Spillin’ the Beans on SCPC’s Coffee Tasting Class

Photo courtesy of Hannah Lee

Blue Donkey has always focused on coffee, and they’ve found a home here at Tech.

The company has been a major draw to Tech’s Farmers Markets for the past three or so years. Last spring, Blue Donkey found a permanent home in the Student Center in the area previously reserved for Pizza Hut.

However, the coffee shop exists in other locations around  Atlanta. Currently set up Piedmont Park, Blue Donkey is quickly growing, making appearances in markets near Emory, Peachtree City and Johns Creek, and is looking to spread to other locations.

This semester, Blue Donkey is partnering with SCPC to put on a four-week coffee tasting class. The written objective is “to give participants an overview of the coffee supply chain and an appreciation for coffee sensory attributes.”

However, the majority of students are most excited about the tasting.

Sayak Chatterjee, a second-year EE major, got the last of twenty available spots to take this class. He is coming in with an open mind — not that he knows nothing, but rather he has no preconceived notions about coffee tasting or brewing.

Sitting next to Chatterjee is Jill Andriotty, a second-year CMPE student. She found out about the class because she saw a poster on campus. Students had to sign up quickly — all spots were gone within two days.

Andriotty, like most Tech students, had her own coffee tasting the previous night.

Most students taking this class simply have a passion for coffee or want to become proficient in describing taste or brewing practices.

SCPC has provided various Options classes in previous semesters, from wine tasting to learning American Sign Language. They have partnered with GTPD to provide a self-defense class for students. For the past two semesters, SCPC has been trying to find a company to partner with to offer a coffee tasting class.

Blue Donkey co-founder Ed Lane teaches this class, and his enthusiasm is apparent. Lane was born in Brazil and studied agronomy, the science of soil management and crop production.

Lane’s college roommate came from a family of farmers and scientists, and though Lane didn’t originally plan to get into the coffee business, together they worked to create a specialty craft coffee side business.

The roaster they originally purchased is still the one they use today. They found a niche in iced coffee and perfected the simple recipe of coffee, milk and sugar. Lane and Blue Donkey have focused on iced coffee as a consumer demand. Lane started selling his iced coffee about eight years ago.

“It’s because the students love it,” Lane said. “The iced coffee here in the US is somewhat recent. The reason I started that was just very pragmatic. It was simply because nobody was buying hot coffee during summer. Then somebody mentioned, ‘Why don’t you do iced coffee?’ And I said, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting. Well, let’s check it out.’”

The coffee tasting class focuses more on hot coffee, and hot and iced coffee are brewed differently.

The class was comprised of twenty students, where  each student was provided with three cups of coffee grounds, a metal spoon and three plastic cups, one of which was filled with cool water.

The three types of coffee presented to students were roasted at the beginning of the week by Blue Donkey, and each was from a different region: one from Guatemala, one from Ecuador and one from Sumatra.

Students analyzed each coffee based on fragrance, flavor, acidity, body and aftertaste. When moving from cup to cup, students took careful note to clean off the spoon to avoid mixing coffee grounds and flavors.

Each week the class focuses on a different topic, starting with coffee origin and sourcing. Next, they will cover coffee planting, harvesting and processing followed by roasting, grinding, brewing and current trends. The final class covers cupping and tasting.

Cupping was also covered in the second half of the first class. Professionally, cupping is a practice done in silence, but here students are encouraged to share their comments and ratings.

Cupping is a technique where one takes a bit of coffee and aspirates it to the palate. Lane, who has mastered the art of cupping, demonstrated first and sounded like a vacuum cleaner. Most of the class reacted with the general attitude of “Wait. What?” Regardless of the noise, the coffee can be analyzed deeply in this manner.

The fragrance is a straight-forward observation. Hot water was added to the coffee grounds and allowed to sit for two to three minutes. After that, students broke the crust of coffee grounds floating on the surface of the cup while simultaneously inhaling the smell of the coffee. Then they rated the fragrance of each cup.

The acidity of the coffee is the bright flavor that wakes drinkers up, the “sparkle” of the brew as Lane puts it. Body is typically inversely related to acidity and describes “mouth feel” when a drinker pushes their tongue to the top of their palate.

Flavors for these three cups of coffee ranged from “chocolate cake” to “caramel” and “earthy.”  Students jotted down their attribute ratings on a sample analysis sheet, many comparing with whomever was sitting beside them. Lane stressed that there is no right or wrong but added his own comments about the three cups of coffee. Reviews after the first class were positive, with the general consensus being that the instructor appeared to be very knowledgeable.

Lane wants students to take away two main things from his coffee-tasting course. “Number one is just to experience the diversity of flavors in coffee,” Lane said, “and as a consequence of that, to have a deeper appreciation for coffee.”

The second goal, and one close to Lane’s heart as a native of Brazil, is to gain an appreciation for all of the contributors to coffee’s supply chain.

“If there is anything that we can do as we’re drinking a cup of coffee, it’s to have the appreciation for the farmers, wherever they may be, that produced that cup of coffee. We just want to appreciate that every time that we have a cup of coffee, … separating it from just having a cup of coffee. No, it’s a cup of coffee with a history.”

And for the handful of students who might have stayed away from the class because they do not like coffee, they might want to try Blue Donkey. Lane has experience with the less coffee-savvy.

“We have had a number of folks even in our family or friends that don’t like coffee, and that’s it,” Lane said, “but we have had a significant amount of folks who are not coffee drinkers, and we go ‘Well just try our iced coffee.’ And they try it, and they like it …. They actually do enjoy it.”

As for Lane? He takes his coffee black.