May 27, 2016

Embracing the whole supply chain

Hugh Kelly is on the march to next month’s World Barista Championship in Dublin. It’s been a huge year for the Canberra barista after he won the Australian Barista Championship in March, keeping the title in the Ona Coffee family after company director Sasha Sestic won it in 2015. He’s also one of the stars of ‘The Coffee Man’, an exciting film exploring Ona and Sestic’s journey to claim last year’s World Barista Championship and embracing the whole supply chain

Last year I met a producer named Elkin Guzman from El Mirador which functions as Banexport’s Experimental farm in Colombia.

I chose to serve his coffee at WBC in Dublin this year not only because his coffee is very delicious, but he has also has been a great inspiration to my outlook on specialty coffee.

Although he does do amazing freezer and other experimental processes, for me what separates him is his ability to treat each coffee specifically with fertilisation, Brix sugar picking and then based on sugar content and varietal characteristics his adjustment of fermentation.

The main thing I’ve taken from this is respect for a focus on the interaction between different fundamentals, and an understanding of why a fundamental action is taken. Elkin stripped coffee farming back to its most fundamental points, learned to understand these areas in detail and this allowed him to move forward in spectacular fashion.

The journey
When I started work as a barista I often felt completely lost with coffee. Some days for a few hours an espresso may have tasted great, then a few hours later even at the same recipe it would taste astringent, dry, or with other negatives; some days this process may have even happened in reverse with seemingly no pattern. I would spend hours poisoning myself trying to get the coffee right, making lots of adjustments to brew parameters like pressure, half degrees of temperature and using filter grinders to try and extract higher percentage yield. But looking back I did not understand roast and its effect on degassed coffee, something so fundamental, and something that explains a lot of the issues I and our whole supply chain was having back then.

In hindsight, my perspective was not broad enough and I wasn’t quite sure why I was making some of the adjustments I was making at the machine. I was focusing largely on the many 1% controls without understanding the bigger picture. This was not anyone’s fault as we were all just learning, and it’s always easy to see shortcomings looking back.

Understanding the reason behind each fundamental change leads to more effective adjustments rather than just a ‘theory’. A big example is understanding degassing: once a coffee is degassed (14 + days after roast), problems in taste will show themselves. But if controlled correctly we can taste the cleanest, most beautiful flavours in coffee without distraction.

So a big thing for me was understanding how the farm and roast contributes to the results found in this age window and desired recipe area, and also the interrelations within these areas.

As soon as adjustments were being made to suit that degassed time period, we started to see more consistent and logical results rather than adjusting for an eight-day old coffee with heavy notes contributed to more by gas than roast profile.

I am not a roaster and I don’t pretend to be, however I have learned that it is vital for trainers to understand fundamentals in roasting as well as a roaster’s capabilities. If a coffee tastes good nine days after roast then after 14 days taste issues like high acidity or excessive dryness arise, then I believe roast adjustments should be sought. Roasting to a concentration and recipe area requires constant feedback and to have trainers closely involved in quality control means not only are they able to communicate changes in roasts to baristas, but they are able to provide the feedback needed to make coffees perform where they are expected to.

Make it easier
Since I became trainer I wanted being a barista to be easier and less poisonous, to move the focus more on what the coffee tastes like rather than every intricate detail of how we got there. I feel like specialty coffee has come a long way in theoretical understanding, and I’m not saying there isn’t a place for experimentation at all levels. But having the right structures and feedback systems in place to control coffees at their most fundamental points and coordinating them efficiently is where the biggest impacts on coffees lie. With this mindset, the brewer’s job is no longer to offset shortcomings from the supply chain; instead they can dial in more coffee options, explain in simple terms why a coffee tastes like it does so that regular people can relate to our message and get involved rather than be scared off.

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