My early career was in teaching, writing, producing and directing for theatre, comedy and impro shows. Now I'm a professional creative person. Mostly high-end branding, strategy, writing, editing and digital content creation.
Coffee, in this writer's opinion, is one of the pleasures that makes life worth living. If I could live on coffee and not have to eat or drink anything else to stay healthy and survive, that would be okay with me. That could just be the coffee talking. I've had quite a few today; but not just any coffee. I was lucky enough to taste what is currently considered by those who know their espresso from their affogato to be the best in the world right now.
Founder of the eponymous stores and roasteries, Dean Merlo hosted a delicious tasting of three beautiful coffees, including this year's 'Cup of Excellence' winner and Merlo's Bean of the Month for December, Brazil Mandembo, at their Bowen Hills store. He and his team took us through the process 'Cup of Excellence' judges use to determine which coffees are the best in the world each year.
Dean Merlo (in blue shirt, second from R) has a lifelong passion for coffee.
What is the 'Cup of Excellence'? The Alliance for Coffee Excellence (ACE) is the peak international body for coffee producers. Each year they hold the Cup of Excellence - the most prestigious competition and award for high quality coffees. Each coffee producer may enter a crop for free, but they may only enter one. The result is the world's best coffee growers sending their best beans of the year in to bat for the awards, with thousands considered and tasted by the judges.
ACE says, "The competition is rigorous, with cupping evaluations conducted over a three-week process by industry experts: first by a National Jury of about a dozen qualified jurors from the origin country, and then by an International Jury, comprised of approximately 20-25 experienced jurors from around the world. A competition with 300 entries yields an average of 9,000 analysed cups, with each "Top 10" coffee being cupped at least 120 times."
What happens at a 'Cupping'? The conditions under which coffee can be 'cupped' for judging are very strict. Each grind is of the same coarseness, and even the temperature of the water they use to steep the coffee is uniform – a balmy 93 degrees Celsius.
Judges will assess each coffee without knowing its origins. They first swirl the dry coffee grinds the way a wine judge swirls a glass, and they smell the dry product. They're looking for the initial aroma of the grind. They then pour over the water and allow it to steep for three minutes exactly. During this time the coffee floats to the top and forms a crust.
The next phase of cupping sees tasters using a spoon to move the crust aside, and with their noses very close to the water, they smell the wet product. After assessing the wet aroma, the crust is removed entirely and tasters will, using spoons and spittoons, slurp the coffee. Slurping allows airflow over the drink to help the judges thoroughly taste all of the nuanced flavours in the coffee.
Like wine, coffee has many notes, aromas and flavours. There's even a tasters' wheel to help novices identify a coffee's flavour profile. You may taste or smell fruity notes, flavours of chocolate, nuts, sweets or flowers.
Flavours develop due to so many factors, including the climate and altitude where the trees are grown. The soil and rainfall, the colour of the cherry when picked, how the cherry is treated once picked and the roasting process all affect flavour. That's all before you consider coarseness of grind, water temperature, the method of making the coffee or type of machine you use and finally whether or not you add sugar or milk (two big no-nos if you're judging a coffee, but just fine if you're a consumer).
Coffee connoisseurs have long known the way you brew affects flavour and Merlo is actually offering customers the chance to taste the difference with 'Coffee Three Ways'.
Not really. In fact, it's very, very nice! Nine of Merlo's torrefaziones in southeast Queensland are now offering Coffee Three Ways, allowing you to taste the bean of the month prepared classic espresso style, as a V60 pour over, and through Aeropress immersion.
If you're really into coffee, you'll be amazed at the big differences brewing methods make to the taste of the exact same product. It might also help you choose which method you'd like to use when making your own coffee at home.
Which coffees did we taste at the cupping event?
Dean Merlo and his team treated us to three amazing coffees, all with their own distinct flavours and smells. There was Ethiopa Kembata, Jamaica Blue Mountain, and the Cup of Excellence winner for this year, Brazil Mandembo.
Ethiopia Kembata is a great coffee if you like fruity, sweet flavoured tastes with full body and fresh acidity. It's a quality, high altitude coffee grown in the mountainous Kembata region, south-west of Addis Abba which is the capital of Ethiopia.
Jamaica Blue Mountain coffee is considered to be one of the rarest and finest single origin coffees and as a result, it's the most expensive. It has a rich taste and gorgeous aroma. Its flavour is sweet and floral with medium acidity. The result is a well rounded and balanced coffee.
The unroasted beans are usually green, blue, yellow or orange.
Can you imagine a coffee with flavours of sweet chocolate, honey, and vanilla, with a creamy body, refined acidity and the aroma of tropical fruit and green tea? That's what you get with Brazil Mandembo. Like all Cup of Excellence winners, after its award was announced, there was a flurry of online bidding from the world over to secure beans. Merlo was one of the very fortunate few who were able to buy Brazil Mandembo, making December's Bean of the Month at Merlo very exclusive indeed!
Though most people agreed the Cup of Excellence winner was the tastiest, which coffee is the best is really down to your individual taste. Some people prefer more acidity and fruity notes in their coffee, others like creamier, chocolaty notes and sweetness. No matter which flavour you like best, you can find them all in the Merlo stores around Australia.
Thanks Dean and the Merlo team for sending me home with some of the Bean of the Month!