Coffee shop hopping in Cardiff

I spent a few days in Cardiff in May, mostly to attend the conference of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting but also to enjoy a day or two of roaming around the city and getting in as much of its coffee culture as I could!

There had been a coffee festival scheduled for the Sunday, and I had enthusiastically booked for both sessions, but it was unfortunately cancelled for "technical reasons". The organisers were very pleasant and offered to reissue the tickets for whenever the event was rescheduled, but immediately gave me a refund after I explained I wouldn't be in Cardiff. Feeling deprived, I did looked around and put together a shortlist of places that I wanted to visit while I was there.

I arrived late on Wed 17 May and had a wander around town, although it was soon clear that it was a lot more pleasant in daylight hours than it was at night. I grabbed something to eat and got an early night, but not before finding out if there was anywhere on my list of coffee places that I could stop into on my way to the conference. 

Thankfully there was - Uncommon Ground!  They had two specialty coffees (Nicaragua and DR Congo) listed when I first looked in, plus their house blend and what looked like a very nice breakfast (which I kept meaning to go in for but never got around to, not so much of a morning person).

I asked for the Nicaraguan on the Friday, and got aromas of orange and brown sugar, and flavours of tea tannin and blackcurrant. That gave me two out of four on the tasting notes, better than usual!

Was just in time to get the last of their Burundi on Saturday, and spent a few minutes listening to staff explain why their coffee is more expensive than other places while they brewed with a V60. I had primed myself by reading the tasting notes, but the first thing that hit me in the smell was acidity, not so sharp, which must be the red apple. The taste was curious, muddy, almost like yeast extract. The was acidity, but it wasn't overpowering. I didn't get any peach as such, but maybe a bit of silky mouthfeel?

Wish you could save smells and tastes to play back later. 

Next stop on the Saturday afternoon between the conference and the ITI Food & Drink Network dinner was Little Man Coffee. On the corner of a narrow road just outside the shopping centres, it had a bright, eclectic interior with lots of space and friendly staff. I went for the Campbell & Syme Brazil/Murango blend as an Americano. The smell was strong, sweet, faintly floral. Once again, actually getting the tasting notes. (Or I completely primed myself by reading them, far from impossible.) The taste was murky, almost tomato-like (although that's Kenyan) with very little acidity. Suspect it's one that tastes better hot.

And why yes, a macaroon. I knew I was going to be having a lot of food later at the Potted Pig, but couldn't resist.

I was back again the next day to try the Colombian Las Mangas. There might also have been some shortbread involved. 

It had a strong, yeast extract-like smell, and I could definitely pick up honey from the tasting notes. Again, a soft acidity that must be what's being described as apple. I was also getting a sourness (berry from tasting notes?), and a taste like 100% bitter chocolate or cocoa.

My final coffee destination was actually first on my list, but it wasn't open early enough to get to before the conference so I ended up visiting on  my last day in Cardiff, stopping off for lunch at The Plan before a last walk around Bute Gardens.

I tryied the Guatemala Finca Bourbon. The first thing I noticed was the colour, but I'm not used to French press and it might be just down to the difference between that and filter. The aroma was subtle, slightly citrussy. I was also getting honey, and something like orange blossom? The aroma is subtle, but definitely had notes of honey or brown sugar. The taste was also subtle, a bit murky, with very mild acidity (grape?) and, thinking about it, chocolate. There was a slightly sour aftertaste, not sure if that's also a French press versus filter issue but it left me a bit underwhelmed. Definitely not a fan of the sediment.

Even though I really needed to get going, I ended up having a lovely chat with the barista (who turned out to be Trevor Hyam!) at about seasonality, origin and the never-ending discoveries of coffee. Very passionate man!

My final food and drink related stop was Science Cream! Like most of places I wanted to go, it wasn't open early or late enough to get to around the conference but I made it on a blazing hot Monday and loved every moment. Definitely recommended. Ex-pharmacy student in a lab coat dispensing liberal amounts of liquid nitrogen into a mixer and finishing it all off with marshmallow browned with a propane torch. It's a good thing I live as far away as I do.

Very often on my trips I find that it's something I wasn't planning on doing or didn't have high hopes for that ends up being great (and vice versa). I was tempted by a packet of Coaltown Coffee Roasters Black Gold No. 3 ground coffee in the Cardiff Castle gift shop, based on the description and the heavenly smell through the air valve. It had an amazing aroma of chocolate and - wait for it - biscuit! The taste was strong but well-rounded with floral, almost orangey notes, and I think the unwashed process carried the strength really well. Loved it.

