For my tenth post on this blog we're going to do something a bit different this week. Instead of focussing on one particular coffee we are going to look at many! I purchased a "taster" pack from the folks at Gold Box Coffee Roasters and decided to do some cupping! Unfortunately the tasting packs are small (around 30g each) and so I will not be able to talk about espresso this week (but that will surely change in the next installment).

I bought one sample in particular that I did not want to form part of the cupping as I wanted to investigate it fully. It is a Bolivian Gesha varietal with a semi-anaerobic processing. This is one of the "fancy new" processing methods that has sprung up in recent years, in essence we can think of most of these as being variations on a natural processing but with more measurement/controlled conditions. In this case the coffee spends part of its processing life in sealed air-tight containers where the fermentations can be controlled. I tend to find these experimental processing methods a bit hit and miss, sometimes they produce wild and interesting flavour notes but sometimes they will impart a "hollow" vibe somewhat akin to a decaf process in my opinion.

Bolivia is one of my favourite origins, when I was first getting into specialty (c2008) there were a lot of Bolivians on the market and they form some of my favourite early coffee memories (I remember a particuarly good one from Monmouth and a few from Hasbean). However over the years the specialty coffee production has decreased in the country owing to the country allowing the growth of Coca (used to make cocaine) which offers more dependable money to farmers, sadly as a result many coffee plants have been torn out and possibly lost forever. There are still some high quality coffees coming out of the region however.

The Gesha varietal has become a bit of a poster-child for the specialty industry lately, in any barista/roasting competition it has basically become a showcase for Gesha varietals. The varietal is believed to have originated in Ethiopia but it rose to prominence thanks to a particular farm in Panama which bumped the price of the varietal into the stratosphere. The varietal itself produces very floral and fragrant coffee. The flavour profiles tend to be delicate or muted but they are notoriously "marmite" with some people not liking them at all. I've had my fair share of Gesha and while it's great I don't like to spend the big bucks on them as I tend to find the value proposition is better elsewhere. This particular coffee from Gold Box, however, piqued my interest because I have never had a Bolivian Gesha so wanted to give it a go.

I'm really glad I gave it a try! But I'm a little annoyed at myself for not buying a full bag (I had 50g only - about 3 cups worth). It is a truly special coffee, it has that delicate floral nature and all the fragrance you would want. There is a strong ginger note to it too which I'm not sure I've noticed in another coffee before. With the floral nature it is a little like having a good quality black tea and a ginger nut - but all in one cup! It's complex enough to keep you interested and coming back for more yet not so challenging as to be a distraction from whatever else you are doing. I would describe both the sweetness and acidity as medium, it is very down the middle (in a good way). There is some body there but not too much, you still get a lot of clarity in the cup. There is no hint of the "emptiness" of a fancy processing method, I'm not sure whether if this is because it has only spent part of its life anaerobically or whether it is just done particuarly well. Overall I'm very impressed with it, I would certainly buy again and I'd love to see how it performs as an espresso (Geshas tend to be a bit difficult to dial in). Hopefully this is a sign of things to come with the cupping!

I'll quickly outline my cupping methodology, I don't follow a specific guideline and I like to do things a little differently to some. I am not a professional cupper nor do I do it very often. Coffee should be fun however so with any method you should tailor it to suit you! In total I have 8 coffee samples from various origins. As soon as the coffee arived I removed the labels and replaced them with a randomly generated 3 alpha-numeric identifier (storing the key on my computer to look up after!) I like to use codes like this when blind tasting as opposed to "coffee 1" or "coffee A" as that naturally sets up an expectation that "1" is better than "2" and so on. I then left the coffees for a week so that there would be very little chance I'd remember the codes I set up (it's safe to say it worked, I can't even remember what origins there were let alone specific coffees!) So this is about as blind as I can make a test on my own.

For the cupping itself I used 7.5g of coffee to 125g of 100 degree water. I lined the bowls with filter paper so I could scoop out the grinds in one go (I hate the gritty feeling of grinds in the bowl so I removed them - I know this is not traditional). I grind fairly coarse at around a french press level and I leave them to brew for 3 minutes before removing the grinds. I do not like doing large cuppings with many different coffees as I find it hard to keep track so I broke the 8 coffees into 2 groups of 4. On the first day I cupped 4 and selected the best 2, the second day I took the other 4 and selected the best 2 and on the final day I took the "winners" and played them off against each other to find which one I enjoyed most.

