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Coffee Tasting in Antigua

Written by Jared on March 21, 2012

Coffee ready to be tasted.

Date: Saturday, March 3, Antigua
Types of Coffee Tasted: 7
Cups of Coffee Drank: 9
Number of spitoons used: 4

A couple weekends ago we headed up the road to Finca Filadelfia, a local coffee plantation that offers tours and lessons in the fine art of coffee tasting. Accompanying us are our two friends Whitney and Amanda, visitors from Seattle, and our new friend and fellow Global Visionaries volunteer Melissa.

It promised to be both an energetic and educational afternoon spent sampling coffee like the pros and learning a thing or two about how Guatemalan coffee farms operate.

Our transportation to and from the coffee plantation.

Our chariot awaits! Most likely an out-of-service military vehicle, Filadefia has a convoy of these trucks used to shuttle visitors from Antigua to the farm, 15 minutes north of the city. It was a bumpy ride, but we've grown to accept that from the streets of Antigua.

The entrance to the coffee plantation.

Coffee production started on the farm in 1864. Filadelfia currently holds 750 acres, 250 of which are used for growing coffee. Above, sight of the main entrance tells us it's almost time for coffee!

Bushes of coffee plants.

Along the way we pass fields of coffee plants. For those who have no idea where coffee comes from - it grows as berries from the bushes above. The coffee is picked by hand when the berries turn red. Inside the berry is a seed that will eventually become a coffee bean after going through a lengthy process of sorting, cleaning, fermenting, drying, grading and roasting.

The coffee tasters chart.

Once we find our way to the coffee tasting room, we're shown several diagrams such as the coffee tasters flavor wheel above. Apparently coffee tasting is big business. Our first lesson is about the importance of coffee tasters (known as cuppers) in the process of buying and selling bulk coffee. They represent the middle-man in the equation, responsible for correctly representing the coffee to potential buyers.

A bag of un-roasted raw coffee.

Our first task of the day is to roast coffee. Pictured above is a bag of raw (green) coffee. It has been processed, dried and is ready for roasting.

Firing up the roaster.

Our fearless guide shows us the coffee roasting machine. Specially built for coffee tasting, it's capable of simultaneously roasting five small batches of coffee. He walks us through the steps of lighting the gas and ensuring the temperature will be consistent in all of the roasting drums.

Amanda checks for the proper roasting temperature.

Amanda demonstrates the method for checking that the roaster is preheated. Yep, stick your finger in the hole. If you can only stand to have it in there for a second, it's ready.

Smelling the beans.

While the coffee roasts, we use long metal spoons to grab a sample so we can see the color changing and start to smell the aromas. It also helps if you look like you know what you're doing while all this is going on.

Kobus checking the beans while they roast.

The coffee roasts for 9 or 10 minutes, and we check it constantly. You know its done when it starts to pop, sort of like popcorn. For a medium roast you pull it out ten seconds after the first couple pops you hear. For a dark roast you wait until its popping like crazy.

Kobus dumps the coffee.

Kobus dumps out our dark roast. Our guide wanted to show us what happens when you roast good coffee too long. Apparently all of the coffee I've been buying at the store has been roasted into oblivion. He asserts many times that a medium roast is the best for good quality coffee, a dark roast is the way that manufacturers hide imperfections in the coffee.

Medium vs dark roast.

Here you can see a comparison between the medium and dark roasts. The dark roast on the right looks like what I'd buy at the store. The medium roast on the left looks like a box of split peas. Again, our instructor tells us we will much prefer the medium roast. I remain skeptical.

Grinding the coffee.

Once the coffee beans have cooled down a bit, and we clean the chaff out, the time for coffee tasting is almost upon us. We take turns grinding a small amount of the seven different types of coffee we'll be trying.

Jessica is ready for the tasting.

I think Jessica is ready to get this show on the road.

We set the table with two cups and one box of coffee for each station. In between each type of coffee is a glass of water for rinsing our tasting spoons so as to avoid cross-contaminating the flavors.

Fortunately the table spins, sort of like a giant granite lazy susan, so all we have to do is sit still and wait for the brew to come to us.

While we wait we pepper our host with questions about the coffee and how production on the farm works. It turns out they sell half of their coffee internationally, and used to sell to Starbucks until two years ago when they switched to a Japanese company.

Making the coffee.

We leave the making of the coffee up to the professional, although it is very simple. A spoon or two of coffee goes in the cup, and its topped off with near-boiling purified water. No presses, filters or machines, just straight up coffee and water, grounds and all.

While we're waiting for the coffee to sit and think about what it's done, we cleanse our pallets by drinking a glass of water and chasing it with a tablespoon of sugar.

The table is set.

We have seven types of coffee to taste test. Four types have already been roasted and comprise the bulk of what is sold by the plantation. Three we roasted: the dark roast, the medium roast and a "blend". The blend is a combination of a low and high grade of coffee, meaning there are imperfections some beans that may mess up the flavor a bit, so they are "diluted" with good coffee.

Our mission is to choose the best coffee in the bunch. One of the selections is the highest grade coffee that Filadelfia sells, so our goal is to correctly pick that coffee from the rest.

Our guide shows us how it's done.

And the tasting begins! I did mention it's tasting right? That doesn't mean swallowing, it means spitting. Our teacher takes us through the routine which starts by swishing your spoon through the coffee and smelling. The idea isn't to stir up the coffee, it's to break the film on top and smell what comes out.

Whitney takes a sniff of the spoon.

Whitney puts on her best "I know what I'm doing" face while she moves on to part two of the coffee tasting - smelling the spoon.

Amanda slurping up the coffee.

The actual tasting of the coffee is a fairly unglamorous affair. The idea is to keep your teeth closed and suck really hard. You want to aerate the coffee in your mouth so it hits all of your tongue immediately.

Whitney spits out the coffee.

And then, as Whitney so gracefully demonstrates, you spit. You don't want to keep the coffee in your mouth for more than a second or two, you're just after that first impression and then its into the bucket. After spitting, the table spins, you rinse your spoon and move on to the next sample.

Finished tasting.

We repeated this process twice for each cup of coffee. We're told that it's important to try two cups of the same coffee to rule out any differences between the two. Everyone unanimously agreed that the over-roasted coffee was the worst, bitter, acidic and generally nasty. Although, as our guide pointed out, it would be a perfect roast to mix with milk, ice and chocolate.

In the end a few of us were able to guess the "best" coffee on the table. Turns out I might have a future in this field if the whole software development thing doesn't pan out.

The cafe on the plantation.

After the tasting we enjoy a shot of espresso, and then head over the restaurant/cafe to grab a cup of the highest grade coffee that we tasted. Except this time there was no spitting, thankfully.

On the way home in the bus.

Two or three cups of coffee later and it was back into the war machine for our return to Antigua, feeling highly educated and overly caffeinated.

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