One coffee six ways: coffee tasting at MAME April 2017

April was busy for MAME, with not one but two tastings! (They held a fruit tasting earlier in the month.)

This tasting was much more focused than the ones I'd been to previously. One coffee variety from one farm, processed three ways and sent to four roasters. Although Emi and Mathieu had ordered from three of the four, one shipment didn't arrive in time so they held the tasting with three coffees each from two roasters, Australians Proud Mary and and UK-based Assembly (who list details of the pack on their site, although it's sold out).  The other roasters were New Zealanders Flight Coffee and Australian neighbours Grace & Taylor (who have some great details of the farm producing the coffee for the sold-out pack). 

The first point of interest was the variety, Wush Wush. This heirloom variety fell out of favour as it has low yields and isn't disease-resistant. Originally from Ethiopia, it was grown on a family farm in Columbia as part of a project to revisit old varieties to see if they would make good speciality coffee. The entire crop came to just 300 kg, which was processed three ways - washed, honey and natural - and sold to four roasters. (Here are some good explanations of washed, honey and natural processing from Perfect Daily Grind -Washed, Natural, Honey: Coffee Processing 101, and from The Roasters Pack - What is: Processing?)

Mathieu and Emi followed their usual procedure of giving the coffees three-digit numbers to disguise their identity and stop people unconsciously ranking them based on external factors, but they did tell us which process was used (with one column of natural, one honey and one washed, and the coffees from each roaster in a row). It would have been helpful to label the columns in writing as well, as it easy to lose track of which was which (honey was in the middle, with washed and natural on each side).

We first smelled the ground coffee, and Mathieu asked us what we noticed about it. I was struck by the intensity of the aroma, which was strongest for the natural process, less so for the honey and washed but still very prominent. 

  • 332 (natural): earthy, cocoa, spice, intense aroma. 
  • 876 (natural): more muted than 332, more chocolately. 
  • 321 (honey): biscuit, oat, cocoa, medium intensity aroma. 
  • 845 (honey): fruity, cocoa, medium intensity aroma. 
  • 301 (washed): cocoa, biscuit, spice. 
  • 843 (washed): acidic notes, cocoa, spice.

The coffees were then brewed, and Mathieu commented on the good crust that developed - a sign of freshly roasted coffee. The packs had shipped straight after roasting, so they were still fresh even after arriving from Australia. He also complained that the water was too soft - he had noticed before that the Zürich water went soft for a day or two after it snowed, and it had snowed twice that week! His measurements put the water at 85 ppm hardness and pH 6.5.

  • 332 (natural): sharp acidity, citrus notes.
  • 876 (natural): not as acidic as 332 but acidity still overpowered other elements.
  • 321 (honey): smoother and more balanced, not as acidic, subtle notes of cocoa and roasting/burning but pleasant.
  • 845 (honey): more acidic than 321, bitter, not as complex.
  • 301 (washed): less intense, less acidic, hint of peach.
  • 843 (washed): more balanced, flavours more blended, strong but a bit murky.

I tasted the coffees brewed by process without taking notes, trying to taste the differences, then tasted again going around in a circle and working through one roaster washed - honey - natural and the other washed - honey - natural. Although the coffees were prepared as per the standardised SCAA/SCAE protocols, within narrow windows for time, temperature, etc. to enable comparison, my first impression was how intense the flavours were compared to other coffees I'd tasted. As with the aroma, the flavour was strongest in the natural processed coffees, slightly less so in the honey and least so in the washed, but still strong overall. Although I've discovered I'm a fan of natural process, I found that the washed let some of the flavours come through more clearly.

The most curious thing for me in this tasting was that a lot of my notes were elements that I found to be negative in other tastings - acidity, roasted/burned notes - but in the Wush Wush they were positives. It was everything I didn't like in coffee, but in a coffee I liked. There was plenty of coffee to go round, with two glasses of each of the six variations, and not too many people, so I could go back and taste again and compare across processes and roasters, making it a focused, and for a beginner like me, really informative tasting. 

