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Coffee Chronicles: Higher Palate Education

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Though many people have different ideas of what a career in coffee truly means, it's safe to trust the folks at Counter Culture Coffee to back up their new Professional Coffee Education Series with cup after cup after cup of learning.

The Durham, NC-based roaster hosted a two-day professional workshop earlier this month at their NYC training lab on 26th Street, led by CCC's Director of Coffee/professional raconteur Peter Giuliano. Nearly two dozen cafe owners and baristas gathered from as far and wide as Pittsburgh, Ann Arbor, and Williamsburg to get in on the inaugural two-day Tasting and Technique workshop. And for almost everyone here, it promised to be an eye-opening experience on rethinking and retasting much of what they knew about coffee.

The workshop switched between presentations and applied exercises, giving the coffee people just enough time to absorb concepts before putting them into action. From the easy intro first session on manual brewing tehcniques (and, say, did you know Melitta was a German housewife?) straight into a rigorous strength and extraction workshop, it was clear the class was going to steamroll forward into some truly next-level matter.

Students next dissected the Specialty Coffee Association of America's cupping form, used to evaluate the subjective taste of coffee on a quantitative scale,
and put it immediately into practice. But there's cupping coffee and then there's cupping unroasted coffee all the way through to its roasted state: an amazing exercise I had never done before, and a way to truly taste the transformative effects of heat on a green coffee bean at one-minute increments. Tasting the characteristics of a coffee completely unroasted, and then following through to the exact point in the roast it switches from awkwardly vegetal to sweet and developing was mind and tongue-expanding both.

Of course, cupping unroasted coffee isn't too delicious, but neither is cupping coffee with defects (...yum?), which we also had the opportunity to do. And if that weren't sensory overload: nineteen varieties of coffee hit the table next, from SL-28 to to the widely overhyped Jamaica Blue Mountain. I'm not sure my palate was prepared for this much education all at once, but at least when it became overwhelmed, my eyes and ears were still working.

And who hasn't wanted to squirt pipets of malic acid right into their coffee -- or onto their tongue, for that matter? To break down the characteristics of acids in coffee, we sampled the same coffee over and over again but added small drops of four different acids found within coffee, just like little chemists. (And let me tell you, a few more drops of phosphoric acid and we were about to give the Manhattan Special corporation a run for its money.)

20101222-id-coffee-counterculture-4.jpgBut beyond the intense and rare-to-experience hands-on labs, it was the opportunity to share dialogue with, and work alongside, a diverse group of people from all levels of coffee experience. From bakers to star baristas to people like Giuliano with years of experience at origin, everyone found the same discoveries enlightening, and the same everyday cafe conundrums challenging. Yet even for those for whom serving coffee professionally is not their main concern, the journeys through all of coffee's possibilities was more than edifying: it was inspiring.

Though the class is still being developed for New York and other cities, let's hope extensions of the professionals-only series evolve for coffee enthusiasts as well—everyone should have the chance to taste a potato-flavored defective coffee bean, after all.

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