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Bean there: Coffee Circle’s brewing and tasting workshop

Posted by Natalie in Events - 15 February 2012

Berlin startup, Coffee Circle, began life in a humble corner of Betahaus.  Two years later, they’re housed in a typically cavernous ex-warehouse office space shared with a handful of similarly youthful businesses. Plenty of room, finally, to host a Gidsy event to share their passion for coffee.

This afternoon’s workshop was led by Robert, one of the three founders of Coffee Circle. The remaining two are currently soaring at speed in a south-westerly direction, bound for the Ethiopian capital, Addis Abbaba, on their annual quest for the best coffees the country has to offer.

Unlike most other coffee traders, Coffee Circle buy direct from growers in Ethiopia. Due to a lack of infrastructure, employment and welfare in the country, people generally have to sustain themselves by growing their own food. Families often club together in cooperatives to farm small plantations, producing some of the world’s best coffee, completely organically.  By cutting out the middle man, the company can source the best coffee and make sure the growers get a fair deal. For every kilo of coffee purchased, Coffee Circle gives €1 back to local development projects. Farmers see the benefits within their community and increase their efforts to produce the best beans, driving up quality of produce for the company and ensuring ongoing investment in local development projects. Hence the name Coffee Circle.

We learnt a great deal about the different coffee producing areas of Ethiopia and the difficulties in finding, getting to, tasting, choosing and eventually purchasing coffee – and that’s before it even gets to the roaster. The process is painstaking, adventurous, competitive (Starbucks is also a major direct purchaser in the region), fascinating and incredibly complicated, requiring expertise at every stage.  Two years down the line, Coffee Circle seem confident in themselves and their product, so it was time to start tasting their fare.

In this spirit of complexity, there were five different coffees to taste and five different brewing methods – far too many variables to elicit a clear winner in both categories without proper scientific process, but more than enough to get us started on the road to coffee connoisseurship.  The coffees included three Coffee Circle products: Limu, espresso and Sidamu; one Square Mile Bolivian filter coffee; and a Kaiser’s common-or-garden filter coffee.

The brewing techniques:

#1 Espresso

A familiar favourite on a particularly impressive La Marzocco machine.  Obviously only the espresso beans were sampled in this test, and we learnt some of the finer points to the barista’s art. It’s called espresso, of course, because of the short brewing time – the water has only a maximum of about 20 seconds to pass through the coffee, so ideally the beans should be finely ground and also need to be roasted for longer during the roasting stage to ensure strength of flavour and aroma.

#2 Drip filter

Another classic and relatively old-fashioned method, the drip filter has been improved by the Japanese invention of adding small ridges to the funnel, which prevent the filter paper sticking to the wall and improve the flow.  The paper must be rinsed by pouring warm water over it before adding the ground coffee, to avoid that papery taste.

#3 The syphon

Also known as a vacuum coffee maker, this method is visually amazing.  It works by varying the temperatures of two connecting vessels, firstly increasing the pressure to force water upwards and then lowering it to allow it to soak back down through the coffee. It’s been around since the 1930s but has recently enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, possibly due to its gimmicky look (apparently it pulls in crowds at events, but I didn’t rate the results – see my verdict below).

#4 Chemex

Much like the drip filter but with thicker paper (which again must be rinsed before use) and a slightly different vessel, the Chemex produces a noticeably smoother cup of coffee by filtering out all the residue. Its diligence as a filter means it does take a while, but the result is well worth waiting for.

#5 AeroPress

Currently a very popular choice of brewer, especially among singletons for whom one cup is just enough, the AeroPress is a quick, simple and highly effective method, even if it does lack the glamour of its contemporaries.  Consisting of two cylinders that create an airtight chamber, the device works much like a syringe.

The verdict

The espresso was perhaps a bad place to start, because it was by far the most overpowering taste and possibly my favourite, though I can’t be sure my views haven’t been influenced by that magnificent machine.  The Sidamu coffee tasted underwhelming from the drip filter but exceptional from the AeroPress, which gave it a cloudy texture and strong taste. Sadly, both the Limu and the Sidamu tasted bitter and burnt through the syphon. The Chemex-brewed coffees were impressive, especially the Square Mile sample, which tasted too fruity for quotidian dosage but perfect for a special occasion.

After all these amazing samples, it was only left to try the supermarket special. I often drink similar coffees and was completely unprepared for the taste that hit my tongue after all the high quality we’d just experienced. To quote one of the other participants, Philip, “it just tastes so… empty”.  Empty indeed, and stale, and bitter and – frankly – awful.

Apparently, in the name of efficiency, supermarkets and other producers of cheap coffee roast their beans at high temperatures for three to five minutes to reduce the roasting time required. In order to get rid of the fruity acid and other toxins, and to preserve a delicate and desirable aroma, beans should be roasted at much lower temperatures for longer – up to 20 minutes or so.  The result of cutting corners during the complex roasting stage is a poor tasting and unhealthy coffee.

So there we have it. Another expensive taste developed in a few short hours. Having said that, coffee is a staple in our household and I’m more than willing to pay the price for high quality, ethical produce, so these few eye-opening hours with Coffee Circle were well worthwhile, as well as highly enjoyable.

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