Highlights from the 2017 SCA Expo, Seattle
Thursday & Friday Roasting Masterclasses
On Thursday and Friday I taught three roasting masterclasses at Ada’s Technical Books, a throwback independent, charming bookstore. In an age when we all too often order books online by default, Ada’s is the kind of place where you can curl up on a couch and get lost in fascinating books for hours in a warm, intellectual atmosphere.
I was thrilled by the level of student participation at the classes, which all sold out. I introduced several exciting new ideas about roasting and roast-curve-data interpretation, and the students asked many great questions. The vibes were fantastic-- so much so that I plan to offer the same class in Budapest in June just before the World of Coffee.
Before the classes we drank some lovely Elixir made from 2014 Kenya Karatu (thanks to the legendary George Howell for supplying me with the frozen green!) and some delicious Colombian Guanacas from Color Roasters, sourced from Red Fox Coffee Merchants, brewed as both Elixir and Chemex.
I even almost enjoyed brewing some Chemexes for the classes, as that was the only option I had available. But come on, Chemex lovers, what’s with the ridiculous filters? They're three-layered on one side, single-layered on the other, reek of chlorine, and if not rinsed for several minutes, they make coffee taste like cardboard. And how about the way the filters often sag into the Chemex spout, slowing the drawdown? Are we supposed to accept those flaws because the Chemex is pretty? I already make that mistake in my dating life -- I don't need to make it in coffee, too :). I know there are workarounds (chopsticks in the spout, rinse the %&$I# out of the filter), but I still have trouble taking that brewer seriously. That said, adding the Rao Spin has made Chemex brewing worlds easier and better.
Thank you to all of you who came to the classes— I sincerely hope you enjoyed them and took home many ideas that help your roasting. I’m grateful as well to Lee Safar for supplying the Elixir and for her help in brewing and cleaning, and to Lorrie Mahieu and Ada’s for the flawless organization and execution. If you attended the classes and would like to offer any feedback, I'm all ears. Feel free to leave a comment here. Thanks.
The Expo Floor
The highlights of the show for me each year are catching up with old friends and seeing new, exciting coffee equipment. Among the most interesting machines were the Vortx EcoFilter and the Ground Control Brewer. I’ve mentioned the Vortx before, and I hope and expect the Vortx will negate the need for afterburners for those using roasters smaller than 15kg. I can’t wait to test drive one soon.
I’m excited about the Ground Control, as it’s the most innovative brewer to appear in years. It’s essentially a batch brewer that chops up a single brew into 1-4 discrete cycles. For example, if you brew a 4-liter batch, you could program the machine to brew 4 one-liter cycles. The machine will dispense one liter of water, agitate the slurry for a programmed amount of time, drain the slurry by vacuum pressure, and then repeat the process three times. Draining the slurry completely and beginning each cycle with fresh water allows for a much higher extraction than is possible with a typical batch brewer. The Ground Control folks were serving 26%—27% extractions throughout the Expo while using a Guatemala grinder with modestly sharp burrs. I can only assume a sharp, properly-aligned EK would have brought the extractions to above 28%.
Some of the brews were lovely: soft and sweet with little hint of overextraction. However, after tasting about 12 batches, it was clear that the brewer was inconsistent… often as much as 10% of the grounds would end up high and dry on the filter wall, the water delivery into the coffee bed was poorly designed for even extraction, and the agitation of the slurry often left the coffee bed quite lumpy during the drawdowns, causing channeling. If the Ground Control folks fix those flaws, the machine will rightly take over the coffee world. Even if they don’t fix those flaws, the machine still produces better coffee than the majority of batch brewers, and the cost savings of 26%+ extractions are compelling. (NB: I brought up all of these points and more to the GC crew last year and decided to wait a year to review the machine, as I didn’t want to be critical without offering them a fair chance to improve the machine first.)
This year the GC crew was more open to feedback than they had been last year, so I’m optimistic they will continue to improve the machine. The bottom line is it’s already an impressive machine, and hopefully will be even better in the future. I was pleased when one of the GC folks noted that two of the best brews they made at the show had been roasted by clients of mine: a Colombian Paraiso from Merit Roasters and Colombian Guanacas from Color Roasters. Those two Colombians were easily the best coffees I tasted at the show as well.
One of the most surprising and ironic things about the Expo each year is how difficult it can be to find delicious coffee. I’m not alone in that opinion— at least 20 people echoed that sentiment to me personally this weekend. I tasted plenty of burnt, underdeveloped, and baked coffees on the show floor. Some of them may have been 88+ point coffees, but their roasting and extraction left much to be desired. None of us are perfect, myself included, but we certainly have a long way to go as an industry.