Fine-tuning the coffee palate, El Salvador
Craig Simon recently returned from visiting one of Veneziano Coffee Roaster’s direct trade partners, Emilio Lopez of Cuatro M Single Origin Coffees and his coffee farm, Finca El Manzano in El Salvador. It wasn’t his first trip there and when you speak to Craig, or Simo as we call him, there is a sense that a great rapport exists between him and Emilio.
Primarily he was on a ‘competition coffee’ seeking expedition, though as he points out, “It’s about much more than trying to find that holy grail of coffee; a competition only lasts 15 minutes, and we need to be able to make and provide great coffee all year round”. Visiting direct trade partners such as Emilio at Finca El Manzano means intense cupping practice for Simo, kind of like cramming in as much as possible before an exam.
As it turns out, he did find his competition coffee there, along with with the additional benefit of putting his palate to the test. This time around, he spent five days cupping an incredible 90 batches of coffee per day. Each batch was cupped as soon as it was brought from the patio or mechanical dryer.
As a licensed Q grader – someone that is qualified to evaluate coffee aroma and flavour profile – he is already well practised in tasting and detecting quality and balance in coffee. Because we are all different, one might expect we won’t always agree on the findings, however the chance to cup many different batches of coffee from the same location means you start to fine-tune your palate’s awareness of the attributes and the subtle differences that are ordinarily difficult to sense.
Needless to say, this also benefits Craig’s role as a roaster, being able to begin the process with an expected level of quality, which he can benchmark against his personal evaluation of each coffee’s attributes after experimenting with various roast settings, hopefully ending up with the best roasting profile for each coffee. If you want to develop your coffee palate, there is no such thing as too much practice. Probably the best way to learn is by cupping in the presence of other people to draw comparisons.
Regarding Emilio and his farm, what interests Simo it is that he’s always experimenting, trying out different techniques and programs, for example he tries different varietals for different seasons’ crops, in case some don’t work out. That way, he can still rely on having produce to sell to make an income.
Emilio is not just a farmer; he is also a miller, which brings in another aspect to the coffee production. Simo likes that he has the confidence to try new things, whether it works or not, because it’s part of the learning process. A lot of farmers do only what they know; information passed down from generation to generation, and aren’t game enough to venture into something new.
Emilio’s farm doesn’t have running water, so either they don’t do the fermentation stage of processing, or they need to use tank water instead for processing. This year he is experimenting with wine enzymes to see how that works out. It will be interesting to see the outcome and any effects on flavour.
Here’s another interesting concept; with Simo’s experience in cupping and having visited El Manzano more than once, he is leaning towards the opinion that whilst altitude and geography are certainly important contributing factors, it’s the entire process that occurs on the farm that influences the flavour of the coffee. His reasoning behind this opinion lies in the fact that Emilio also processes for two smaller farms, and this is obvious in the tasting – the environmental influences are evident on the palate.