Coffee given the fine wine treatment
It’s often seen as a great pity that for a country producing around a fifth of the world’s coffee, most of the cultural significance of the beverage is lost on the local market. Coffee is a marvelous and complex drink, but whereas the finest things in life are always a matter of taste, a truly cultured palate is still one that must be trained. The ability to taste quality is a highly-developed art—the reward being a rare experience of flavors that the average tongue is unable to properly discern or judge. The exquisitely subtle characters of coffee, however, are a blunt axe in Vietnam, where anything that’s black and sweet enough can pass for a cup of Joe.
Master barista Nguyen Canh Hung, whose specialist coffee house Bosgaurus (Saigon Pearl Villa 1D5, 92 Nguyen Huu Canh, Binh Thanh) opened earlier this year, is leading the resistance against coffee illiteracy in this country—and is now offering highly specialized taste training sessions to awaken the senses to the full bouquet of the coffee bean. Hung is a relatively recent convert; it was only while undergoing work training in Amsterdam that he stumbled upon the largely European art of coffee tasting and promptly lost his heart to it.
“In my mind, I thought all coffee was the same,” says Hung, who has since studied under world champion barista Hidenori Izaki and now deals exclusively with Australia’s leading coffee hunter, Sasa Sestic. “When I was in Europe, I went to some cafés, and they gave me an introduction to coffee. I was so surprised, I didn’t know anything about it. They told me to forget what I’d learned before, just taste and ‘listen’ to the coffee. Was it sweet? I said ‘Yes.’ What kind of sweet—fruity or caramel, or sugary? I said it was fruity. They asked, ‘What kind of fruit do you think you can taste?’ I said ‘Something like a berry.’ Then they gave me some of the coffee essence, and I smelled it, it was like a blueberry. I said ‘Really? This flavor is in the coffee itself? That is when I started to really like it, and I wanted to study it.”
“That’s when I started traveling,” says Hung. “I went to Sweden, Stockholm, studied with Johan & Nyström; I went to the Netherlands to study at a coffee academy there, many places. I went to Greece with the European Barista Guild, and this year I’ll go to Estonia with the European Roasting Guild for training. I came back and I saved and spent money to invest in Bosgaurus. I wanted really good equipment. I want people to know more about specialty coffee. I want people to give more respect to baristas—here in Vietnam, the barista’s job is not respected. In Europe or Australia, it’s different. People have a lot of knowledge about coffee. That’s why I learned, and now I give all my knowledge to my baristas, I train them. Now they can talk to customers about coffee, they’re like coffee ambassadors.”
Bosgaurus Café is designed with an open plan to involve customers as much as possible in the process of preparing good coffee. The ground-floor tables are positioned in an arc around the sleek black Giesen roasting machines and counters in the center; guests are more than welcome to watch the beans being roasted, ask questions, and even operate the espresso machines if they’re keen to learn.
Hung fetches a batch of Ethiopian beans from his temperature-controlled chamber downstairs and demonstrates how the roasters work. It’s high-tech stuff; computerized controls run Cropster roasting management software that allows roasters to carefully manipulate temperatures to match proven heating profiles, and Hung carefully adjusts the flame and airflow to ensure a consistent roast. As the beans turn in the drum, they gradually lose their green color and grassy aroma, passing through yellow and then ochre hues as they approach “first crack,” sounding one by one like a batch of popcorn. Following the roasting curve on screen, Hung coaxes the beans into a rich brown and then drops them into a rapid-cooling tray which sucks out the heat before the beans cook and char.
You could brew a cup of coffee with it immediately after roasting, but that would be a mistake. “It depends on what you want; it’s like wine, this is young coffee,” explains Hung. “After roasting, your coffee has a lot of carbon dioxide, it takes time for it to balance inside the bean, so you need to experiment for yourself exactly how long you need for aging it. Exactly like wine, you’ll find the right point where the taste and the flavor is balanced. You can drink this coffee now, but it’s too smoky, so you’ll get a roasted flavor. If you like that, you will use it immediately. For young coffee, if you can’t extract it right, it’s a little salty. If you extract it dry, there will be more acidity. So you need to know how long to brew the coffee. My preferred taste is somewhere after one week. For espresso, sometime after two weeks. Of course, you can use sooner if you want. It will depend on your preference, your skill, your customers, what you can do.”
