Dynamic Duos: New Opportunities for Comparative Tasting

By Evan Howe

Our latest collection of Reserve and Education Lot releases adds a fascinating spectrum of comparative tasting opportunities to Passenger’s menu.

In curating this fresh lineup, we selected a group of stellar new coffees that are not only delicious when enjoyed individually, but also offer a chance to taste a variety of intentionally selected pairings side by side. We’ve listed notes for three of these dynamic duos below, and if you find comparative tasting to be a fun and delicious way to explore our menu, don’t hesitate to reach out for more pairing recommendations!

Duo #1: Comparing Two Numbered Lots from the Kanzu Washing Station

2020 marked the sixth consecutive year that Passenger has purchased coffee produced by the Kanzu washing station, located on the shores of Lake Kivu in southwestern Rwanda. Our annual selection process usually proceeds in exactly the same way each year: we receive samples in late summer from our Rwanda supply chain partners at Red Fox Coffee Merchants, evaluate the various numbered lots that are offered to us on the cupping table, and forward book a requested volume of our favorite lot amongst that harvest’s available options. Each year, the numbered lot that we select, whether “Lot 8”, or “Lot 10”, or “Lot 15”, is released on the Reserve Lot menu as our “Kanzu” selection for that particular harvest.

At Kanzu, a “lot” is composed of the coffee from approximately one week’s worth of coffee cherry, delivered to the station by local farmers during the harvest. Each lot ultimately amounts to about 45 bags (60 kg. each) of exportable green coffee. During peak harvest, a lot might represent 3-4 days of cherry deliveries, during the beginning and the end of harvest, the time frame might stretch closer to 7-10 days. So, the lot numbers in this context indicate the relative point of the annual harvest timeline that a particular lot represents. In a standard year, the total number of lots produced at Kanzu tends to be around 20.

Passenger contracted a small portion of Lot 7 as well as Lot 16 from the 2020 Kanzu harvest. Following the above description, Lot 7 is composed of coffee delivered and processed approximately 7 weeks into the harvest, while Lot 16 (at 16 weeks in) represents a considerably later moment in the overall timeline - probably pretty close to the end of peak harvest. We think both of these lots are absolutely stellar, and they certainly offer different cup profiles. For us, Lot 7 presents as quite rich and balanced with predominant baking spice and browning sugar qualities, while Lot 16 is the more fruit-forward of the two, with a juicier, more dynamic acidity. When enjoyed side by side, the two selections provide a fascinating reflection of how the harvest evolved at Kanzu last year.

Duo #2: Exploring the Impact of Wet vs. Dry Fermentation in Burundi

"Fermentation” is a tricky and potentially misleading term in the context of specialty coffee production. While it is understandable that many coffee enthusiasts have drawn parallels between the use of fermentation in coffee processing and, say, fermentation techniques in winemaking, the function and impact of fermentation in coffee is really quite different from the central role that it plays in the production of wine and other fermented beverages such as beer and kombucha. With that said, while coffee is not a fermented beverage, spontaneous fermentation involving natural yeasts and bacteria certainly plays a key role in most coffee processing around the world.

The specific function of fermentation in this context is to help remove the sticky, sugary layer of mucilage that remains on the surface of the coffee seed after its fruit has been removed by a pulping machine. Yeasts and bacteria in the air, on the fruit, or in the water if the freshly pulped coffee is soaking in a tank, play a key role in breaking down the sugars in the coffee’s mucilage. With a little time and agitation, the mucilage can be completely removed and a handful of formerly sticky coffee seeds begin to feel smooth like river pebbles. Once it reaches this stage, the coffee is ready to be dried. So, when we talk about fermentation in coffee processing, we are not specifically stating that the coffee is itself fermented, but more that microbes have been employed to “demucilaginate” freshly pulped coffee so that it can be successfully dried, milled, exported, roasted, ground, brewed, and enjoyed!