There are many different types of scoring one can use, I prefer a simple scoring system. I have 5 categories: Aroma (broken down into dry and wet), Acidity, Sweetness, Body and Aftertaste. Each gets a score out of 10, I sum them up and double it to get a score out of 100. I then allow myself an "adjustment" to that score should I feel it needs it, for example a coffee may not have a lot of body but overall I like the taste more than another so want to correct for that. This is only in exceptional circumstances however, typically the score will not be adjusted. My scoring does not match the SCA system in any way. Since I only cup coffees that are specialty grade that have already passed numerous tastings it's unlikely I'll find anything under an 80 on the SCA scale - my scoring gives we scope to go below this if needed.

I will just briefly summarise my findings:

Day 1

  • YEY - Tis coffee presented with a fruity round smell. The acidity was delicate with a dried cranberry sort of vibe. The sweetness was very high and there wasn't too much body. The aftertaste was clean and fairly shortlived. 73/100
  • INQ - A big punch in the face of a coffee. Strong caramels and nuts combined with dried and fragrant stone fruits on the nose. Fairly high in acidty and syrupy sweet. Not much mouthfeel but a big body. Aftertaste was neutral. 80/100
  • TYH - Not much of anything at all, it's as if the coffee is a bit stale. These came vac-packed without roast dates so it might be an old sample. 56/100
  • TUU - A medium sweet medium acidity coffee with a lower body. In the aftertaste I picked up a note I wasn't 100% happy with so given the strength of competition it got marked down harshly. 60/100

Day 2

  • OWR - Cherry and red-fruit aromas with caramels and honey. The acidity was nice and balanced and easy to drink. The sweetness reminded me of rosehips with a hint of florals. Overall very good. 73/100
  • M2X - Just not my sort of coffee, heavy, dense, thick. Very nutty and chocolate-y with a malty-biscuity sort of vibe. Nothing wrong with it, just not for me. 60/100
  • CXH - Similar to OWR - it was difficult to seperate these two. Very sugary sweet with honey-like qualities. Overall OWR pipped it to the post thanks to the subtle floral note. 72/100
  • K2E - Now this was a complicated coffee. Totally different to the others so hard to compare them fairly. So many florals! Also a peachy-blueberry sort of fruitiness. This one came alive when it cooled down. It is not particularly sweet or acidity so the score suffers a bit. 74/100

The Playoffs

Now moving onto finding the best of the best. The finalists are: INQ, K2E, YEY and OWR - ranked by their first round scores. As I'm not a professional cupper nor do this often enough I do not put much weight on my scores day to day - it's highly swayed by my mood or whatever else I have eaten/done that day! My findings on the final cupping day were:

  • OWR - The honey caramel notes on the nose are more prominent. I'm picking up an orange note this time more than a red-fruit vibe. Again the acidity was balanced and not overpowering at all. In terms of sweetness this was the sweetest on show for me, the honey caramels really shining through. Probably the thinnest body of all of them however. The aftertaste is punchy with orange and caramel but it dissipates very quickly and doesnt linger. Overall very easy to drink but a touch one-dimensional. 72/100
  • INQ - Much as before this one is a power-house absolutely out-muscling the other coffees on show. If you're after a flavour-bomb this one is probably it! There are chocolates and caramels there but also a lot of dried and stone fruits and through it all still a floral note underlying it all. It has the biggest body of all on show. Despite its power the aftertaste is not too overbearing and does not linger too long. 79/100
  • K2E - Again the most complex coffee here by quite a long way. Super interesting and at a certain temperature it just comes alive. Florals are the name of the day, it is like filling your mouth with lavendar and rose petals. This is combined with a peach-y sweetness and a creamy mouthfeel. The aftertaste is highly perfumed and lingers a long time. 81/100
  • YEY - Red-fruits are prominent on the nose throughout combined with a caramel note. The acidity is crisp and reminds me of a green apple or a lime. The red-fruits come out in the sweetness in the form of cherry candy! As it cools a floral note presents itself. It is neither as sweet as OWR nor as floral complex as K2E. The aftertaste is sweet and long lasting. 76/100

So there we have it the winner is: K2E. Noting that this is just my pallette. There are a couple of other things I noticed before I look at what the coffees actually were:

  1. OWR and CXH are remarkably similar
  2. I would be very surprised if K2E is anything other than an Ethiopian (I would guess a Guji natural if pushed)
  3. I don't have a clue what INQ is - it has many different qualities. Whatever it is it is done well!
  4. OWR has to be a honey processed coffee from the Americas - I'm thinking Costa Rica
  5. I think M2X has to either be a Brazilian or a particularly heavy Colombian

