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At the beautiful Marquee hotel, right beside the Parque Lleras (Lleras’ Park), you can engage in the coffee experience. I must admit I was not entirely sure what to expect when I first signed up for this.
I believe I entered it with a level of confidence that was not accurate. I was a barista (and a barista trainer) at Starbucks in New Jersey. Having conducted a Starbucks-level taste testing, I thought I knew how this one would go.
For anyone unfamiliar with the Starbucks tasting experience these are the basics:
We gave new Starbucks employees freshly brewed black coffee. They would first sniff it and then slurp it. After they had done so I would ask them what they thought of it?
Most of the teens would firmly state that they hated it! And, I always consoled them by saying, “no one drinks coffee this way.”
While this is true, most people do drink their coffee with milk, sugar, and ice (in America). It does not necessarily have to or should be drunk this way. As our coffee tasting guide, Javier, told us, “you are just covering up the flavor of the coffee.” Which is not indicative of quality.
What is indicative of quality? How can you tell what a good, high-quality cup of coffee is? Let’s find out!
The coffee tasting experience is an informative and fun event you can enroll in at the Marquee Hotel. You do not need to be staying here to enjoy this experience, but it is definitely something you should do if you stay here.
The coffee tasting experience is hosted by Javier who is a coffee aficionado at the Marquee’s cafe. He explained to my boyfriend and me that coffee is very much like wine. The coffee tasting experience was invented to help elevate people’s opinions and ideas of coffee.
Similar to wine, coffee is aged and fermented. Based on the quality of the starting ingredients you can have a flavorful and fresh experience or a stale burnt experience. But, it all starts with the bean itself.
In some ways, it starts even earlier than this. It does not matter what type of bean you grow if it is grown in a bad environment. Although Arabica beans tend to have better flavors overall compared to Robusta, the reason for this may surprise you.
Robusta is grown at lower altitudes and in less ideal environments. These conditions make it robust since it can thrive where other coffee plants struggle. But, it is not the best tasting coffee. Coffee gets better tastes and notes the higher the altitude it is grown at. This is what we call “Arabica”.
Everything impacts the quality of the coffee bean. This includes the amount of water the tree receives and the level of nutrients in the soil. So, even if you start with the best variety of beans, you won’t get good results in a poor growing environment.
All of these factors impact your experience. The Coffee tasting at the Marquee will help you obtain a more discerning tongue and feel like a tasting pro!
Overall, you will feel comfortable. But you will probably also feel like you don’t know what you’re talking about. Don’t feel bad, this is totally normal.
Coffee is one of the least understood beverages on the planet that people drink every day. Many people do not view coffee as a refined drink. And, if they do, they tend to think of lattes and such as “refined”. So, don’t feel bad if you feel like plain, black coffee is not a refined drinking experience.
The event will walk you through the entire coffee growing, harvesting, fermenting, roasting, grinding, and brewing experience. And, you may be asked questions about coffee you’ve never thought of before. Perhaps you will find some coffees that are alarmingly light, yet flavorful.
For anyone in America, we often think of light roasts as “weak” and dark roasts as “bold”. Be prepared to change your mind.
The whole setting helps to set this mood. We had our coffee tasting experience in the private room of the Marquee. It looked similar to a nice bar but was designed for coffee.
Sometimes they hold this tasting on the rooftop. I can’t speak from experience, but from what our coffee teacher told us, it is a very lovely setting.
After a brief introduction and greeting with Javier, you will be presented with various bowls of beans. This is the viewing portion of the presentation.
An important list to review before proceeding are the steps of coffee production. These include:
We will deep dive into this list as we go. But for now, it’s a good aid as we proceed.
During the viewing stage, we were presented with several bowls. Each had a different type of seed (or fruit) to present. That’s right, I said fruit!
Well, for those who don’t know, coffee is a fruit. It grows as a small reddish cherry on a small tree (it’s really more like a bush). This fruit is incremental in the coffee’s flavor profile. All throughout the development of the cherry, the seed (aka coffee “bean”) is in contact with this fruit.
The sugars and flavors help you create the semi-sweet citrus notes we taste in our coffee. This flavoring comes through to the bean during the growing and fermentation process.
There are three major fermentation/drying methods.
In wet regions such as Colombia, it is hard to rely solely on the sun drying method. In dry countries such as Ethiopia, sun drying is still very popular. This process creates a fresh, light, and fruity-tasting coffee many of us associate with African coffees.
In Colombia, the most popular method is the mixed method. This is where they remove the outer fruit but leave some of the fruit on the outside of the seed. They allow it to ferment for a few days, and they then machine dry the bean.
The machine helps combat the wet environment of the country. The other option, where they remove the fruit entirely and machine dry the bean, is the most popular all over the world. It creates the uniform experience we all associate with coffee. But, it also strips away much of the beautiful variety.
Now that you understand the basics of harvesting and fermentation, let’s move on to the experience!
The visual portion of this event was fascinating to me. Javier placed several cups before us with various beans in different stages of fermentation and roasting.
