • ¬†It’s no longer 2005, we have the equipment available to make our coffee better
  • ¬†It’s no longer 2005, we shouldn’t be roasting our coffee to cater for these low extractions
  • We know better, recipes should be changing (for both espresso *and* filter) from different roasters, often drastically.

This is not subjective conjecture, this is objective fact and it can be measured. If I am tasting coffee from a roaster and I’m encountering burned tastes beyond 19% EY then I am going to say so. If I am tasting coffee in a coffee shop and it tastes like under-extracted burned toast I am going to say so. If I am tasting coffee in a coffee shop and it tastes like dirty dishwater I am going to say so. These aspects of quality are not subjective – we need stop hiding behind this notion that everybody has different tastes so it’s okay to ruin good coffee with out-dated and shoddy practises.

Some strange retorts I have heard

Roasting lighter will put off our customers because they won’t like the acidity.

Nay – I become more and more convinced that this is trotted out because we’re confusing acidity and sourness – no customer is going to complain when they receive more coffee that is sweeter and moreish as a result of a higher brew ratio (And if they are, they’re also going to complain about the¬†sour/roasty under-extracted crap too).

Our coffee isn’t roasty, you’re just over-extracting.

No, the coffee *is* roasty, if I am encountering burned toast above 18% EY I can empirically state that the coffee is roasty. If we’re aiming for low extraction yields because we’re afraid of changing our brew ratio then we’re going to get left behind as times change and customers find sweetness in the arms of another barista.

Your gear is very different, we’re not roasting for that

I call shenanigans – Five Elephant roast specifically for high extraction yields (even encouraging 22-23% EY) on EK43s, but stretching their filter roasts out in my Lido3 or even the crappy Krups grinder I keep under my sink It still tastes great at 20% and 18% respectively (although we certainly lose clarity). An adjustment of recipes for the gear I am using and the water I am using and we achieve more than reasonable results. Saying otherwise is just laziness – there is plenty of material out there to learn from and improve our recipes with (If I can manage it with a few months effort then somebody working fulltime in coffee should manage it too)

Your tastes are different, this is all subjective

I’ve already mentioned this above but let’s talk about it again. Subjectivity is a preference for natural coffee over washed coffee. Subjectivity is a preference for chocolate over pomegranate. Quality is the measurement of extraction and what extraction we can achieve before encountering undesirable artifacts in the cup. Other aspects of quality are the presence of sweetness and clarity in that cup but these are harder to measure because one has to have experienced those things before in order to produce a meaningful rating. (but if Q graders can rate the green bean based on cupping sessions objectively, we can do it at our end with the end product). The work that FlavorActiv is doing *right now* is all about turning these things into objectively measurable detail.


Most coffee sucks, it doesn’t have to. I don’t actually enjoy making it all that much and would sooner pay somebody else to do it.

The sooner the coffee industry gets its ass into gear and catches up with the modern times the sooner I can sell my EK43 and relax. Yes the customers don’t care about how we make it and they’re going to be bored to tears if we talk about extraction and recipes to them outside of a workshop scenario. The chef in a busy kitchen doesn’t tell you what temperature their grill¬†is at but we¬†will still complain if the steak is overdone.

Sort it out and I’ll stop being a miserable grump about it all the time.

Peace out.


On a site note I’ve had funtimes with my stomach this year too, until I started pushing EY up and the problems mostly went away – coincidence?

Also ta to James Wallace of Back to Black for some proof-reading of my Whiskey induced ramblings..

A Tasting – Coffee Flower Tea from Has Bean

So this is pretty exciting and novel and expensive and a bunch of other superlatives.

Has Bean have persuaded a farm in Bolivia to painstakingly pick the coffee flowers that¬†grow just after a harvest¬†and send some over for retail purposes. Apparently on the farm they smell amazing and a lot of this translates to tea when brewed up. (We say tea, but I know the tea people will be upset if I keep using that word so let’s say infusion from now on).

