Hot! Coffee Class

I got more than lessons on brewing coffee at the three-day seminar Seed to Cup this weekend. I got schooled on some retro barista stereotypes.

My friends and I used to joke that the guys flipping our burgers and pouring our lattes in college probably had Ph.Ds. The desire to stay in our small college town usually kept people there regardless of the job opportunities or diplomas. But what if you go to school in a big city? If the baristas at Cartel Coffee Lab are any example, then it turns out you really can use your degree to get paid for your coffee passions.

Sure, roasting and brewing coffee isn’t rocket science. People have been doing it for centuries. But there is some chemistry behind it. And from what I tasted this weekend, even a little understanding can turn a good cup of java into a amazing way to wake up.

Seed To Cup was Cartel’s first try at giving its customers and the coffee curious more background about what they call “Third Wave” coffees. This is the step beyond Foldgers and beyond Starbucks to the beans and blends typically found in local shops and roasteries. In the last two years, the Phoenix bean scene has grown significantly, with new cafes opening up monthly, so the timing is right for a little education.

Of course, it’s hard not to talk about something called the Third Wave without tipping the scales into snobby pretension. In three days of sessions, though, the only vibe I got from the presenters was enthusiasm for what they did versus judgment or dictation of what was “right.”

The weekend started with the seed – showing how the coffee tree grows, how terrain affects the fruit, and how it is harvested, processed and dried all to get to the coveted bean inside. It’s a heck of a lot of work and I had a new appreciation for why my macchiatos cost what they do.

Day 2 is where the science came in. From roasting the beans to brewing, it was all about how to best release the flavors inside. Here again, I realized the baristas I see every day aren’t the same philosophical hipsters they may be serving. Their presentations of the science behind flavor extraction weren’t rambling jumbles of big words but thought out visuals and demonstrations.

We tasted coffee brewed too little, too much, and just right – but using two different techniques. It helped me decide what I liked and what brewing pot I should buy. It also emphasized a point: start with a good bean and even weak coffee can taste good.

The final day was about learning flavor profiles and comparing coffee to beer and wine. These are two other things where a little science goes a long way – and where the more you love what you drink leads to appreciation for all levels of quality. Because let’s face it: sometimes we want a few Coors Lights over a Stone IPA; some 2 Buck Chuck rather than a bottle of Penfolds, or a quick Dunkin’ Donuts cup o’ joe versus a Chemex-brewed Guatamala. And there’s no reason to turn your nose up at that. It’s the choices that make it all the much better.

Thanks for keeping it classy Cartel.

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  1. Sounds like you had a good time. I’m sure you’ll pass some of that shiny new knowledge on!