In this stage of the class we were simply told a little bit about the process I explained above. The coffee bean is much lighter than a fully roasted bean.
Learning to properly view coffee beans was a hard one for me. Having spent a while at Starbucks I believed an oily bean was an indication of quality.
I was wrong!
The oil indicates age. And, the more oil, the older it probably is. Because the oils seep out as it sits on the shelf.
Similar to the viewing portion of the experience, the smell was unique. I remember after we tried the coffee I was surprised based on the scent.
The coffee I thought I’d love based on the scent I actually did not like. And the one I hated when I smelled it I ended up really enjoying after drinking.
People often complain that coffee smells better than it tastes. This is really only true if you do not like the taste of coffee. But, the reason the scent is often different from the taste is rooted in the fermentation and roasting process.
The next portion of the experience is the grinding of the beans. It is during this part that you start to smell the difference between the exterior of the bean and the interior.
The grinding process starts to draw out the natural oils of the flavor notes. This grinding helps to blend the citrus flavors with the chocolate tones many coffees have.
We smelled 4 samples which we’ve been smelling this whole time. It was during this time that the one I singled out as my favorite was starting to smell stale.
Javier poured boiled water over the coffee grinds. The first two which initially felt were old and dry started to smell fresh and flavorful.
Meanwhile, the one I felt would be a great Italian blend smelled old and stale. I remember I felt it smelled a little like wet cardboard.
The process involves taking a small teaspoon and brushing it gently over the surface. I noticed the one I thought was a good Italian blend did not have any oils on top and the grounds all sunk to the bottom.
Meanwhile, the other two I thought were weak, had a lovely oily coating and plenty of fatty grounds flavoring on top. I learned that this was one of the key indicators of quality in a bean.
Last we have the tasting experience! This is one of the best parts of the event, in my opinion.
Again, you take your little teaspoons and start to brush aside the coffee grinds on the surface. When you brush these aside you will be able to access the coffee and scoop it onto your teaspoon.
I really felt like this would not be a pleasant experience. I felt certain the grinds would get on my spoon and create a very chewy experience. Luckily, this was not the case.
Surprisingly, brushing aside the grinds on the top made a fairly clean surface. Then you would taste it.
The first part of the tasting experience requires you to slurp it rather loudly off of the spoon. This helps enable all aspects of your tasting system, including your nose, to be engaged. This allows you to taste all aspects of the flavor profile.
After this, you would simply drink it normally off the spoon. This gives a more balanced and regular experience that is not as intense as the first slurp.
Similar again to a wine tasting, when you sip your coffee you should experience subtle flavor notes. When you allow the coffee to settle over your tongue your body will experience a variety of sensations.
If the coffee is not overly roasted, you should taste hints of fruits and chocolate. Depending on the bean, you may experience these flavors more intensely than others.
The range of coffees you taste may surprise you. It definitely surprised me. As Javier pointed out, most Americans are accustomed to the simple “dark, medium, and light” roast profiles.
A coffee that floats over your tongue and shares its multiple notes without masking them is an honest coffee. As you taste it in every part of your mouth, the various fruity, rich, and unique profiles all combine for a tasteful experience.
One of the key indicators of high-quality coffee is the amount of “covering up” that’s engaged in. I know most “true coffee drinkers” in the states believe that their hot drip coffee with light sugar and cream is “real coffee”.
But, these are all levels of masking. Just like a white mocha is masking the burnt taste of over-roasted, poor-quality espresso, so too is your milk and sugar.
True quality is based on the level of care that goes into the bean every step of the way. Most beans are not given this level of care. Rather, they experience masking and coverups.
As Javier pointed out, you can like your coffee however you enjoy it. But, quality is an objective fact. If you enjoy a wine that is diluted and painted with sugar no one would say you like fine wines. It is the same with coffee.
In reality, the flavor we all know and love is not the true flavor of the coffee. If you travel anywhere throughout the United States you won’t be disappointed in the predicted flavor. Generally, people expect to receive dark, intense, and bitter liquid in a cup.
As many a middle-aged man would request at Starbucks, “just give me hot brown liquid in a cup.” This is what people expect and this is somehow a relatively uniform experience throughout the west. The reason for this is it is usually roasted so heavily that it is burnt!
This is because you are dealing with low-quality beans. As a result, you just burn it so the flavor always tastes familiar. And then we all cover up this burnt flavor with cream and sugar. As Javier said, there is no issue if this is the flavor you like. But, you can’t argue that this is quality.
At the close of our experience, he gave us some things to consider the next time I purchase a $7 latte. Do I pay for the quality of the coffee beans? Or, am I paying for all the milk and sugar it takes to cover up the poor quality of the bean?
Again, everyone should drink what they like! Everyone likes soda but no one would argue it is a refined drink. The same goes for poor and high-quality coffee beans. High-quality beans can be an elevating experience and I truly urge you to come to the Marquee and experience it for yourself!
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