Welcome to the third of my detailed London Coffee Festival Saturday Supplements. If you want to know what I made of the festival as a whole, take a look at my round-up. In this series, I’ll be covering individual aspects of the festival. In the first two instalments I’ve looked at all the interesting coffee kit that I came across and written about my coffee experiences. Now it’s the turn of something quite special.
I’ve recently returned from the Pacific Northwest, where I had the pleasure of visiting the likes of Portland’s Either/Or, with its espresso and beverage flights, and Seattle’s Slate Coffee Roasters where I had an amazing, one-on-one coffee tasting flight. To follow that up, I want to tell you about one of the highlights of this year’s Coffee Festival, the excellent La Cimbali sensory sessions.
Located in the main hall, about halfway up on the left-hand side, La Cimbali has always brought innovative ideas to the London Coffee Festival, but this year it surpassed itself with its sensory sessions. These highlighted the impact of taste (and our other senses) on how we perceive coffee and on how the way we prepare coffee can radically change our perceptions.
You can read all about the sensory sessions after the gallery.
The sensory sessions were designed for a maximum of six people and, much like the coffee tasting flight at Slate in Seattle, it took you through a range of different coffee and taste experiences. Led by Rob, La Cimbali’s coffee specialist, and ably assisted by head barista, old friend Matt (of the much-missed Poppy Mae), and their colleague Sarah, the sessions were inspired by Rob’s experiences with beer flights and, in particular, by a coffee tasting flight he had in Portland’s Coffeehouse Northwest.
The same coffee, an Ethiopian Yukaro Limu, was prepared four different ways to illustrate how the preparation method can change the coffee’s taste. I sat in on one of the sessions, perching at the end of the bar rather than taking the place of a paying festival-goer.
Before starting, Rob got us thinking about how we taste and perceive coffee. He had us hold our noses and place a crystalline substance on our tongues. It tasted just like refined, white sugar. However, on releasing our noses, we suddenly realised it was cinnamon, our perception changing as soon as we could smell as well as taste.
Next we had to taste five clear solutions, representing five elements of taste: sweet, salt, bitter and two acids, malic and citric. The idea was to determine which was which. Of the six people, one got all five right, one got just two and the other four got three out of the five. The most common mistake was getting the acids switched round. I didn’t take part, but suspect I wouldn’t have done well: the salt was obvious, but the others tasted very similar to me!
We started on the coffee with a simple espresso shot. This was bright and fruity, unsurprising for an Ethiopian espresso. After a soda back palette cleanser, we moved onto a second espresso, this time using pressure-profiling to vary the extraction. Served in a whiskey nosing glass to accentuate its smell, it was far more acidic than the “simple” espresso shot.
After a different soda back, we moved onto the third preparation method, another espresso, this time extracted at 8 bars of pressure (espresso is normally extracted at 9 bar). It was then cooled in a bath of iced-water, resulting in a drink very different from the first two. Tasting much more tea-like, it had elements of cold brew to it, although much more drinkable. We also tried it with a twist of orange, which had the effect of lifting up the flavour of the coffee.
For the final round, we moved from espresso to filter, the syphon to be precise. This produced a very different, much less intense, coffee. We paired this with a caramel palette cleanser which, as before, really lifted up the coffee.
Although exactly the same bean and the same roast, each of the four preparation methods produced a markedly different drink, which even my notoriously-undiscerning palette could distinguish between. For the record, I much preferred (and would have happily drunk) the straight espresso shot and the syphon, while not much caring for the other two!
Thanks to Rob and his team for letting me sit in on what was an eye-opening (palette-broadening?) experience. Hopefully La Cimbali will run the sensory sessions in future years. If it does, be sure you try one!
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