Curious and caffeinated at the Coffee Science Center

I love coffee. Let me say that louder for those in the back: I LOVE COFFEE. Coffee is so essential to my daily existence that I have trouble functioning without it (I blame grad school for starting this habit BTW). But despite me loving coffee so much, I actually don’t know that much about it. My greatest coffee-related achievements so far are having my very own French press (thanks again Danes and Mikey!) and blade grinder (yay I can buy whole beans instead of ground!), and knowing that I should let the coffee brew for only 4-5 minutes. So you can imagine my joy when I found out about the Coffee Science Center (coffee and science! My two favorite things!) offered the Coffee Sensory Workshop for beginners.

The Coffee Science Center (CSC)is the result of SGD Coffee’s Coffee Heritage Project – a private initiative they started in 2009 to get Philippine coffee on the map as one of the best coffees in the world. True to its name, the CSC is a place of learning. Students get an in-depth look at coffee from plant to cup, with stops in between to discuss the importance (or not?) of origin, how to tell if a bean is good, how to grind the beans, and other fun stuff nerdy java junkies will love. It’s the kind of information that you can normally only get through years of experience as a coffee buyer, barista, cafe owner, and/or coffee roaster.

I attended the Coffee Sensory Workshop last January 14 with a clean palate (no garlic rice or longganisa for breakfast!) and high hopes for my learning experience. The CSC is located inside SGD Coffee’s branch along Maaalahanin St. in Teachers Village, Quezon City. I felt like I was in a hipster chemistry lab, with yakal wood bar counters and stools and shiny tools of the trade displayed on the shelf or on the counter. There was even a whiteboard for lectures!

We met Rich Watanabe, our instructor for the morning and Coffee Specialist for the CSC. Rich has been practically everything in the coffee business: buyer, retailer, trader, specialty farm practitioner, and roaster, but today, he was master to a bunch of coffee noobs. He and CSC Director and co-teacher Romm Baluyot presented us with eight bags of coffee and had us choose four to taste. Our group chose SGD Coffee’s beans from Sagada, Starbucks’ Kenyan beans, Craft Coffee Revolution’s Yirgacheffe (Ethiopia) beans, and Cafe de Lipa’s ground barako.

Rich started off with the packaging. Note the differences between them – SGD uses a brown paper bag with a corn-based film lining (completely biodegradable!), Cafe de Lipa uses a standard foil bag, Starbucks has a foil bag with a lock and valve so you can smell the coffee, and Craft uses a brown paper bag with a seal. Of course we asked if the type of packaging material affects storage but Rich just said that we’d get to that later. Onward then!

Rich then had us look at the beans. Do the beans have a smooth or wrinkled surface? Broken beans? Empty shells? Cracks? Holes in the bean? Discolored beans? A coffee bean’s surface is supposed to be smooth. The ones with wrinkled surfaces came from overripe coffee cherries that fell from the plant but were still picked up and harvested. Broken beans and empty shells, cracks, and holes in the beans are evidence of infestation by the coffee borer beetle. The beetle lays its eggs inside the coffee seeds (AKA the beans) and the hatched larvae eat the beans. Rich says that some imperfections are okay, as he considers it proof that not a lot of chemicals were used. As for the discolored beans, these are unripe beans that were still included in the roasting.

Coffee beans are sold in “lots” of 300 kg each, but buyers take a sample of 300 g, or around 300 beans. They then count the beans and separate out the rejects. Too many reject beans in the sample and they’re not going to buy the lot.

Main takeaway: don’t buy ground beans as there’s no way for you to tell if the beans are good. It’s a chance for unscrupulous sellers to sneak in unripe, overripe, and otherwise reject beans.

Look at these SGD beans from Sagada!

Aside from the “looks test”, we also did the “sound test” on the beans. We each took a handful of beans and slowly dropped them into a ceramic bowl, and compared the sound that the various beans made. A higher -pitched sound means that the beans are emptier or less dense than those that made a lower-pitched sound. Yes, there were differences in the beans!

Next came the grinding. Rich promoted using a manual flat burr grinder (which is what they use in SGD) because the grind size is more consistent, the oil and flavors are squeezed out, and the grinds don’t toast. If we couldn’t get a flat burr, then get a conical burr instead. He vetoed electric blade grinders because they cut the beans randomly so produce grounds of different sizes. Chopping the beans at high speeds also produces friction (and thus heat) that toasts the granules and the toasted shell prevents the extraction of the grounds. I’m going to have to save up for a burr grinder

Then came the brewing. Rich recommended using regular mineral water for your coffee. Distilled water is too “clean”, while alkaline water just tastes horrible with coffee (remember that coffee is inherently acidic). For French presses, pour the water just after it boils.

