I’m a complete caffeine addict.
I have been since working as an office junior, and by the time I was in my early 20s when I’d worked my way up to team secretary in an insurance firm, I’d earned the nickname ‘two scoops’, as I drank my coffee, strong, black with two spoons full of instant in my mug (I must admit to being curious to see if the person who coined that nickname, reads the blog).
Not much has changed. I’ve learned to take a long step away from instant and have both a V60 and an Aeropress in my caffeine armoury, but I still like it strong, rich, and the coffee equivalent of a slap in the face.
And in Manchester we’re lucky, we have a massive coffee culture. Bigger than in Italy according to a recently transferred academic colleague. We not only have the usual chain coffee shops, but we have a multitude of independents, and we have our own roasteries too – Passionfruit in Chorlton, Mancoco in the city centre, Ancoats in, er, Ancoats and from the chap who also created Coffee Circle, comes his partnership based in the Green Quarter Heart & Graft.
I first met James last year, when we shared a coffee in Grindsmiths in the Green Quarter, back when Heart & Graft was but a twinkle in James’ eye. Now it’s not only up, running and producing fantastic coffee with partner in roasting Sean, it was also, along with Artwork Greengate to co-host the the launch of the Northern Independent Coffee Guide, the go-to guide for anyone wanting to find independent and artisan coffee shops and roasters.
As part of the launch, there was to be a cupping competition – competitors had to use an Aeropress to produce the coffee, the beans were supplied by Heart & Graft, a minimum yield of 180ml was required and competitors had a set time to produce their coffee in.
It sounded fantastic, and then nerve-wracking when James asked me to be one of the judges.
Confession 1: I’d never judged a coffee competition before.
Confession 2: I’d never cupped coffee before. Ever.
So. No pressure then. Of course I didn’t confess any of the above, because when they asked, I had no idea what it would really involve. I was then rather grateful when two bags of coffee beans arrived. I had an opportunity to review, and an opportunity to practice.
As with anything – wine, tea, beer, whisky, gin – tasting is different to drinking. I still enjoy the flavour when I make a mug of coffee, I still taste the flavours, but ‘tasting’, or cupping in this case, involves passing as much air as possible over the coffee. So, just as with wine, you slurp, mouth open.
This I can do.
I brewed with the lighter of the two beans first – the packets come not only with their name and origin, but also with tasting notes, making it easy for you to work out what you should find on the palate flavour wise.
At home with my V60 (effectively a one-cup drip filter method) I still created a heavier brew than we’d try on the night, but the lemon acidity was there as a high note on the coffee, balanced out by a deeper toffee and though I didn’t get nectarine, I certainly got a fruitiness from the coffee.
Unsurprisingly, the Brazilian coffee offered both a darker bean and a darker roast – but far from being overly heavy and smoky (as some Brazilian coffee can be) this offered rounder flavours, more like a sticky toffee pudding.
More brewing, more practice. I took freshly ground beans to work to try in my own Aeropress, though with infinitely less skill than those who would take part in the cupping on the night. And so, as the Friday approached, I sipped a little Dutch courage (OK, maybe not gin, maybe wine in Salut with the girls beforehand) and took myself off to judge.
Artwork was full of the coffee glitterati (Cofferati? Caferati?). Coffee fans, geeks, baristas, lovers were all there, sampling cocktails and pizza from Redbank, as well as coffee in all it’s forms. I believe I spotted a doughnut or two.
Taking up my spot behind the trolley-cum-podium, I grabbed my spoon and we began.
In round one I was relieved to note there was a clear difference between the coffees produced. One tasted heavily of the roasted flavours, the second was lighter, with a little more acidity and fruitiness. I’d already been informed by James that the coffee had a distinct fruit flavour, that of cherry tomatoes, so that’s what I searched for, along with a good balance between roasted flavours and acidity.
Round by round the challengers progressed – I was of course quietly rooting for the local baristas from Manchester, but as each cup was presented to us blind, I had to cross my fingers and concentrate on slurping.
As time went on, I felt more confident. I could, even though they were made similarly, the same beans, the same water, tell the difference between each cup. I didn’t know what part of their technique had created the different flavours – perhaps the length of time the water was in with the ground beans, or the temperature of the water – but I knew what was more pleasing and what wasn’t. Though it often took me several slurps to get there.
We finally reached our two finalists and it was tense. The two cups were placed before us, and we took our turns to sample, re-sample and decide. Even in the moments ahead of us being asked to select a winner, I changed my mind three or four times.
We were asked to point, and we did. It was unanimous.
Manchester, specifically Greg from Grindsmiths was our winner.
Manchester proved itself, and I held my own. I went home with a big grin on my face, and next day celebrated with another cup of coffee.
Chaps, I might need to order some more….
With huge thanks to James and Sean for the coffee, their expertise and for letting a fumbling amateur take part.