From the Has Bean site

The flowering process begins after a coffee harvest, when there‚Äôs normally a period of dry weather. During this time the coffee plant gets a little stressed because of the lack of water. Then the rainy season comes, which sparks the coffee plant into creating little blossom flowers. These flowers have one of the most amazing and powerful smells I have ever experienced (if you could make an aftershave of it then it’d be my smell of choice), and the appearance of these flowers marks the start of the process of the coffee plant creating its cherries for our lovely coffee beverages.

I’m not sure I’d like to smell like a¬†tea on a big night out, but each to their own – it’s nice to try something different once in a while.

I bought the entirecupping-tea pack which contained flowers from five different varietals (Bourbon, Geisha, Cepac, Caturra, and Java) – I’ve never even heard of Cepac and Googling doesn’t seem to help me with that; it’s either a typo made numerous times or I’m missing something here.

I decided to cup them all side by side rather than drink them one by one on different days because I wanted to get a general feeling for what they’re like in comparison to each other. Obviously you can’t cup them like coffee but the process of smelling the raw ingredients, making a hot liquid and tasting it as it cools by noisily slurping it over your tongue works for most beverages¬†it seems.

I recruited local coffee super star James Wallace of Back to Black and Laboratorio Espresso so as not to completely waste these on 30 minutes on just me (also when he visits I usually learn a ton about making coffee and get feedback on whatever I’m making in my kitchen so it’s always worth it!)

We made them in an inverted Aeropress (I don’t have a tea-pot and the aeropress tends to work quite well as a way of filtering normal tea leaves) with just off the boil water with a 2 minute brew time.


The flowers themselves when you take them out of the wrappers smell surprisingly like traditional tea and I got quite excited about this. The infusion process is pretty similar too so it’s not entirely like we’re in unfamiliar territory.

Tasting and smells then!


I found the initial smell of the wet flowers to be reminiscent of sea weed so we were definitely off to a rocky start. Drinking it hot yielded in tastes that reminded me of black tea with lemon in it – not entirely unappealing and definitely interesting.

As it cooled down it got a lot sweeter and it kept a lingering sticky mouth-feel all the way through.


This smelt like Rhubarb from the get-go and it was clear we were dealing with something with a lot of interesting acidity. It was very light in the cup though and again lingering citrus notes dominated most of this experience. I feel if this had been made a bit stronger and a little honey added I’d have not been entirely disappointed to receive this in a shop.


This was probably my favourite – it was very floral from the initial aroma, and the immediate taste was surprisingly tart after the other teas. It kept savoury notes all the way through the tasting process and was a lot more in keeping with how I’d expect a tea to taste.


The smell of this reminded me of when I was eighteen and used to stay up all night writing 3D games whilst downing copious amounts of ginseng tea. In the mouth it was overwhelmingly sweet and sticky but this gave way to a flavour I could only describe as wet dog. A wet dog that you liked though – not any old wet dog.


This one really did smell like tea, perhaps green tea, except it smelled sweet before I even drank any of it; in the ¬†mouth it was slightly spicy and reminded me a little of the few cups of Darjeeling I’ve had over the years.


Every single of these was different to the last and I found that very illuminating ¬†– James had his own thoughts about how they compared to cascara (the fruit around the bean) but I’ve not really had enough cascara to really identify this.

I found every one of them to be surprisingly rich Рwhich is not a word I usually relate to infusions of plant matter and hot water. There were a lot of interesting floral notes in there too which is unsurprising given that they are flowery bits of plant matter.

After a while of cycling through the cups I started getting a bit tired of them, finding them to be slightly sickly due to that richness. (Says the person who will happily sit there and drink a dozen natural-process espressos).

The experience is interesting, and definitely something¬†¬†I’m glad to have done; I’m not a huge tea drinker and the similarities means that this isn’t something I’d have stocked in my house as a common occurence (even if it wasn’t ¬£20 for ten cups of tea!).

