The country in a cup
It’s her job to taste the country’s coffee, choose the best aromas and flavors and pack them in 350-gram bags for sale to the world.
Carmen Lidia Chavarría is Café Britt’s official coffee taster. Thousands of coffee samples pass under her nose and over her tongue.She chooses the ones that end up wearing the Britt brand. The others fall by the wayside, unfit for her discriminating palate.
As a young secretarial student, she never suspected that a coffee cup would be the path to her future. It wasn’t until her first job as an assistant in a cooperative coffee mill that she discovered her passion for the beverage.
That experience would become her best teacher, she says, because even though it’s necessary to have certain tasting abilities, it takes a lot of practice to develop the proper palate.
“That period in my career was very valuable, because I was able to taste coffees from all over the country. It’s important to become familiar with all the coffees in the region. A coffee from Guanacaste isn’t the same as a coffee from Tarrazú or Monteverde. Each region has its own flavors and varieties in the cup. I gained a lot of experience there.”
She’s worked for Britt for 25 years and is now its official cupper and purchasing manager.
COFFEE HAS BETWEEN 800 AND 1,000 DISTINCT AROMAS, BUT A CUPPER FOCUSES ON 10 BASIC ONES, AMONG THEM CHOCOLATE, CINNAMON AND APPLE.
As official cupper, it’s her responsibility to taste and choose the coffee the company buys. In the course of a day she may visit farms of coffee suppliers in Costa Rica, Perú, México and Colombia.
“We want to sell an origin, the identity of a specific place. To do that, we look for the regions and canvas them to collect as many samples as we can. We conduct blind tastings of the samples and begin the process of accepting or rejecting them. I’m usually the one who does the first phase. I do the most extensive tasting, and when I’ve narrowed it down to the 10 best, we do a group tasting that includes the company’s CEO and board president. Together, we choose the best gourmet coffees.”
On one of these field assignments, she may end up tasting more than 100 coffees in a single day. A typical workday most always includes at least three tastings of 10 samples each to ensure the quality of the coffee they receive and package.
As a coffee buyer, she reviews the coffee commerce that takes place both nationwide and throughout the world. Depending on the particular demand and sales projections, she may negotiate with a supplier for a year’s supply even before that season’s coffee is harvested.
Between tastings, she tracks the ups and downs of coffee sales on the New York Stock Exchange in search of favorable prices. Her ability to negotiate depends on it. Later, she oversees deliveries, logistics and other administrative details.
Cupping, step by step
The first step of coffee tasting is noting the fragrance, the smell of the freshly roasted and ground coffee. Then, Chavarría “sets” the aroma by adding boiling water to the ground coffee and letting it set about three minutes. The coffee grounds float, creating a skim on the surface. As she breaths it in, she discerns all the sample’s hints of aroma and also its weaknesses. Finally, she tastes or “cups” it. First she pushes the skim to the side. This is was tasters call “breaking the cup.” Then, using a spoon, she slurps the infusion strongly to mix it with air and splash it across all the taste buds in her mouth. Tasting in this way reveals the coffee’s attributes of aroma, acidity, body and flavor.
“Discovering the best of each of the places we visit is very satisfying, because when you’re finished you can say, ‘What’s inside that bag is the responsibility of a team that has analyzed an entire country.’ We see the same thing in Costa Rica. We’re constantly discovering and becoming surprised by the quality. The passion is in creating new blends, starting from a single product.”
By Shirley Ugalde