Rich also told us to look out for the “bloom”, AKA the layer of grounds that float at the top. A thick bloom means that the beans are fresh, while a thin bloom means the beans are stale or getting there. However, there’s no standard for bloom height. You can only compare a coffee’s freshness against itself (e.g. the beans were stale the last time but are fresh this time).

This batch is very fresh 😀

After 45 seconds of brewing, break the “crust” of grounds and stir (careful with the metal spoon against the glass press!). How long you brew the coffee depends on how strong you want it: three minutes gets you a lighter brew, four minutes is “just right”, and five minutes is a stronger brew. Any longer than that and you get a bitter, undrinkable mess as the grounds are overextracted and more acid comes out. Yes, I speak from experience.

Then finally, my favorite part: drinking the coffee! A science tip for tasting coffee: suck it in, don’t sip. Yes, with a slurping sound. According to Rich, the air separates the flavonoids in the coffee AKA the taste explodes so you taste the coffee better. If the taste sticks to the back of your tongue, then it’s a defect of the coffee (bad roasting? Brewed too long?). If it doesn’t stick, then that taste is part of the coffee’s flavor profile. The Yirgacheffe coffee tasted really sour but the taste didn’t stick, so the sourness is really just how the coffee tastes. Rich also talked about a roaster’s personality, in that two people can roast the same beans with the same roaster but still have the coffee taste differently because of how the roasters did it.

We tasted all four coffees, with water to wash out the taste after every pull. Oh my gawd, it was fun. We tasted each coffee three times: when it was freshly poured, five minutes after, and when it was at room temperature. More of a coffee’s defects come out when the coffee is cold, which is why the last few sips of a cold cup of coffee taste terrible.

We got additional nuggets of info out of Rich while we were drinking and he was serving. Did you know that there are 3,000 types of coffee? He also finds it impossible to generalize a coffee’s potential taste just because it’s from a particular country, elevation, soil, or roast, as every step of the process from the plant to the cup influences the taste. And how a coffee smells doesn’t tell you anything about how it tastes (so much for that special one-way valve). The “good” type of coffee is the one that you prefer.We ended the class by learning more about SGD Coffee’s advocacy: promoting Philippine coffee. Philippine coffee is declining in production, with farmers giving up their land and their children choosing not to farm. Who wants to farm if you only get paid Php 5 per kg by the big multinationals?

SGD motivates coffee farmers to continue farming by combining the grassroots approach with hard science. With Dr. Ma. Lourdes Edano and Ana Oliquino-Abasolo, two agricultural scientists from UP Los Banos on their team, they’re able to research on why indigenous farming practices work and how they can be improved. They then share the results with the farmers during free classes that they’ve held for the past four years.

The end result is that SGD Coffee can boast about serving some of the best coffee around. Their arabica beans are carefully handpicked and hand-sorted, then roasted in small batches. All of their beans come from a single location and quantities are limited because they’re only grown at high altitudes and Sagada has only one coffee crop a year, with the harvest season lasting three to four months.

Proof that we drank a lot and learned a lot:

After the class, I decided to sample SGD’s non-coffee offerings and ordered their chicken tocino for lunch. They make their own tocino too, and it’s just as good as their coffee. I wasn’t sure about the kamote top greens though, as they were too bitter than I’d like. Each meal comes with a cup of brewed coffee, though I asked them to hold that for after the meal. I still find it weird to drink coffee with rice and ulam.

And finally, even more coffee! This time, I paired their marvelous brew with a lemon bar. Chef Marti Bartolome is in charge of the pastries and each one is carefully formulated to match the coffee served in SGD. No contradicting flavors here! Though to be fair, the pastries would taste divine even without the coffee 😛

All in all, the Coffee Sensory Workshop was a fantastic experience that I’d recommend to anybody who loves coffee but doesn’t know where to start learning more about it. If you want to dive deeper into the java, they offer more advanced classes, such as the Coffee Sensory Master Course, Roast Theory Workshop, Barista Workshop (maybe this one for me next? 😀 ), Barista Pro Course, Applied Sciences in Coffee Origins (or maybe this one!), and the Coffee Specialist Certification Program.

Coffee Science Center
SGD Coffee
45 Maaalahanin St, Teachers Village East, Quezon City

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