When catching wind that Laynes Espresso, Leeds were hosting a ‘Cup of Excellence’ night to showcase the best of what Burundi has to offer, it was too much for even the terrible October rain to put me off. On arrival to New Station Street I found people had already started to filter in and were eagerly waiting for the best of Burundi, a country that is growing in stature within the coffee industry and who’s export revenues are 80% coffee. The Cup of Excellence is the highest award offered to only the best coffees so I was well aware that I was going to be trying some great coffees, and who better to host the evening than Laynes Espresso.
After a brief introduction to the processes of what the ‘Cup of Excellence’ required from the farmers and the marking of the coffees, we were down to the tasting. The initial flight of 4 coffees were prepared for the cupping. These coffees were not actually from Burundi and included Guatemala La Esperanza and El Salvador Siberia and put together to demonstrate the standard as they were either current or former Cups of Excellence.
Initially we gently moved the ground coffee around the bowl to encourage some of the aromas of the coffee out. Off the boil water was then added to the coffee to start the brewing process. After 4 minutes brewing time, the crust (which is the ground coffee that has come to the surface covering the brewed coffee) was broken by moving the ground coffee on the surface to release the aromas.
Having moved onto the Burundian coffees, the aromas were best described as ‘honey’ and ‘lemon’. The ‘crust’ (ground coffee) was then removed and the tasting started. Discussion formed around the different flavours between each coffee and how these flavours were developing as the coffees cooled. Descriptors like “milk chocolate”, “peach” and “floral” circulated the room as the coffees developed over time.
Cupping spoons are used to taste the coffee, these spoons are used to take a small amount of the coffee from the cup and for it then to be ‘slurped’ from the spoon. In doing this you are inhaling the coffee with oxygen and also spreading the coffee all over your mouth hitting as many different taste buds as possible.
One of the cups was tainted by a bacterial defect which is fairly common in Burundi and it’s neighbouring coffee growing nations such as Rwanda and Tanzania and is responsible for giving the coffee a strong smell and taste of potato. Although it wasn’t pleasant, it was very interesting to taste this coffee after knowing of this bacterial infection and it was surprising how much the brew actually tasted like potato and that the fact that this can all be down to a single defect coffee bean. Imagine the ‘aroma’ you get when you are cooking potatoes and the taste of the water you drain from the cooked potatoes probably wouldn’t be too far off this taste either. It had totally taken over any of the usual sweet and citrus characteristics of Burundian coffee. The defect, which presents a big problem for this region, is only made apparent after roasting and has seen some good coffees lose out in the Cup of Excellence competition. It is a common process for coffee roasters to squeeze the packed coffee bags and if there is a slight ‘potato’ smell the bags are often discarded.
In all it was a great night and a lot was learnt from Damian of Bolling Coffee and Dave of Laynes Espresso but it was being able to taste the coffees while the discussion was going on that is the real benefit for us personally. Having a group of people all interested in coffee, all cupping at the same time does create a great atmosphere and it works well as others talk of different characteristics that you may have missed, adding a great dimension to learning.
On the whole I really enjoyed the Burundian coffees that I tasted here, they are very well balanced and maintained a good, if not a positive developing taste through the cupping process. It was a great experience to taste some of the best coffees from this relatively unknown country at this time of year, especially when I am already such a fan of Rwandan coffee and they share similar characteristics.
Back out to the rain
On leaving the night we were offered a bag of Santa Isabel from the El Salvador Cup of Excellence 2012 to try at home. I brewed this coffee as espresso and as a V60 filter, it tasted great as both but I preferred this one as a filter as it unearthed more of the bright lemon and lime acidity that I didn’t get so much in the espresso.
If you do catch wind of a similar coffee evening, I would jump at the chance and get yourself there because not only do you get to sample some amazing coffees from around the world, it offers you the chance that very few people have, to line up a selection of great coffees next to each other and compare and contrast helping you to identify the difference between them and share ideas and learn from your peers.
Despite the focus being on the Burundi Cup of Excellence coffees, I have to admit that my personal favourite of the night was actually the El Salvador Siberia Estate washed Bourbon roasted by Has Bean. It has a milk chocolate flavour and a clean sweetness with a slight apple acidity creeping in. That said, it is definitely worth keeping a close eye on Burundi’s coffee and I am really looking forward to trying a lot more of their coffee which I can only imagine is going to get a whole lot better of the next few years.