The Reveal

The coffees were:

  1. K2E - Hambela Halaka (Ethiopia Natural)
  2. INQ - Bolivia Caranavi (Bolivia Washed)
  3. YEY - Rwanda Ruvumbu 035 (Rwanda Washed)
  4. OWR - Costa Rica Juanachute Canet (Costa Rica Honey)
  5. CXH - Costa Rica Los Urena (Costa Rica Honey)
  6. TUU - Los Pirineos Pacamara (El Salvador Natural)
  7. M2X - Brazil Santo Andre Mondo Novo (Brazil Natural)
  8. TYH - Ethiopia Rocko Mountain (Ethiopia Natural)

Thankfully most of my predictions turned out to be reasonable! I don't have to hand in my membership card to the coffee bloggers union. It is interesting that the Ethiopian Rocko Mountain was last - this is a coffee I have had many times before from various roasters and always enjoy. It just had no oomph in this test, it could be the preperation method, user error or slightly stale beans. But I do usually find Rocko is better suited to espresso. It is also interesting that I couldn't place the Bolivian coffee as stated above the production yields have fallen drastically in recent years and so I've not been able to drink as much as I would like so am less familiar than I used to be.

It is also interesting that the ordering of the coffees ended up pretty much matched my expectations - that is if you just listed these coffees and made me put them in preference order it would very closely match this list (minus the Rocko anomoly).

The Jazz

With all the coffee stuff taken care of let's move onto this weeks jazz. Usually I try and link the jazz to the particular coffee or theme I want to write about. This week I can't really do that so it is a completely free choice, which is tough. I ultimately decided on an absolute classic released in 1954: "Clifford Brown & Max Roach" - with which we can hardly go wrong.

Released on the Verve record label this was a highly anticipated record. Clifford Brown and Max Roach being titans of their field, there was hope that this would pave a new path for bebop in the 50s following on from the earlier Bird and Diz work of the 40s. The record did not disappoint and instantly got recognised as one of the most important jazz records to date. The line up on the record is:

  • Clifford Brown – trumpet
  • Harold Land – tenor saxophone
  • George Morrow – bass
  • Richie Powell – piano
  • Max Roach – drums

Of course Brown and Roach are the "stars" here but what really stands out to me is the call and response interplay between Brown and Land. It is one of the greatest examples of this interplay ever put onto a record. They work together seemlessly creating highly intricate shared ideas that never feels like "8 bars for you, then 8 for me". This is displayed clearly on the 2nd track "Parisian Throughfare" (embedded at the start of this post).

Of course the power and restless energy of Roach keeps the whole thing moving along. This is not easy to do, it is all to easy to lose sight of the swing and just start throwing chops at a tune. Max, and the other top tier drummers, actually listen to the music and only let loose when the music calls for it.

The understated work of Morrow should also not be understated, with everything going on in the music there is always a need to keep things grounded. The musician filling that role rarely gets the recognition they deserve so this is a shout out to George Morrow in that regard.

Another interesting part of this album is the juxtaposition of the harder bebop-focussed tunes paired with simple sweet lyrical ballads. It makes for an album that keeps you on your toes from start to finish. A great example of this is a beautiful take on the standard "These Foolish Things"

Here Richie Powell (who did not quite reach the level of stardom of his brother Bud) absolutely shines through with understated lyricism and beauty, he and George Morrow fitting together perfectly. Max Roach leaving his ego at the door picks up the brushes and plays, perhaps, his simplest drum lines to date but it is just what the tune called for. Clifford Brown actually sits out the entire tune - on a tune that appears under your own name this requires a great deal of self control and keeping your ego in check!

Any talk of Clifford Brown is not complete without talking about his tone. His sound is completely recognisable, it is big round and warm. Unlike others at the time who were typically searching for a colder harsher sound. This inspired a generation of players including Lee Morgan, Donald Byrd and Freddie Hubbard through to later artists such as Roy Hargrove. To make the most of this sound he played longer flowing lines as opposed to the shorter stocatto trumpet lines that came before him. It is a shame he died so young (in a car crash) - we only have 4 years worth of his recording. Despite this he was and still is a huge inspiration, he achieved in 4 years what many musicians fail to achieve in a lifetime.

In jazz there are a few albums that are so great they are essentially "no-brainers" for me this is certainly one of them.