It’s probably worth getting these from the Has Bean website while stocks last, as I doubt it’s something that’s going to become a huge thing given the expense of actually collecting them and getting them to us lucky consumers!


Distributed blind cupping – The Glasgow Smackdown

Okay not a smackdown, just a distributed blind cupping of various Glasgow roasted coffees.


The Backstory

I’ve been making coffee for a few months now, and I’ve noticed that there are a few roasters in the UK (and outside of it) which roast coffee that pretty much taste okay at a wide spread of extractions (although you still want to find a sweet spot to make it shine). By taste nice I mean I don’t get any weird flavours at brew ratios at or just over the 100% mark. (17g in, 38-45g out over 27-35 seconds depending on the coffee usually).

Quite a lot of the local stuff performs badly at these (now fairly popular) ratios and the EK43 doesn’t really allow you to do the more restrained (and in my mind “old skool”) recipes around the 18/30/30s mark. Cupping those coffees tends to yield (in my limited¬†experience) undesirable “low note” flavours that I’ve always called “roastiness” but in retrospect it’s slightly more nuanced than this.

Some of the local stuff¬†does perform at these levels, and I’ve noticed a correlation between my cupping notes and whether they do or not and this that has started making it easier for me to know whether I’m going to be able to do EKSpresso or not with a coffee.

It’s sometimes difficult to have a frank conversation directly with the producers about this, because they’ll either assume¬†I’m “doing it wrong” (Always a valid suggestion), or take offence at the awkward language used as I’m stumbling around trying to describe the undesirable flavours¬†I might be getting.

To calibrate my taste buds against what others also perceive I decided to send samples of various locally roasted coffees to a selection of coffee enthusiasts and professionals and collate the feedback to identify what we could agree on and what we could not agree on.

The experiment

I took five coffees from three local roasters, labelled them 1-5 in no particular order and sent them to six postal addresses (with some people sharing cupping duties to increase the number of people exposed). Nobody was told which roasters or beans were involved and I kept my own cupping notes back until I had received the feedback to avoid influencing anybody in their own perceptions.

The cupping notes I took were also done completely blind – although just from smelling the grinds before adding water I was able to identify which roaster had done which bean which probably influenced my own note slightly thanks to my preconceptions about past experiences. On tasting each coffee I was also then able to immediately narrow down on which bean it was within that roaster so my results are probably less meaningful than the blind tasters receiving coffee.

I’ve kept my notes¬†therefore out of the tag clouds I’m generating for each coffee from the raw tasting notes of my distributed cuppers, as to not influence the results in this post towards my opinions.

The coffees

  • Papercup – Gelana Abaya (Ethiopian Natural)
  • Papercup – Githiga¬†AB ¬†(Washed Kenyan – SL28/34)
  • Avenue Coffee – Finca Santos (Natural Costa Rican – Caturra/Catuai)
  • Avenue Coffee – Skyscraper Espresso (Washed Colombian – Caturra)
  • Dear Green – Sumatra Wahana (Natural Sumatran (!!) – Rasuna/S795/Catimor/Typica)

Yes one of them is an espresso roast – more on that later.

It was fun watching the results come in as everybody completed the cupping.



What I’ve done is taken the raw cupping notes from each participant and thrown them into a tag cloud so the common words are more easily visible. Each participant (most of them anyway) rated the coffees out of 10 and I’ve averaged their rating and my own to get the final ranking. This isn’t objective and we aren’t trained coffee tasters¬†so we’re not doing proper score sheets.

I’ve then written my own interpretation of what others have said against what I tasted initially to give an insight into where these results have come from.

The raw cupping notes took the form of “what it smelt like as a dry ground coffee, what it smelt like when water was added and all the tastes from hot to cold”, for brevity I’ve tried to aggregate the total experience rather than write an essay about how the coffee performed over time.