After we'd had plenty of time to taste the coffees, Mathieu revealed the roasters: 843/845/876 were from Proud Mary and 301/321/332 were from Assembly. He asked us again what we felt was most distinctive and everyone said the process - except Mathieu and André, another professional taster, who said they thought the roaster made the biggest difference. (Like with the fruit tasting, seeing the difference in opinion between the untrained attendees and the trained baristas was very interesting.) When talking about recognising aromas, André mentioned the Le Nez du Café sensory training kit, but Mathieu had a different set from a Korean manufacturer, Scentone.

Although I though that the Wush Wush coffee was excellent, particularly in how it combined strength with a positive spin on elements I usually don't enjoy, the professionals weren't impressed. They both noted that the variety was sweet and not acidic, and relatively delicate, but they didn't rate it for mouthfeel or complexity. Their conclusion was that it was't distinctive and therefore was no good for competition. 

When the tasting was over, Mathieu decided to use up the packets by playing around with the brewing, such as over-extracting and serving with milk. The attendees stood around chatting, particularly asking questions about processing. Mathieu and André talked about honey processing and how it generated lactic acid, smoothness and a round mouthfeel, to the point where it was described in one competition as like banana milk. They also agreed the coffee had notes of lemongrass (which was accused of being a glass of plain water in the fruit tasting). André talked about how he was unusual in liking bright acidity in coffee, most people prefer less acidity. They also discussed the roasts, speculating that Proud Mary had put more energy in at the beginning, producing more complexity, and Assembly had started off with less energy to allow longer development of the flavours with a more "bakey" result. (André's technical term for the dry, roasted, peanut-like taste/sensation at the back of the mouth.)

Wush Wush is originally from Ethiopia and like Gesha keeps its characteristics even when transplanted to a new environment. Mathieu wondered if the aim of growing it in Columbia was to add some of the region's characteristic citrus profile, but if so he wasn't sure they got it. 

Mathieu served the Proud Mary coffees as espresso:

  • Washed: incredible - very aggressive aroma of lemongrass, acidic and a bit dry at the end. 
  • Honey: very strong, acidic but without as much lemongrass, richer, more body, murky and creamy
  • Natural: still strong and acidic, better balance, rich with a positive burned note (Mathieu still detected lemongrass, André found stone fruit, strawberry, plum, lemon)

André commented that it was hard to get espresso right the first time - it should be coarse but the processing already made it so, and this was Mathieu's first attempt whereas a barista would normally spend 15 minutes or so to find the right "recipe" for a particular coffee.

Next up was the Proud Mary natural process as a cappucino, which Mathieu pronounced to be "sweet as hell" and a "sweet bomb". I really couldn't taste much with all the milk, but maybe it was the lack of other elements that made it blend with the milk for me.

Emi then prepared the three Proud Mary variations as filter:

  • Washed: thinnest of the three, acidity more noticeable, clean taste (Mathieu found it to be the most floral)
  • Honey: less one-note, a bit more complex
  • Natural: more balanced and rounded, acidity less pronounced

In another interesting exchange, André approached Emi as she was preparing the filter coffee to say that her technique could be a bit more even - Mathieu interrupted to say that his filter brewing technique was completely consistent, but resulted in a flat, uninteresting coffee. Emi's wasn't consistent, sometimes a little under-extracted, sometimes a little over-extracted, but brought out the characteristics of the coffee and produced a better result. (Very wabi-sabi.) 

I asked André about Japanese involvement in the world of coffee. He said that the Japanese were at a very high level, and had won many recent competitions. He put this down in part to them taking time off to train - up to six months - whereas most people like himself, Mathieu and Emi had to practice in the evenings and weekends around a full time job.

Although I didn't remember taking as many notes as I did, I think the smaller number of closely-related coffees (and fewer people, it was the May bank holiday weekend) made this the best tasting session I've been to yet. Emi and Mathieu are planning another one in a few weeks, but depending on when they hold it I may be in Cardiff for the Institute of Translation and Interpreting conference, but I'm also there for the Cardiff Coffee Festival!

Fruit tasting at MAME

We weren't organised enough to go anywhere over Easter, so we stayed local, enjoying some long walks with friends and doing a few things around the house. Plus I went to a tasting at MAME and we had a chocolate tasting at home!

Although I'd been to coffee cupping events at MAME before, this time they did something slightly different - a fruit tasting! Emi and Mathieu prepared 29 fruits and herbs and diluted them so that we could experience the flavours that they look for when tasting coffee. They mixed 10 ml of fruit or herb with 150 ml of water, except for strong citrus fruit like lemon and lime where they only added 4 ml of fruit to 150 ml of water (and even that was too strong). They then labelled each glass with a three-digit code and we used spoons to taste each one, writing our notes down on a sheet of paper. Mathieu demonstrating the tasting "slurp" and emphasised that if your mother wouldn't be embarrassed, you're not doing it right!

