I bend over the cup, dip my tasting spoon in and slurp the dark liquid. It’s too hot! My throat is electrocuted by the scalding liquid coursing down it.
By sheer serendipity, I’ve wangled a meeting with Robert Francisco, the proprietor of Boyds Coffee Company (Philippines). Very busy and obviously very versed in the language of coffee since his immersion into it 16 years ago, I admit to some trepidation upon meeting him. His company’s conference room looks like a shrine to espresso machines, their cool, metallic lines broken only by coffee paraphernalia:Â bottled syrups, coffee bean dispensers, numerous coffee books, and collections of cups and coffee makers.
Robert breezes in and immediately busies himself making espressos and lattes for me and my friend, Z, who worked with Robert a few years ago. Our coffee is made with Midnight Blend, a medium-dark roast with full body. The black coffee made from it is smoky without the thwack! I usually get from super strong coffee.
But it’s the latte that Robert whips up that proves unforgettable. Crowned with a touch of froth, [a] latte heartÂ is created by deftly moving the pitcher’s spout to and fro. It’s awe-inspiring just to watch. The latte itself strikes the enviable balance of milk and coffee with neither one dominating the other; each sip finishes with a milky caress.
Properly caffeinated, we move on to cupping. Highly simplified for today’s purpose, cupping is “coffee tasting,” a sensory evaluation of coffee. A line of small bowls each filled with various colored liquids is placed on the table as well as a cup of spoons soaking in warm water. Called tasting or cupping spoons, they provide a consistent measure for appraising coffee. They remind me of those silver soup spoons used in grand old hotels.
Robert instructs me and Z to chew on bits of lemon zest, the contents of the first bowl. “We’ll start with bitter and sour,” he begins, picking up a piece of zest. “Sour is broken down into two ”“ astringency and acid.” Being a fan of all things sour, I have no trouble with this tidbit of tartness. The zest is mapakla, that physical sensation of puckeriness; think: unripe banana. The second thing we try, the lemon slice, is more about acidity, that quality in coffee that deals with a lemon-like tanginess.
So far, we’re simulating the tastes of astringency and acid just so that we know what each tastes like. Robert goes ahead and slurps the ominously clear liquid in the third bowl. His expression reveals nothing but he cautions us, “… not to taste a lot because you might get gulat” (surprised). I spoon some up and slurp. “It’s vinegar diluted with water!” I laugh. “I could drink this straight.”Â Z and Robert laugh (at me, I think). “I wanted to give you a sense of a lighter version, the sense of tartness in coffee,” Robert explains. “We have to distinguish where the asim (sourness) comes from: immature coffee? improper preparation? improper ratio? Given that it’s all the same, where is that acid coming from? Like wine, acid in coffee gives it that kiliti, that snap!”
The fourth bowl is simply salty water. “Coffee is definitely not salty,” Robert avers.
After tasting the liquid in the fifth bowl, I’m reminded of taho, specifically the caramel-like sugar syrup that comes with it. Or sago’t gulaman. “Where’s the gulaman?” I ask jokingly. “Correct!” Robert exclaims. “It’s arnibal, brown sugar and water.” He then instructs me and Zarah to hold our noses and take another slurp of the brown sugar water. “Pinch your nose and don’t exhale. Just slurp.” “It just tastes sweet but not distinctive,” I reply. My voice sounds tinny since I’m still pinching my nose. I let go and exhale. A rainbow of flavors immediately becomes evident. Robert tells us, “… a big factor in flavor when you taste … is that last step of exhalation … then you taste flavor.” Obviously, smell and taste are co-dependent and almost difficult to separate, especially when assessing flavors.
The last bowl holds the coffee we drank earlier, though at a cooler temperature and brewed black. To me, it just tastes bitter. Though Robert is urging me and Z to “…try to look for the faintest taste of arnibal, the floral, herbal, and nuttiness…”, I can’t agree. That’s one mature palate on this guy. What I still taste however is the lemon; its oil has stained my taste buds. Similarly, it’s the oils in coffee that are responsible for coffee’s diffusion of flavors on the palate.
One of the more intriguing things I learn from the cupping session is that whatever food I pair with coffee influences its flavor. A bad cup of coffee with a good donut can taste fantastic, dismaying though that may be. Robert is firm about not pairing coffee with any food but allows that no one can afford to be too much of a purist. He admits to, “… my favorite, monay na mamon from San Pablo, Quezon. (!) [It’s] called cheesecake from Rodela’s bakeshop, cheap from the carinderia. It looks like broas in cake form with cheese on top. Fantastic.” His eyes sparkle at the recollection.
Taking a deep breath, I then ask Robert, “What’s your position on creamer … Coffeemate … in coffee?” He turns and fixes me with a hard stare.