The results – ranked in order of preference (scored out of 10)

Papercup РGithiga AB Р8/10

Roaster’s notes:

Blackcurrants, Marmalade sweetness, bright acidity, crisp mouthfeel

People’s notes

Screenshot from 2015-08-13 21:20:51

Easily most people’s favourite (apart from one person who really didn’t like the savoury notes), only a couple of people decided to use the adjective “roasty” – which is something I initially ascribed to the coffee but after the fact decided I was probably mistaking it for something else.

The group was split between whether this tasted of blackcurrant or tomato (I was very firmly seated in the tomato camp), apparently these aromas are very similar so this is understandable. Whatever fruit we choose to use we could agree that this was by far the juiciest and easiest coffee to enjoy – plenty of cuppers went on to make this as a brew with the excess beans I sent them.

I’ve been told that savoury notes such as tomato in Kenyans can actually point to the coffee being under-developed which with Papercup I find hard to imagine, happy to take at face value¬†that this is just an aspect of the weird acidity you get in some Kenyans and this is a “roast done right”. Oddly enough most of the Kenyans I’ve had this year with similar varietals have been sweeter and lacked this weirdness – I have no explanation for the difference – this Papercup coffee is closer to what I imagine a Kenyan to be.

Papercup – Gelana Abaya – 7/10

Roaster’s notes:

Blueberry tart and cocoa, jammy sweetness, bright acidity and good mouthfeel

People’s notes

Screenshot from 2015-08-13 21:18:13

I love this bean; from Square Mile it was one of my favourite espressos this year and I’m very excited to see it at a local roaster. The beans I sent out were from the very first roast Papercup did and this one definitely had a slight roasty element to it (It must be stressed that this was known by the roaster and I sent this out just to see whether it was something people would pick up on – the coffee available in store does not taste like this). This is a very good bean and it shows even through the very slight hint of toast.

The group immediately picked up on this being a natural Ethiopian, and expressed delight in the summer fruit flavours being exhibited. There was a fifty/fifty split once again over whether it was nutty or fruity Рprobably being thrown off by some of the deeper flavours in the coffee.

The roasty notes were picked out by most people in the form of either a slight dryness or the flavour itself, but all-in-all the reviews were still favourable Рshowing that a slight defect and strong greens can result in a positive experience.

Dear Green – Sumatra Wahana (6/10)

Roaster’s notes:

Lemon, Jasmine, Palma Violet

People’s notes

Screenshot from 2015-08-13 21:29:40

I laughed out loud at several people’s reaction to this coffee; nobody really knew what to make of it. It’s a natural and it’s from Sumatra – naturally some folk assumed it was an Ethiopian but I don’t think any of the other coffees came close to having such a varying¬†opinion on what it tasted like or whether it was “good” or “bad”.

As a coffee to evaluate the Glasgow roasting scene it was probably a bad choice because it was so out there but it was worth it for the reactions so I have no regrets other than I should have thrown a sixth one in there and had two from Dear Green as well!

I personally found this coffee to be totally confusing – getting pine trees and green beans, there were some other people that mentioned a slight vegetable whiff from this but given the funk it’s hard to see the wood for the trees with this coffee.

Avenue Coffee – Costa Rica Finca Santos (4/10)

Roaster’s notes:

A medium bodied coffee with boozy notes of rum and chocolate. Raspberry sweetness with fruity fermented plum finish.

People’s notes

Screenshot from 2015-08-13 21:23:22

I’ve had this coffee in store and enjoyed it, although it was a bit “indistinct” I chalked this down to the gear, water and recipe and was excited to get it home and give it a go as a brew coffee at the very least and maybe as an EKspresso. Sadly it was underwhelming as an EKSpresso because some flavours crept in at any reasonable extraction that I couldn’t deal with once I’ve tasted that¬†it was stuck with me even when I did it as a filter or through cupping.