Mathieu and Emi also use the three-digit codes for coffee cuppings to disguise the identity of the coffee and stop people trying to "rank" coffees by numbers or letters instead of concentrating on the taste. (It's something people unconsciously do to try to evaluate before they have other information. They also hide the packaging as it has a powerful influence on whether people think they like a coffee or not.) In this case as there were so many glasses, some of the numbers were similar and they weren't in order on the sheet, it was hard to find the right row to write comments in - one number was duplicated on the sheet and one was missing, plus one of numbers was duplicated on the glasses, so there was some confusion. I've said to them before that they offer too much choice and I think they were too generous here too! Most of the fruit and herbs were on the table, although some had to be brought out from the kitchen afterwards.

Mathieu did best with only eight wrong. I was in last place with only eight right - I only managed some of the citrus fruit, the herbs, black and green tea, and banana. Other fruit that I was certain I would recognise, like green and red apples and grapes, berries and dried fruit, were so different in dilution that I mistook them for something else. (There were accusations that one of the glasses had plain water, but it turned out to be a dilution of lemongrass.) 

It goes some way towards explaining why as an amateur I pick up different tastes in food and drink - I'm looking for a layman's idea of a certain taste, not the diluted version that a professional taster looks for. But it also raises the question of education and giving the right information to the right audience. As an amateur I don't pick up the same flavours, so is it useful to list them on packets aimed at the general public rather than trained baristas? That's one to add to my list of questions when translating and writing!

Chicago coffee tasting at MAME

Mathieu and Emi held a special tasting session at MAME on Sunday 9 April to share some coffees that Mathieu had brought back from a trip to the US, specifically to Chicago.

A friend insisted that he visit famous roasters Intelligentsia, and he ended up spending four enjoyable hours at their roastery. He also visited Ellipsis (serving coffee roasted by Counter Culture), IpsentoHalfwit and Gaslight, returning to Zürich with 15 different coffees to taste. 

There was some discussion of where people are from affecting their idea of what certain fruit flavours are like - Europeans who only get imported tropical fruit (such as papaya) may not have the same idea of what they taste like as people who grew up enjoying them where they are grown. The differences can be even more local, as Mathieu (who is French) admitted he had no idea what golden syrup was. He and Emi had obviously been thinking about this for a while, as they held their fruit tasting session the following week!

There were copies of the usual SCAA coffee tasting wheel, and also an alternative one from The New Black. Mathieu pointed out that the SCAA is an international standard, based on calibrated and reproducible definitions of various aromas and flavours (as set out in the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon). For this tasting, he suggested that we concentrate on identifying one sweet, one fruity and one acidic flavour as we went through the coffees. 

We started off by smelling the dry ground coffees and making short notes on what we could smell - it's always interesting to compare them to flavours in the brewed coffee and to see if the ones you liked dry are also the ones you like when brewed. I was happy to find that I was picking up more in the way of aromas than I did at the last tasting, although whether that was practice, better vocabulary, or more variety in this group of coffees I don't know.

Mathieu and Emi then brewed the coffees and brought our attention to the crust that formed on top of the glasses - a thick brown crust indicates a freshly roasted coffee, whereas a think yellow crust is characteristic of an older coffee. As usual, I found that the coffee aromas I liked in the dry coffee didn't tell me anything about what coffees I liked when brewed. I don't know if there were too many or if I wasn't on form that day, but I wasn't able to pick a favourite out of all of them. We had fun comparing our own notes to the tasting notes on the packs (not all packs had them) and I found it hard to match my impressions up with the hype, except for one case where the advertised "praline" went well with my notes of "caramel and chocolate".

There were enough glasses and not so many people this time, so Mathieu and Emi brewed another round and we tasted again with knowledge of the roasters, varieties, processing, tasting notes and packaging. Mathieu also pointed out up-and-coming countries for coffee growing, including places like Rwanda, Congo and Burundi. Rwanda is close to Kenya and he thought their flavour profiles were similar. 

Coffees tasted:

Chicago's finest ready to taste

After the session, I enjoyed the Intelligentsia Anjilanaka as a latte along with a chocolate chip cookie.