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Dialling in the Drum

Five Senses CoffeeDamien Steponavicius 3 October 2017

Tear open the bag, inhale the freshly roasted goodness inside and spill the beans into the waiting hopper. It’s time to dial in.

The act of taking a new roast batch (or even a completely new coffee) and using our barista wizardry to squeeze the best possible extraction from it is a regular part of the specialty coffee journey. It’s an exciting time – you’re about to go on the hunt for new flavours and textures; the final result of hard graft and passionate people spanning the globe.

But before that coffee even lands on your doorstop, the very same search for the sweet spot is happening at our roastery.

Seasonal, organic pallets of green coffee from a wide band of harvest seasons are constantly landing in our warehouse. Each of these deliveries, especially the first of a new origin lot, needs to have a specific roast recipe crafted to realise its potential.

For a specialty coffee roaster, this is both an exciting time and the greatest test of our craft and expertise; those delicious flavours can only be unlocked with a specific set of variables which are unique to each particular coffee.

But miss the mark, even by relatively small amounts, and a floral, zesty Yirgacheffe could turn instead into a sour, astringent brew, or the rich coca and nut of a Brazil could skew into an ashy, chalky cup, taking us back to ‘the bad old days’.

In the past week, our eagerly anticipated Vista al Bosque has landed. Produced by the Castillo family in the remote eastern Guatemalan region of HueHuetenango, it’s a cracking new addition with a soft chocolate body which is balanced with peach and citrus. Headed towards its home as both a single origin espresso and a key component in a couple of our house blends, we got stuck into dialling in the roast profile for this new addition to our line up.

Individuality and Predictability

Even before we approach a new coffee, a roaster needs to hold two seemingly contradictory ideas in their mind. Coffee is organic, seasonal and arrives in a wide variety of sizes, densities and conditions – at times, it seems like a mind-bending moving target! On the flip side, data map enough of these unique little coffee snowflakes and record how they perform in the roaster and you can begin to anticipate and predict which approach will give you the best result when the beans hit the drum.

Under the Microscope

When the Vista al Bosque landed, the very first thing we did was cut open the sack and get amongst the green beans. We gathered a spread of physical data points, from size and density to moisture activity and processing methods. Each of these attributes influences how the beans react when they’re exposed to fairly intense heat over the course of a roast batch.

Data Mining

After roasting more than two million kilograms of coffee, logging the data and cupping the results, I’ve got a fair bit of information to tap into! Our Cropster software maps the entire duration of the roast – including time and temperature – tagging critical points along the way. When we correlate that information with the all-important cupping results, it can point us towards those profiles which have resulted in similar coffees tasting delicious.

With the arrival of the Vista al Bosque, we looked to the San Francisco which is another current crop coffee from Guatemala, this time from the Santa Rosa region. It’s also a washed coffee with similar altitude and density, so its profile provided a good launching pad for our roast explorations.

Roast for Purpose

So, we’ve gathered a whole bunch of both specific and historical data to approach this coffee with but the last, and possibly most important consideration, is why we even have this coffee in our line up? Each coffee that Jacob, our Director of Coffee, selects is chosen with a particular usage in mind. It may be destined to be a juicy, fruit-forward filter micro lot, a sweet, balanced single origin espresso or the chocolatey body backbone of a milk-focused house blend. Whatever the destination, we roasters need to take the physical and historical data and use it to help us navigate towards that end result.

Flame On!

We’re finally ready to drop some beans in the drum. Holding these three considerations close – physical bean characteristics, historical comparisons and the desired result – we heat up our 15kg Giesen (for espresso) and drop the green in, capturing a swathe of information along the way. We’re particularly on the lookout for any unusual reactions which might indicate a requirement to tailor this specific roast profile differently.

This first test batch is distributed to our roasting and coffee teams to prepare as it will be used in homes or cafes. Their feedback is collected and correlated with the roast data and, if everything is tasting delicious and the profile is hitting the required purpose, we move on to our first run of production roasting.

If not, we go back to the drawing board with this new cupping and roast data and drop another 15kg batch…. rinse and repeat until we’re sure the coffee is up to spec.

And while it’d be nice if this roast profile was 100% locked in place, any barista who’s tried to use exactly the same extraction parameters for the same coffee will be able to appreciate the one constant in coffee: everything changes.

Our roast profiles are an iterative, evolving curve as they respond to changing environmental conditions (hello Melbourne weather!), the aging of the green coffee and our identification of ever more delicious nuances in the coffee which we want to bring to the surface.

In that sense, dialling in our roasts is much more a way of working – part of the journey – rather than a final, definitive destination.

Custodians and Champions

While roast profiling coffee has a core of practical and conceptual understanding about the physical act, a philosophical element also comes into play. Each coffee arrives with a direct human legacy, from the farmers and their families to the workers and communities linked to these farms. While we don’t pretend that we’re the saviour of the coffee world’s problems, we take our role as custodians and champions of all the hard work put in at origin seriously. This is where I see the role of the roaster: doing justice to that effort and helping celebrate the amazing differentiation specialty coffee can offer.

Now’s the time to enjoy all of these efforts to highlight the sweet spot of the Vista al Bosque! With a number of batches under our belt, we’ll be doing our first single origin release this coming Monday 9th. Jump on the web to order yourself a bag of this new release and then it’ll be over to you to do the final dial-in for some tasty brews.

Vista al Bosque

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