Wednesday, 24 October 2012

How to go from coffee snob to coffee geek in one afternoon

Yes, I am a coffee snob. When I was younger, I drank instant coffee but over time, I have discovered fresh ground coffee and really, instant is not a patch on it. The more I drank fresh coffee, the less I drank instant. Now, I don't drink instant at all unless it is the only option. It's freshly brewed coffee or tea for me. With all these coffee shops around these days, that's fairly easy to do.

Then, when we went to Germany last December, we discovered the joys of a bean to cup coffee machine in the flat we were staying in and made it work by reading the instructions in English and translating the messages on the screen. We were sold and had to have one. We realised this dream in February, thanks to Christmas vouchers and special offers in electrical stores. Now, I drink a couple of freshly brewed coffees each day - two is my limit or I don't sleep - and for a fraction of the price of going out to get fancy coffee.

It was therefore a no-brainer when Taylors of Harrogate invited me to learn all about coffee in a coffee masterclass, especially as it was on a Friday, meaning my husband was off and I didn't need to rush home.

Having arrived a little late for lunch, caused partly by my phone rebooting itself as I used it to navigate my way across Harrogate (by the way, if anyone knows how to make the Navigation app on my HTC phone stop repeating the verbal instructions "Continue on Cherry Tree Avenue for half a mile" for EVERY route change, I'd be very grateful), we were soon being taken to the tasting room to learn about how coffee is made. Our guide Emily is a trainee coffee buyer, who said she had been training for three and a half years! Coffee is obviously more than just a few beans.

Actually, they aren't really beans. They're the stones in the middle of coffee cherries, so we learned. I learned loads about coffee production - like the cherries have to be processed the same day as they are picked or it rots. A lot of the process is very time sensitive, with the skill of the growers knowing that they have to complete the various steps in just about the right time.

What I also learned was that there are two varieties of coffee - arabica and robusta. Arabica beans are the premium beans, with robusta often tasting more bitter and ashy - and have twice the caffeine of arabica beans. To add to this, the beans produce a different taste depending where they were grown. To demonstrate this, we were given a load of single variety coffees to taste - doing the old slurp and spit routine. I was brilliant at slurping, but kept forgetting to spit so I was probably high on coffee within 10 minutes.

It's true. The difference in taste was amazing - some of the coffees actually had a citrussy taste to them that you'd never expect coffee to have. We tried a robusta alongside the arabica - eurgh! If that's what is usually used to make instant coffee, no wonder I dislike it.

The range of flavours is why Taylors make blends of coffee from different sources - to balance the different flavours available and make a coffee that meets our tastes. And tastes ARE changing. A few years ago, their Lazy Sunday blend was their most popular and trust me, it's quite mild in flavour. Now, their most popular blend is Rich Italian, substantially stronger in flavour. We got to do the slurp-spit routine things again, tasting all their blends ranging from medium to rich roast. There's even a half caff coffee blend too, for those who want to keep your caffeine levels down.

The strongest, Hot Lava Java, is not for me at all - way too strong, and has some robusta beans in the blend that make it taste really smoky. If you are scared of buying a pack of new coffee and not liking it, Taylors have started selling selections of their different blends. It's like variety packs but for coffee - 4 little sachets of different blends of coffee, just enough to make one cafetiere so there is no waste if you don't like it. Genius.

Talking of cafetieres, we were also shown how to make the perfect cafetiere of coffee - 45g of coffee in an 8 cup cafetiere, filled with freshly drawn, freshly boiled water left to cool slightly after boiling, stirred and left to brew for 4 to 6 minutes. Et voila!

Our lesson in coffee ended with a tour of their factory, which involved the requisite hairnet and sexy disposable overalls. We saw the beans coming in and being sorted, mixed together and then roasted for uniform colour, and the whizzy machine that grinds the coffee and packs it all within seconds. The roasting, grinding and packing all has to be timed as carefully as production of the beans. It even weighs every single bag to ensure there is enough in the bags. Some of the machines pack the pallets automatically too. It's automation heaven!

So now, I can start to understand why someone can still be a trainee coffee buyer after three and a half years. I learned a lot, and this knowledge will only fuel the fires of my coffee snobbery, although I am now developing into a coffee geek - I'll be boring anyone who dares to mention coffee within earshot about arabica beans, coffee cherries and coffee production methods.

Oh dear, Taylors, what have you done?

(Taylors of Harrogate kindly paid my travel expenses to allow me to attend this event)
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