25 May 2016

Coffee, Cupping and Cocktails with The Roastery Department

I've long been a fan of the cafes in the small but growing Department of Coffee and Social Affairs empire. There are nine now, in various locations from Piccadilly to Spitalfields, each serving speciality coffee. Last year, they launched their own roasting department called — you guessed it — The Roastery Department, who organised a coffee cupping and cocktail event for bloggers last week. The invitation was a bag of Costa Rican beans; how cool is that?

We gathered in the newly refurbished basement of the Spitalfields Department of Coffee, where we were welcomed by Department of Coffee CEO Ashley Lopez, Roastery Department head roaster Dumo Mathema and account manager Thom Bevan-Jones, as well as Bertie Sewell from green-coffee trader, Schluter Coffee.

Bertie talked about the importance of building good relationships with farmers and producers in order to secure the best quality beans in a sustainable way (the 'social affairs' aspect of the Department is just as important as the 'coffee'). Dumo then gave us a whistle-stop tour of coffee-processing techniques, from washed and natural to honey-processed (which doesn't actually involve honey; it just refers to the sticky, sugary substance that surrounds the coffee seed after the pulp is removed). Changing the processing method can alter the flavour of the coffee considerably, as can all the other variables, including the roasting itself. There are computer programs that can help you determine the best roast profile for a particular coffee, but when you have a guru like Dumo, you don't need them.

I've done a few cupping sessions and I still need a lot more practice, but each time, I learn a little more. Dumo showed us how to sniff the freshly roasted dry coffee grounds, then add hot water and sniff again. Next, we had to break the crust — piercing the thick layer of grounds floating on the surface of the water with a spoon and dragging backwards. After scooping away the grounds, it was finally time to perfect our slurps; not the most glamorous skill in the world, but it was kind of fun. Slurping just requires you to take a small spoonful of coffee and to slurp it back as hard as you can, ideally spraying the coffee across your palate to really appreciate those subtle notes. As it was an evening event, spittoons were provided (what did I just say about glamour?), but I have long since acquired the ability to drink coffee all day and night without any impact on my sleep.

Armed with an SCAA flavour wheel, we had to guess which coffee was processed using which technique and to describe the flavour profiles. The flavour wheel includes terms like 'rubber', 'skunky' and even 'onion', which, in case you hadn't guessed, aren't usually signs of a good coffee. 'Strawberry', 'jasmine' and 'chocolate', on the other hand, may be more appealing, depending on your taste in coffee.

I always say that my favourite coffees come from Central America — I'm partial to Costa Rican and Guatemalan varieties, in particular — yet whenever I do a blind tasting, it's usually the African varieties that I prefer. The natural-processed Ethiopian Sidamo, which was fruity and sweet, ended up being my favourite. The Roastery Department arranged some fantastic goodie bags for us, which included a bag of freshly roasted Sidamo beans; it's been tasting great brewed in my Hario cold brew maker.

After the cupping, it was time for a nightcap. Two, in fact. We tried a couple of different cold-brew cocktails, one involving vodka and ginger, and one with a delicious rum from Hackney-based Pirate's Grog. The rum was the perfect complement to the cold brew and, as we received a small bottle of it in our goodie bags, I made a fab mojito at the weekend. The bottle also looks cooler on my bar cart than Bacardi!

Engagement and advocacy is a big part of the Roastery Department's mission. They run a training school and hold cupping sessions, and it's clear that the whole team are really passionate about making speciality coffee accessible to a broad range of people: you don't have to be a coffee snob to enjoy a well-made, high-quality cup of coffee, after all.

I had a really fun evening — thanks again to The Roastery Department and the Department of Coffee for having me. It was also lovely to see some coffee-blogger friends and to meet a few new ones — I spent hours talking (coffee) shop with Jess from Eating East, Dan from Cups of London Coffee, Jamie from Bean There and Tayler from GRE&D.

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