Two writers visit two different Bangkok-based roasteries, each of which offers specialized cupping and roasting courses
Are you a coffee nerd? Do you know the elevation of where your coffee beans were planted? Then a coffee cupping course at Red Diamond (733 Sangkhom Songkhro Rd) may just be for you.
The first thing to know about a coffee cupping course is what it is not. It’s not an excuse to sip premium coffees from around the world. It is a course, meaning it is trying to educate you on sensory appreciation of coffee—why certain coffees may taste a certain way—and possibly train you to become a coffee judge.
The course takes place in classrooms, and some of the tasting involves solutions or esters to familiarize your taste buds with both flavours and off-flavours. In this regard, it is similar to wine or beer appreciation classes. Red Diamond is the new kid on the block in Bangkok, offering a cupping course (B4,000) along with a basic barista course (B4,500), as well as advance brewing (B8,000) and roasting (B8,000) courses.
Nicholas Haw, a barista originally from South Africa, said the backbone of Red Diamond is teaching and roasting for other companies, but the space on the corner of Sangkhom Songkhro and Pradit Manutham roads, right underneath the Ekkamai-Ram Intra Expressway, does a blistering business as a café as well.
The café has two levels, enrobed in concrete and mesh metal fencing. It features big sliding warehouse doors and pounds hip-hop. There are large containers, bags, and even test tubes of coffee beans everywhere in the building, as well as more machines related to coffee than one would think is humanly possible to acquire. Upstairs customers can play vintage video games under old industrial light fixtures, and the baristas wear one heat-resistant black glove, à la Luke Skywalker.
As should be obvious, Red Diamond wants to be fun, but it is also deadly serious about coffee. The company has its own coffee farm in Chiang Rai and you can drink award-winning cups of coffee from around the world at the café, with espressos starting from B120.
“We are not coffee snobs here,” said Haw. “Our goal is to promote education and appreciation, not stop people from going to the coffee shops they like. The quality of coffee shops in Bangkok is very good in general. There are a few poor ones, but the market will weed them out.”
The arrival of Red Diamond in Bangkok shows that specialization for coffee has reached its apex in the capital, similar to the evolution of whiskey, wine, and chocolate culture. Coffee has been popular in Chiang Mai for a while, owing mostly to the beans they serve being produced in the hills of the North.
“Chiang Mai has a healthy coffee culture, but it’s kind of a monoculture—they use only Thai beans,” remarks Haw as he slowly pours hot water from a fake copper pot into a coffee filter placed on a scale. “In order to improve their coffee there, they need to open up to other kinds of coffee beans, and invite in outsiders to share their knowledge. Thai growers have recently started to enter international coffee competitions and have had decent results. No market in the world has ever reached global prominence without opening up to outside competition and testing its products.”
Most of the students in Red Diamond’s coffee courses are enthusiasts, according to Haw; people working in the coffee business and even some farmers who want to be able to assess how they can produce a better bean. The tastings take place in a “laboratory”, often with all the lights off save one red bulb, similar to a photographer’s darkroom (or the entrance to a whorehouse). It could be a literal interpretation of the phrase “blind taste test”, or perhaps the beans are light-sensitive.
Students will learn about the factors that can make aroma volatile, of which there are multitudes. Yes, the elevation of the coffee farm does affect the enzymes in the bean, which plays a part in the aroma produced. The enzymatic elements in coffee beans are lighter in molecular weight than other components, so they rise quicker than other aromas.
The cupping course also covers the three main types of coffee processing methods: wet, dry, and honey. Indonesia has its own method for processing coffee because it rains so much there. In that country they throw away the cherry—the fruit covering the bean—and put the beans out in the sun to dry as quickly as possible because they’ve already been exposed to so much moisture.
You might be surprised to know a typical cup of coffee is 98-99 percent water and only 1-2 percent coffee beans. The fine folks at Red Diamond are keen to fill you in on other information through their Intercof Academy courses, licensed by both the Specialty Coffee Associations of America and Europe.
