Here’s a mixed metaphor for you – I’ve learned to stop and smell the coffee.
Normally I would smell the roses, but last week I had an opportunity to experience a “coffee cupping” at my new favorite daytrip destination – Hacienda Santa Marta in San Gabriel de Chaucha.
Coffee cupping, or cup tasting, is how coffee is tasted by producers and buyers around the world to check the quality of a batch of coffee. It allows tasters to compare and contrast coffees against each other, giving a better understanding of each coffee.
In the cupping process, coffees are scored for characteristics ranging from fragrance and flavor to aftertaste, acidity and mouthfeel.
Mouthfeel? Is that even a word? As we worked our way through various samples, we considered whether the coffee tasted buttery, creamy, smooth, rich, velvety, watery, oily, dry, chalky, rough, astringent, or metallic. THAT is mouthfeel.
Martha and Tony Camp led a group of Cuencano visitors through Coffee 101. The owners of Hacienda Santa Marta grow coffee on their 200-acre plantation, as well as sugarcane, orchids and enough fruits and vegetables to make trendy farm-to-table enthusiasts drool.
The couple, formerly from West Virginia, bought the hacienda nearly a decade ago. They have restored it to its more than 150-year-old splendor and recently began offering tours to educate visitors to the rich heritage of its indigenous Ecuadorians.
On this tour, we compared three varieties of unnamed coffees. We learned the proper way to slurp and spit, then ranked each with a mind-boggling lists of adjectives.
I’ve never thought of coffee as floral. But there it was. We heard a lot of votes for chocolate. Some went for fruity. And hidy. What the heck is hidy?
The best coffee is not necessarily those with the darkest grounds. And strong or bold are simplistic terms only drinkers use. Specialty coffees have so many variables affecting their taste it is “mind boggling,” Martha explains. The origin of the coffee, processing at origin, storage, and roasting techniques change the flavor.
And brewing – don’t even get her started. Coffee changes with water temperatures, the length of time the water is in contact with the coffee, the amount of coffee used and, of course, the type of device used to brew the coffee.
After smelling, tasting, sipping, and spitting, we voted. The majority found number two to be the winner – Hacienda Santa Maria’s own blend! Chaucha is quickly gaining a reputation among specialty coffee buyers as having some of the best high altitude Arabica in the world.
Unfortunately, Ecuador cannot compete in the lucrative coffee market. Martha told us thatcoffee crops are both labor intensive and a global commodity. Labor laws and high minimum wage standards in Ecuador mean that it cannot compete with the rest of the world, especially the growing number of producers for specialty coffee in Southeast Asia and some African nations where labor is inexpensive.
After the cupping, we tour the crops, where we learned how to determine the maturity of beans and how they are picked from the trees. In the greenhouse we saw drying racks for coffee beans and rows of neatly potted coffee plant seedlings waiting to be transplanted in outside fields. We learned about grinding and roasting in special clay pots over an open fire.
Our tour ended with another delicious meal prepared by Martha, showcasing a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits from the hacienda’s gardens. And, of course, delicious coffee.
It’s a three-hour, rugged drive each way between the Hacienda and Cuenca, but spectacular scenery keeps you spellbound along the way. The property has boundless trails leading down to the Rio Malacatos, where we tried our hand at gold panning, and stretching west to a series of accessible waterfalls.
The Camps’ next tours focus on the “campesino life,” offering glimpse into 100-year-old traditional life on the farm. Visitors will meet local artists and residents, taste foods prepared on a fogon, examine the components of traditional dress, learn Quichwa words, and hear local legends. Transportation is included.
By the way. Hidy? I had to search through a number of dictionaries online but finally got the gist. The adjective. Hidy is rarely used and means of or pertaining to hides. In coffee, it means having a characteristic leathery taste.
Contact the Camps at firstname.lastname@example.org, or, for more information, see the website at haciendasantamarta.com