We’re such fans of coffee in our house that when the opportunity came to attend a Coffee Roasting and Cupping at Highwire Coffee Roasters in Emeryville, CA, hosted by Slow Food East Bay, caffeinated or not, we jumped at it.
About a dozen people gathered over coffee and pastries at metal tables in a small industrial warehouse to learn a bit about the artisan company, which was started in 2011 by three friends with a shared passion for good coffee and talents ranging from evaluating, roasting, cupping and blending beans and coffees to retail and marketing, business and education. (Eric, Robert and Rich, below).
Highwire receives coffee beans from all over the world, based on a constantly shifting equation of availability, price and taste.
Eric is the master roaster, and he demonstrated his expertise and quality control, through a number of steps in the 15-minute roasting process — removing small amounts of beans from the oven during roasting to look, smell, feel, and ultimately decide when to release the beans from the oven to let them cool down. This is a process that he usually does alone and quietly, as it takes a great deal of concentration.
This mesmerizing machine moves and fans the beans to help them cool after roasting.
Once the coffee was roasted, we went into the cupping room, where the Highwire folks routinely evaluate the various coffees.
We learned what a coffee taster looks for in a good cup, such as aroma, acidity, body, balance and flavor, all of which serve to bring out the subtle flavors and profiles that bespeak the region where the coffee was grown and harvested. Highwire favors a fairly light roast because, as they explained, once coffee is dark-roasted, one begins to taste the roast taste (which can have caramel or other notes), as opposed to the subtle taste of the various beans.
We each tasted three types of coffee – Sigri Estate from Papua New Guinea, Tano Batak from Sumatra, and Santa Isabel from Guatemala — using the cupping method of letting boiled water settle over the fine grounds and then tasting a small amount with a spoon. The fresh-ground coffee, drank this way, was quite mellow in flavor, even as its caffeine packed a punch (both are characteristic of lighter roasts.)
After smelling and tasting each, my favorite coffee kept changing. The Sigri Estate was slightly spicy, the Tano Batak and the Santa Isabel slightly fruity and sweet. The Tano Batak had some earth notes that we were told are characteristic of coffee from Sumatra. If I had to pick, that one would have been my favorite. Michael seemed to prefer the Santa Isabel.
It was an educational and fulfilling morning. We even left with 2 pounds each of Santa Isabel coffee and San Rafael coffee from Guatemala. And the coffee that Eric roasted in demonstration that morning? Because he had been talking through the roast, he deemed it not good enough for resale.
Photos: Highwire Coffee, Susan Sachs Lipman, Michael Lipman