I was very curious to see what folk thought of it – it’s a natural and it’s from Costa Rica – it should be absolutely up most people’s streets but in the cupping it didn’t really go down that way (quite a lot of similar but different notes of wood/ash/roast/smoke too). It may well just be the bean rather than the roast – there is no way of telling without finding the same bean in another roastery somewhere or whatever.

Anyway – most people agreed that it’s got potential but something is a bit iffy here. Interestingly enough, this¬†is the first coffee where the tag cloud generated didn’t have that much in common with the roaster’s own notes.

Avenue Coffee – Skyscraper Espresso

Roaster’s notes

A balanced espresso with notes of peach, orange, spices and dark chocolate

People’s notes

Screenshot from 2015-08-13 21:26:29

It’s an espresso roast, which since I’ve started making coffee I’ve come to determine either means it’s a really great roaster making life easy for me by telling me a bean is going to be super great for espresso or just the roaster cooking a bean a bit¬†more to kill the¬†acidity and¬†make it easier for the public to drink at standard shop extractions with traditional brew ratios. (Essentially: I don’t buy these any more – they’re a recipe for roasty toasty fun in the EK43).

I threw this in as a control rather than as something to actually evaluate – as a roast it does its job perfectly well on the shop floor and I’ve enjoyed many an espresso of it from the K30s in store (less so since cupping at home because once I taste something I don’t like in a coffee, it’s hard for me not to notice it from then on).

Understanding that the goal here is to provide a good base for milk drinks for customers who are perhaps new to the speciality coffee scene and perhaps don’t want the fruity modern stuff¬†tells us immediately that this coffee’s goals aren’t aligned with our¬†own.

So I’ve not left the rating on this, save to say that people picked out that it wasn’t something they enjoyed cupping – this tells us that we’re all on the same page and gives us a foundation for the other feedback on the other reviews.

What’s my take home¬†from all of this?

I think it’s safe to say that Papercup is the people’s champion – which is funny because before I started making my own coffee and seeking out beans in Glasgow (after realising the Avenue stuff didn’t suit my needs) I hadn’t rated it highly because of a few visits I made when I first got to the city. This tells us something about the importance of re-evaluating based on new info (in this case a quick conversation with the roaster would have told me to pick different beans). I know that some Papercup beans will not work in my home set-up and I know some others will.

I wish I’d thrown in another Dear Green – my general experience with the Dear Green stuff is that it’s usually okay if a bit flat at times – but that’s my own experience and we don’t see that in this test at all with this choice of coffee! I don’t feel as though I really represented the roaster fairly in this pack by using the natural sumatran.

Avenue is at the bottom of the pile but given the competition this isn’t exactly harsh criticism; Dear Green and Papercup have both been doing their things a lot longer – Avenue only having been roasting for about a year. As I already discovered, it’s not really the kind of coffee where I can just stick it through the EK and make something as enjoyable as other similarly priced roasts that are available to me.

My major take home is that my taste buds are in line with most other’s (preferences aside) and I’m not tasting things too differently. The language I use when describing a coffee could definitely do with some work for both clarity and to avoid causing offence. Roasty is seen as a major offence, and there is a split between the professional in my cupping group saying a coffee “lacks character, is a bit thin, has some oddness” and the enthusiast just sticking that in the camp of “roasty” – it’s not a hold-all for “stuff I don’t like”.

Over the last few cuppings I’ve done I’ve been pleased with how these taste buds have performed – being able to pick the coffees out (and at other blind cuppings I’ve done this year pick out the defective roast, or spot the odd one out). The rest of it comes down the language and vocabulary which is something I need to carry on growing. For now, there is “coffee that works in my house” and “coffee that doesn’t work in my house”.

The intro post

While I wait for my breakfast to arrive I’ll do the obligatory intro post to this new blog of mine.

I have been drinking “speciality coffee” for several years now, and one thing I have learned as a consumer is that it’s hard to discern what you like and what you don’t like unless you’re buying into your own house and making a deliberate attempt to link the “What you likes to what you don’t likes” to the attributes of the bean/roast/grinder/machine/etc. (This is similar to wine or food, except you generally have more than two to choose from in your local restaurant).