While some kind of fermentation stage occurs in all versions of the wet process (except in cases where the mucilage is mechanically removed), specific approaches vary in different parts of the coffee producing world. At some processing sites, the freshly pulped coffee ferments in a tank in the open air, while at others the fermentation stage occurs with the coffee fully submerged under water. The former approach is often referred to as “dry fermentation” while the latter is generally described as “wet fermentation”. While both approaches can result in excellent quality coffee, they certainly differ in terms of the type of fermentation environment that the coffee navigates during processing and different fermentation environments can certainly impact the cup profile that the coffee ultimately exhibits.

On our last trip to visit our friends and Foundational Partners at the Long Miles Coffee Project in Burundi in February 2020, we asked the coffee quality team if they would be willing to help us conduct an initial experiment to explore the impact of wet and dry fermentation on eventual cup profile. Thanks to their generosity and willingness to support us with this project, the experiment was completed last year and we purchased four distinct experimental lots that were processed from cherry harvested on Gaharo Hill and processed at the Bukeye washing station.

The initial two experiments that we have recently added to the Education Lot menu originated as a single allotment of cherry that was delivered to the washing station on June 8th, 2020. Half of the delivery underwent wet fermentation following pulping, and the other half was dry fermented in the open air. Both lots were soaked in clean water following fermentation before being moved to raised beds for drying. Tasting these two lots, which in our opinion are both quite delicious in subtly different ways, is a fascinating experience, and we’re already dreaming up new experiments for the upcoming harvest.

Duo #3: Contrasting a “Field Blend” with a “Variety Separation” from Divino Niño

Passenger’s year round Foundational offering from Divino Niño can be described as a “field blend” meaning that it is composed of multiple arabica varieties such as caturra, colombia, castillo, gesha, etc., that are cultivated on member farms that contribute to this community lot. While it is certainly the case that “variety separations” (lots that are composed of a single arabica variety rather than a mix of varieties) are often more sought after by specialty roasting companies when compared to field blends, we at Passenger feel that this hierarchy of preference is not always justified. In our experience, both can be incredibly delicious! There is a genuine gestalt effect that is often observable in well-produced field blends, whether from a single farm or from a group of farms, and there is a clarity of flavor profile, as influenced by specific plant genetics, that well-processed variety separations exhibit. Needless to say: we’re here for both, and we like to offer stellar examples of both on our menu.

The recently added Divino Niño Pink Bourbon release is similar to the Divino Niño Foundational lot in that both are community blends composed of coffee from multiple member farms. A number of Divino Niño member farmers produce small amounts of the Pink Bourbon variety, and this year those single-variety deliveries were kept separate and blended together as opposed to joining the community field blend. As the first lot from Divino Niño to be featured on the Education Lot menu, this variety separation represents another application of the general approach we continue to pursue with our Foundational program: striving to develop deeper sourcing partnerships by presenting a diverse spectrum of beautiful coffees, across all areas of our menu, that offer our customers and guests an increasingly nuanced portrait of the highly accomplished coffee farming communities that we work with.

The precise genetic lineage of the Pink Bourbon variety has, as far as we know, not been conclusively established. Some have posited that there are multiple ‘strains’ of Pink Bourbon that may be somewhat distinct from each other and offer significantly different cup profiles. What we can say, at least anecdotally, is that a healthy percentage of the most spectacular Colombian coffees we have tasted recently have been Pink Bourbons. At its best, the variety offers a deep sweetness, piquant acidity, and floral/fruity qualities that support initial evidence indicating that Pink Bourbon is closely related to some sort of Ethiopian landrace variety.

We love tasting these community blends from Divino Niño comparatively, and they certainly offer different cup profiles. For us, the Foundational lot is especially characterized by a concentrated cooked fruit character and deep browning sugar sweetness. By contrast, the Pink Bourbon separation is delicate and tea-like, with subtle notes of fresh apricot and sweet florals. Enjoying both of these lots side by side enables a unique exploration of plant genetics that is core to the vision of Passenger’s Education Lot menu.

Dynamic Duos: New Opportunities for Comparative Tasting