This particular batch has a natural blackcurrant flavor—something that itself takes a bit of explaining. “Again, it’s exactly like wine,” says Hung. “The place where coffee is grown, the soil and everything there, makes the coffee have that kind of flavor. Tropical fruit, strawberry… some coffee has a lemon flavor. It’s natural.”
To demonstrate his point, Hung produces a tray of a hundred coffee essential oils, the result of variations in the internal chemistries of different varieties of beans grown in different areas, climates, and elevations. Just as he says, coffees likened to strawberries and lemons absolutely manifest those flavors, and they’re obviously revealed when smelling the oils. Baristas, according to Hung, train them- selves to detect these subtle hints in the final brews.
“Your brain is a database of flavors and aromas,” says Hung. “You can remember them, so when you smell and taste coffee, you can recognize them. We practice it weekly, sensory training. If you can’t remember it, then when you smell the coffee, you can’t say what’s inside the coffee.”
Listen to the coffee
Hung produces another barista tool, a coffee flavor wheel that specialists refer to in order to confidently judge and clarify subtle differences in taste. “There are about nine central flavors,” he explains. “We have two basic tastes, one is sweet, one is sour and fermented. Beautiful coffee is generally floral or fruity. Then we have spicy. For the green, vegetable flavor, it means it’s not roasted so well. Raw, beany vegetable, you know it’s not well-cooked. The ‘roasted’ part is where it’s too dark. You have tobacco flavor, burnt—too dark. Some coffee when you drink it, you know immediately there’s some problem from its roasted flavor. In fruity, you have berry, you have grapefruit, citrus.”
“From Africa, South America, Central America, Asia, there are different flavors,” he says. “Because of the soil, because of the altitude. The way you grow the beans. If you grow coffee higher on the mountain, you get more floral and fruity beans. Lower, you get more nutty and spicy. The way you roast it has a lot to do with how you can expose this beautiful coffee flavor. Floral and fruity, that is the best. Vietnamese coffee is mostly nutty. Until now, for Arabica beans, we have good coffee here, but it hasn’t reached the specialty coffee level yet.”
Properly judging the flavor of coffee is done during a process known as cupping. Bosgaurus has dedicated cupping stations upstairs; customers who’ve taken the one- or two-day courses (or anyone with an interest) can hire the area to practice—companies sometimes hold special-interest events here for staff. Hung demonstrates the cupping procedure by producing three small ceramic bowls; we compare the coffee we’ve just roasted with a Vietnamese blend and another slightly immature roast from Panama. After smelling the grinds, 10g of each blend is introduced to 94°C water at a ratio of 1:17. The floating grinds cover and hold the flavor in the brew for four minutes; we then “break” the surface by slipping a spoon into the side and stirring three times as the aroma lifts powerfully from the disturbed crust. To taste the coffee, we take off a small spoonful and sharply draw it onto the tongue in a loud sup.
“We judge based on the roasting color, the fragrance and aroma; we judge on the flavor, the taste, the acidity,” says Hung. “For acidity, we need to see what kind of acidity is in there. You have five organic acids—the first is citric acid, which you can find in lemon and passion fruit. Another is malic acid, you find a lot in green apples. After that, you have tartaric acid which is in grapes; acetic acid, which you can see some in anything fermented; and lactic acid, as in yogurt. The last is not an organic acid—phosphoric acid. You can find a lot in Coca Cola and Pepsi! All of these are within the coffee itself, not added afterwards.”
“Then you have body,” he continues. “Body is how your mouth feels. When you put something in your mouth, you can feel its weight. If you’ve ever tried skim milk—or milk with a little water in it—compared to whole or creamy milk, you will know how your tongue can feel the heaviness of the liquid. As well as that, you have texture, like how plain water moves over your tongue very fast; unlike juice, which has a lot of texture. So that is what we call body. Then, we judge for balance and uniformity—normally when we cup, we take five, and they must be equal. The flavor should be clean, a little sweet. Arabica is highly sweet compared to Robusta. Then at the end, you have ‘overall’—that’s if you like it or if you don’t like it.”
No matter how experienced the coffee taster, and no matter how accurately the elements in the coffee can be analyzed in the cupping process, the overall score given to each blend will depend on individual preference. “It’s down to personal taste in the end,” Hung admits. “For example, with the lemon taste, it has very intense acids, which is very tasty—but the quality of that, is it good? Maybe it’s high, but it’s not necessarily bad. That’s why in the business, when you’re cupping, people say ‘let the coffee talk to you’—and just listen to the coffee.”
IMAGES BY NGOC TRAN