Red Diamond is open from 11am to 8pm, Tuesday to Sunday. To find out more about the times and dates of upcoming courses, call 085 044 2662 or visit www.facebook.com/reddiamondcafe.
By Robin Banks
BIY COFFEE BAR
Although it’s centrally located—just a stone’s throw from the Hua Lamphong railway station—the recently opened BIY Coffee Bar is somewhat easy to miss, as it’s hidden away on the 2nd floor of the Prime Station Hotel (23/34 Tri Mit Rd). But if you’re a self-confessed coffee geek you probably already know about the café’s location and the fact that BIY, which stands for “brew-it-yourself”, is also a showroom for the online coffee equipment shop Beans Here.
The white-walled interior is minimal, to say the least, but large floor to ceiling windows at one end of the room let in plenty of daylight. And while you couldn’t exactly classify it as “cozy”, it’s bright and clean and what’s evident from the get go that the focus here is on coffee… pure and simple.
The man in charge is roaster and co-owner Sirichai ‘So’ Sakornvisava (above), who offers one-day roasting courses for B3,000 per person, as well as cupping classes which vary in price depending on the plantations being sampled. On a recent Sunday afternoon I attended a cupping class being offered for free—registration is essential however—which showcased coffees from three different farms in the Mae Hong Son region of Northern Thailand.
I was accompanied in the class by about a dozen other coffee enthusiasts—of all ages, but all were Thai—and while the course was given in Thai, Khun So speaks excellent English and was able to answer all my questions and explain to me the procedures involved in a proper cupping session.
The session begins with the coffee beans being weighed out into exact portions, then ground and put into plain transparent glasses (each covered by a glass saucer) that are then arranged on the two large tables being used for the tastings. While the water is being heated, the students walk from one set of cups to the other, briefly removing the saucer lid and deeply inhaling the aromas of the different beans, which in turn have gone through different preparation and roasting processes.
When the water has reached the correct and precise temperature, it is poured onto the grounds—again, in specific portions—and the coffee now steeps for four minutes. When the allotted time is up, students then take a spoon and slowly push away the top layer “crust” (bubbles and stray grounds) that has formed on the surface. Having done this three times we are then instructed to inhale deeply the true aroma of the brewed coffee.
Finally, after carefully removing completely the remaining crust and crema with our spoons, we then take a spoonful of unadulterated coffee and noisily slurp it into our mouths. The sound of a dozen adults making exaggerated suction noises is quite amusing at first, but Khun So explains that the slurping action aerates the coffee and enhances the ability to distinguish the flavours. After each taste students dip their spoon into glasses of clear water before trying the next coffee sample. And while novices like me swallow the finished product (cuz we just love coffee), the java purists have a paper cup close at hand and spit their sips out after “tasting” the brew.
For the beginner it might be difficult to distinguish too much difference between each coffee sample, and even So admits that the coffees we are sampling are all Arabica beans, grown in roughly the same region, but he adds that the different altitudes they are grown at, coupled with the different washing and roasting methods, do give some a rich, more robust flavour, and others a lighter more floral quality.
In the end it was an interesting and informative experience, but a far cry from a Sunday afternoon spent “enjoying” a perfectly prepared coffee, and finishing the entire cup. For that, you’re better off just ordering a slow pour coffee (B120) from the handful of roasts on offer each day—check the whiteboard behind the counter for the daily offerings—and if you “brew-it-yourself” you get a 20 percent discount. The minimal menu also includes a small selection of teas, as well as a few dessert-type sweets, and you can purchase bags of their roasted beans which the staff will grind to your coffee maker’s specifications.
BIY Coffee Bar is open from 10:30am to 6:30pm, Saturday to Thursday. To find out more about the times and dates of upcoming courses, call 084 514 2914 or visit www.facebook.com/biybybeanshere.
By Bruce Scott