Just to keep things interesting…

April 8, 2009

Baristas involved in coffee competitions, if they have some experience and want to do well, usually have a good deal of their routine set well ahead of the actual comp.  Signature drink, talking points, Espresso, special equipment, etc…  Most have this all hashed out  by regionals and if not by then they are almost certainly there by nationals.  Every once in awhile though, there is some little detail that creeps up a week or so before the competition that you just cant help but fiddle with in the hopes of making the whole thing a little better. For me, two weeks before the great lakes that “little detail” was my sig drink.  The one I spent the month previous developing was tossed outright and the one that carried all the way through nationals was born.  Apparently I just get antsy in anticipation of these things because last week I found myself in the middle of another inspired moment.  The “little detail” I have changed this time is my coffee…  ummmm…  yeah.  As for my beloved Bolivia that I had held onto so dearly despite what everyone said, like the girl with the tattoos and piercings that you bring home and your parents just don’t approve of… I have moved on.  I still have a deep affection for the coffee (and for girls with tattoos and piercings), I just came across one that I could not say no to last week and now have to figure out how to make it work.

Boy meets Rwanda…

The coffee landed in our roasting works on Thursday 3/26.  I knew slim to nothing about it other than it wouldn’t hurt to at least taste a roast.  Our guys roasted a batch the next Monday.  I came into the works and before I even made it into the lab 3 people stopped to asked if I had taste the Rwanada with giddy/shocked looks in their eyes.  I began to get nervous and excited at the same time.  I had a week turn around time between my regional and the US comp where I needed to make some big changes and that definitely kept me off balance.  Switching coffee at this point would be forcing a revamp of much of the set.  Add to that the fact that this coffee is from Rwanda, an origin known to have an issue with the dreaded potato defect…  For those that don’t know, coffee from Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda and some other areas in Africa suffer from airborne bacteria that is introduced to the coffee cherry once it has been attacked by a bug.  This bacteria then causes the coffee to smell and taste of potato in a very bad way.  It is virtually undectable until you grind the bean and release the aroma, and certainly once it has been brewed.  Using it as a coffee would pretty much be a competition version of Russian roulette, the defect could be in any bean in my hopper.  For that reason I was pretty much dead set against this coffee as an option from the second I heard it mentioned.  I dialed in the Bolivia at two different levels that had been tasting good that week and they were doing their standard thing, juicy, berry like acidity, green grape, fig…  I then tried a Brazil that came in with the Rwanda, it was an excellent espresso but just not as full of character as the Bolivia.  I then moved onto the Rwanda.  Wow…  If there is such a thing as love at first sight, I experienced it that day.  This coffee as an espresso has a level of complexity and clarity that is simply fantastic.  It has that really big red fruit that I would sometimes get from the Bolivia but in this it was consitant, cleaner and filled out with so many other flavors.  The mouth feel was also unique.  It has a definite presence but is not heavy, more so velvety and slick.  The crema was even fantastic from the get go.  After sampling it out to a few folks it was decided and there was no going back.  I ran through close to 5 lbs that day trying different parameters to get a feel for it and yes, I did have two “potato pucks”.  I was able to catch them right at the grinder however and avoid them getting into a cup.  A bit scary but believe me when I say this coffee is worth the risk.

A bit of information about the coffee itself.  It is a small lot of a washed Bourbon that comes from the Maraba co-op in Rwanda.  The full name of this co-op is Abahuzamugambi Ba Kawa which roughly translates into “ together we work the coffee” (awesome…).  They are tied to the very beginning of the Pearl project in Rwanda that helped groups of farmers start to really focus on increasing the quality of their coffee.  This co-op in particular holds the honor of building the first modern washing station in Rwanda.  This lot comes from their Sovu washing station in the southern province and district of Huye.  Our green buyer Geoff Watts has been part of some amazing work in Rwanda and could have talked to me for hours about how far not just the origin but this particular group pf farmers has come in the last several years.  The washing station is immaculate and the level of care they put into the processing is high.  It feels great to be able to be a part of the story of success that this group is by getting to use their coffee on the global stage that is the WBC.

So yeah, with two weeks left I decided to replace the engine driving this whole mess forward.  It feels risky to make this big of a change now and begin using a coffee that has time bombs hidden inside, but believe me when I say it is worth it.   I rarely have gut instincts tell me to do something so decisively as this.   Now lets just keep our fingers crossed.


5 Responses to “Just to keep things interesting…”

  1. sL Says:

    I can’t wait to try it, if that’s ok with you.
    The change is understandable, especially if you’re talking ‘love at first sight’ when it comes to taste. MP doing whatever it takes to bring the best surprises me not.
    go go go!

  2. bbrown Says:

    The grass is always greener, right? No, I’m sure if you had any qualms what so ever about switching, it wouldn’t have happened. So, best wishes!


  3. mchlvn Says:


    follow your Gut! a barista at your level should be able to pull of these last minute changes with out missing a beat.

    I’m excited to see you compete in ATL…

    excited for the possibility to taste your coffee.


  4. I will give you a bit of advice that I got from a trusty source (this years USBC champ). Find time to tell the story of discovery! It’s really brilliant on so many levels. Wish I could be there!


  5. […] twist to the story, however. Mike Philips has now announced a last minute coffee switch in advance of the WBC. This time around, he’s picked a coffee from another emerging coffee […]

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