A few months ago I therefore decided to buy the necessary gear for my kitchen to make coffee myself – and by coffee I mean both espresso and filter coffee and by necessary gear I mean the bare minimum to reach the quality that I’d expect in my favourite coffee shops across the UK (of which there are not many – Macintyre’s in London set a high standard to reach)

That’d be the EK43 for grinding my coffee then

And the Sage Dual Boiler (Breville if you’re not in the UK) for doing espresso (an ugly beast but one of the best espresso set-ups available)

While I don’t really drink milk with my coffee I also decided to learn how to do latte art while I was at this because that would mean that I’d got milk steaming/texturing about right and would be able to serve sweet milk drinks to my guests and potentially in the future do guest shifts for actual customers if that ever took my fancy.

10,000 hours

We all know this as the ballpark time needed to become proficient at something – obviously the number itself holds no special significance but I’m of the mind that if you’re going to learn something you have to invest your time in it properly. When I practise making coffee or practise milk that means spending hours making notes, greedily seeking feedback off anybody who is willing and bouncing ideas off anything that has ears.

There aren’t many people in Glasgow I can learn from; there are a few who both have the experience/knowledge required¬†and the patience to deal with my endless questions, statements and such. Oddly enough people who work full-time in coffee don’t necessarily want to spend their downtime answering inane questions about it – and in my quest for further knowledge I’ve joined coffee forums, tweeted loudly at people, pissed a few people off and generally pushed the boundaries for trying to cram as much learning into a short space of time. The natural progression is to start blogging publically about the coffee I am using/making/rating and seek even more feedback (mostly theoretical given you can’t push taste over the internet yet).

Coffee is interesting

Often comparisons are drawn to wine (and certainly the tasting of the goods and the understanding of the raw materials there are a lot of similarities), but there seem to be a lot more places along the supply chain where the coffee can be messed up. Once wine leaves the winery it’s done – but once green beans make it to the country they’re aimed for they still have to be roasted and within a very short time (4 weeks tops normally) consumed and the equipment and people behind the coffee bar are then responsible for not making a mess of¬†that.

There are a few career baristas out there in Glasgow where I live and make no bones about it, it is a career. Coffee shops with high turnover of staff (students mostly) where the baristas don’t have a history of working in speciality coffee will never be as good as those that maintain their staff and train them because making coffee (espresso especially) is bloody difficult and involves not only extensive experience tasting coffee and having opinions on what good/bad is but also a professionalism in being able to manage their coffee/equipment in a fast paced environment where a few degrees temperature change makes the difference between a good or bad cup of coffee. (Milk forgives all sins, except the sins it does not).

This challenge is one of the reasons it appeals to me so much Рit is just coffee, but getting to the point where you can just relax and churn out a competition-worthy spro whenever I want to is a journey that I want to travel.

Beans beans beans

Turns out there is a lot of badly roasted coffee out there, and as a consumer you’d not notice it so much if you’re only drinking it in shops which have already worked around this or using consumer-grade equipment at home. The EK43 is unforgiving and while it brings out the very best in well roasted coffee it also seems to bring out the worst in badly roasted coffee.

I want to start reviewing the beans I use, from a cupping point of view, the various filter methods I use to drink it and of course espresso. When I get excited about a coffee I’ve found I want to share that. A comprehensive write-up of the recipes, total extraction yield (measured using a refractometer) is something I can do – I’ve missed writing about things that enthuse me and this is something that appeals.


Water? Pressure? Temperature? Agitation? Time? Most of this has been researched by some real professionals but taking this research and applying it to home production of coffee is interesting, I want to throw that up here too.


Anyway, this was just a ramble but hopefully you know where I’m coming from – this is my own collection of personal findings and feelings about my coffee journey and I’ll welcome future feedback from anybody who wants to get involved.