Sweet Talking


We were lucky to have Four Barrel Coffee host Shrub and a bunch of other Bay Area roasters at their training facility on Friday July 18th to talk all sweet to each other about roasting. I feel that it’s important for roasters to talk about this subject because the type of sweetness that’s in the cup and how it’s articulated has so much to do with the way the coffee was roasted. Also, it’s good to talk about just one characteristic of a coffee sometimes, and then really dig into how you approached that coffee in oder to deal with that characteristic.

There were two tasting sessions. The first session focused on one coffee that had been roasted to 3 different roast levels in order to take a look at the impact of roast level on sweetness. Danny roasted the Kenya Kiriti Kirimahiga ( http://coffeeshrub.com/shrub/coffee/kenya-new-kiriti-kirimahiga-aa ) to City, City +, and Full City roast levels. The sweetness in the cup went from malty, to more candy sweet, to a more vanilla and cocoa sweet with a little bittering from the caramelization. And then we added one other twist, right next to each of the roast levels were unmarked cups of the same coffee with a dime-sized dollop of a simple syrup added. This was a completely blind cupping and not a single person detected that there was a sweetener added to the coffee. With each sweetened coffee it was noted that there was a more weighted mouthfeel, but this could’ve been caused by the lactic acid which was one of the other ingredients in the simple syrup.

This Sweet LadyThis Sweet Lady

One very curious part of this sweetener test was that the flavor and other cup characteristics in both roast extremes changed so dramatically with added sweetener whereas the City+ medium development roast was only slightly changed character-wise. In the City+ roast the sweetness was amplified, but it didn’t change the flavor of the coffee. In the lightest roast, the malty sweetness turned into something much more like fruit juice, resulting in a more orange rather than lemony citrus flavor in the way the sweetness interacted with the acidity. In the darker roast the sweetness became much more syrupy, pronouncing the chocolate notes and muting the bitter roast notes. he terms “syrupy” and “juicy” can pertain to sweetness, but are more heavily associated with mouthfeel.

With there being such little change in the flavor and body of the middle roast, it begs the question about whether this actually represents proper sugar development? The quality of this sweetness was the most fully actualized and most in balance with the acidity and body. I always say that there is no perfect roast of any particular coffee, but if you’re looking solely at sugar development then I would have to argue that this was the “best” roast of this coffee.

Round 2 of tasting was focused on the coffees that the roasters had brought with them. We set all the coffees up on the table blindly again. This was a golden opportunity for roasters to see their coffees next to others’, but also with the added element of trying to pick their coffees out amongst them. We asked each of the roasters to talk about the sweetness of the coffees that they had provided and how they had tried to accentuate it through their approaches to roasting. It was great to hear so many different roasting approaches, especially around the idea of sweetness. You could tell how excited everyone was to hear what other people were doing as well as get the opportunity to share themselves.

There was a great variety of coffees and roasts represented as well. It was a great opportunity to talk about how the coffees all have not just different sweetnesses from one another, but how the roasting differed as well. Jen Apodaca from Blue Bottle brought a really interesting pulped-natural Pacamara which has such a distinct type of sweetness that really is roast sensitive. Listening to how she approaches this coffee as well as continues to adjust that approach told the story of the importance of an active dialogue between a green buyer and the the roasting team.

Sweet D and the Pop-Eyed KidSweet D and the Pop-Eyed Kid

My favorite part of the event was how afterwards there were plenty of folks who kept talking about the coffees that they had tasted, and I heard all sorts of other roasting and sourcing conversations happening. What made me happiest was hearing from all the roasters who said that they can’t wait for the next event like this. A big part of what we do at Shrub is to try to get these conversations happening. It’s so important for roasters to talk about roasting, and we need to continue to be purposeful and intentional with how we include what we do with a coffee in the roaster in how we talk about that coffee with consumers.

I want to thank Four Barrel so much for graciously hosting us, everyone who came out and participated, and Danny, Tom, Erica, Amanda, and the whole Shrub/SM crew who helped make it all happen.


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