A Roaster’s Earthly Rendition

Those who have been to Earthlings Coffee Workshop more than once might be familiar with our espresso-based beverages and got asked to choose between three types of coffee beans. Some say we never lack options when it comes to coffee, some, are not as fond of options in the increasingly busy world; they just want their coffee.

However, I’d like to think that our three hoppers full of beans, three different flavours, are more than just options for distractions. They are actually designed as the core products of Earthlings, they represent the mission we entrusted on our brand from day one—each comes with a story.

Many changes were made to our products in the past three years, however, our trinity of beans: 1) dark roast blend Darklings/Black Market/Dark Matter; 2) attuned espresso roast seasonal single origin; 3) light roast natural Ethiopia, have always remained available with the same principles—despite the volatile difference in cost for each—to drinkers with contrasting preferences. But this is simply offering three types of roast levels, which is nothing new, what has this got to do with our “mission”?

Encouraging people’s understanding about specialty coffee is the challenging mission here—in a local market that is largely unfamiliar with its abstract content. The trick is to have something people are familiar with to start the lead, in which case, a darkly roasted, aromatic coffee. And, slowly, people are led into the lighter side of things, getting to know the vast taste variations presented by roasting. To make sure each roast level is done properly—living up to the specialty name—is what the roaster has to work hard on. With that being said, I don’t believe in the “light roast only” ideology, I want the market to embrace diversity on the roast level spectrum, to step out of their “comfort zone” with the predominantly darker shade in taste.

While the current specialty market still favours lighter roasts, coffee—being the gift of earth possessing over two thousand flavour compounds—deserves to be expressed extensively in the realm of roasting. My job, as a roaster, is to seek out the sweet spot of whatever coffee we work with, identify and amplify its characters—where its true values can be found—despite roasting them light or dark.

Coffee consumption is a global phenomenon, but regional drinking pattern and preferences are shaped differently according to various geographic and economic conditions since the very beginning. The best often goes to the highest bidder, and that’s the natural force placing some of the highest quality and freshest Arabica beans into the hands of roasters from places with stronger buying power such as Europe, America, and Japan. When you have the best ingredients, the logical thing for any specialty roaster to do is to preserve its original characters—roast them lightly.

In juxtaposition, Malaysia—amongst a number of other south-east Asian countries—was slightly behind and had developed a taste for cheaper coffees such as low-grade Arabica with lots of defects, while most turned to Robusta. So the challenge for local roasters in the early days was to learn to make the best out of what they had got in order to reap the shared joy from a tasty cup of Joe. This led to the development of the extremely dark roast method, along with various additives such as sugar and vegetable oils used to cover up the defects and compensate for the loss of characters during roasting. But the smokey, rich result, served with sugar and condense milk, has become the generic lovechild served nationwide at extremely affordable prices. The founding roasters of Malaysia’s Nanyang coffee have succeeded in passing on an enjoyable beverage for generations to come. It may seem and taste like heresy to some who had advanced into the specialty market, but it’s undeniably a success that fits strategically into the local economies with similar buying power.

The term “specialty” has made some of us, somewhat, bias toward darker roasts—without taking its context into consideration. I believe, as coffee professionals, we should embrace the attitude of focusing on how to make tasty lemonade more than fixating on why the lemon is too sour. We need to accept and respect the existence of commercial coffees just as much as we do for the specialty values behind the “crop to cup” recognition—both are there for valid reasons and with room to grow. This is the belief and attitude we had installed for the three coffee options that we serve, aiming to gradually reconcile coffee drinkers of different contexts—one cup at a time.

Darkling, Dark Matter, and, our latest: Black Market are the three blends I created with roasting profiles closer to what many call “Italian style” coffee. They are also the most popular amongst local drinkers, attracting those who love a daily cup with rich body, low acidity, and boldly aromatic with a slightly smoky finish. These blends mostly consist of specialty graded beans from Brazil, Central America, Indonesia, or PNG. Each combination yields to the popular chocolatey and nutty flavours. In geeky roasting terms, I focus on how to preserve as much origin characters as possible while stepping a toe into the second crack. The key is to strike a balance between sweetness, acidity, and bitterness, one that is most celebrated by the masses. The mission I want these blends to carry out is to sugar-coat the largely unorthodox specialty elements with mainstream appeals. Bridging the gap between the specialty market and the local market with a with a gentle and human-centred transition.

Single Origin Espresso (SOE) is the next in our lineup. It’s a seasonal selection of specialty beans from farms of different producing countries. The diversity of the Arabica species is multiplied with sensory excitement when the origin factor comes to play. Each region is trying to charm the world with their produce. The name of the country per se is no longer enough to convince sophisticated drinkers, they want to know the specifics: where was the region or farm the coffee was grown; how are the environmental conditions like there; the variety and size of the beans; and the way it was harvested and processed. To consumers, these are the stories that fascinate them. To a roaster, these are very useful data to determine what roast level and profile would bring out the best in each batch. And this kind of information is never stagnant, each season sparks unpredictable changes—sometimes good and other times not. This adds to the SOE a volatile but ever-interesting factor that aligns to our spirit of constant exploring and learning in the vast world of coffee.

Last but not least, Red Earth is our unchanging option and has been available since the day Earthlings open for business. It’s not a blend nor an origin name, in fact, the name was inspired by the orangey-red colour from the grounds of a well-developed light roast coffee. It will always comprise the freshest Grade 1 beans, naturally processed (sun dried) in various Ethiopian regions. Some may ask: why stick to Ethiopia, and why natural process? Well, not only the country is the motherland of all coffees, but also, the origin of mankind. Its colourful history works hand-in-hand in respect to what we believe in, and will always deserve a place amongst our grinder hoppers—not to mention our unconditional love for its mesmerising flavours! When we think Ethiopia, we instantly think of fruits: blueberry; strawberry; apricot; grapes; etc, which may sound absurd to those who are used to the bittersweet, deeply caramelised flavours. Thus we want the locals to wake up—from their consolidated beliefs about how coffee should taste—to the sharp contrast of this vibrantly fruity coffee.

Red Earth is roasted very light in order to bring out its fruity and floral characters, and this is what third wave specialty coffee is known for—to emphasise regional flavours and uniqueness through different light roast techniques. But how light is “very light”? There are different schools of thought on the subject and more precise ways to determine roast levels, apart from sensory perception, with colour-detecting machines that yield numerical values such as the Agtron number. But a mere value does not give us anything qualitative in terms of taste. Is there a correct way to roasting light? We were in the dark, and my solution was to look to the those who have a long history of roasting light: the Northern Europeans. It has been their norm to roast light since the early days of coffee consumerism. When they were able to buy the best quality beans they could get their hands on, the privileged roasters were expected to work on bringing out the best, natural characters of the ingredients at hand. Thus, they have developed, from experience, a light roast style to do just that throughout the course of history. To them, it’s the way all coffees should be treated, while we call it: the Nordic approach.

To make sure we were on the right track, I sought to learn from the best. First, a roasting workshop conducted by the serial Nordic coffee roasting champion and 2015 champion of the World Coffee Roasting Championship: Audun Sørbotten from Norway. Then, also from Norway, we have invited Jon Willassen to Kuching as our operation consultant and trainer for our baristas, at the same time, crosscheck and calibrate our Nordic roasting style. An experienced Cup of Excellence (CoE) judge, Jon was also the head roaster and quality control director of Solberg & Hansen; a pioneering company in specialty coffee of Norway. Recently, I’ve also discovered some valuable roasting techniques shared with me by Mr Yuing Tsai—a renowned coffee professional from Taiwan—during a workshop he had conducted. Come to think of it, learning and do well in roasting light was never a smooth path for us, but it was definitely worth the time and conscientious effort.

The name Earthlings literally means all living things on earth, which includes: people and coffee—the latter could not exist without the former; which is also true, for some, vice versa. Therefore, our values are closely tied with the two, expressed through our service and the core products that I had elaborated above: to bring specialty coffee closer to people, encourage the spirit to explore and to honour and respect the origin of coffee and mankind. We will stay true to these values in providing an authentic, unique, and down-to-earth coffee experience for all who cross our path.

Rave KwokComment