There are a lot of different things that you can go to school to study, from anthropology to virology, from auto mechanics to cooking. But some fields are best learned on the job – either because you need experience to achieve peak performance or because it just isn’t taught anywhere. Coffee falls into that later category, even though plenty of people specialize in it, since you can’t gain tasting experience from a textbook. Recently, however, I was invited to attend Starbucks Coffee College. The Coffee College was a day-long seminar hosted for several food writers courtesy of the specialty coffee chain.
Coffee College started with a quick trip through Starbucks history and a little tour of the store in Los Angeles that we met at. College was small, just myself and one other writer, and two members of the Coffee Experience (i.e. Education) team from Starbucks’ corporate office. Primarily, this portion of the day talked about how Starbucks started as a specialty coffee retailer, providing and creating blends of coffee beans that were representative of beans from a specific region of the world.
After this, we were given a very detailed account of Starbucks’ involvement in various coffee growing communities and how they are continually increasing their efforts to have every bean they buy ethically sourced. This program is called Shared Planet and designates three goals: source coffee ethically, act as good stewards of the environment and become active in communities where Starbucks does business. This means that the company does things like help farmers learn how to grow the best coffee beans and protect their lands from the threat of natural disasters, like mudslides, by encouraging them to grown non-coffee trees in with their crops to lend support to hillsides and topsoil. Activities like these have been undertaken in many coffee growing areas, and not just with growers who have contracts with or regularly sell to Starbucks. Teaching the growers to protect their crops and learn ways to produce better quality beans means that farmers’ crops can fetch higher prices on the open market, as well as from Starbucks.
But the most important thing is the flavor of the coffee, isn’t it? The next part of Coffee College was all about roasting beans, cupping coffee and how the beans are bought. There are only 4 buyers for Starbucks. Those four people can cup as many as 800 cups of coffee PER DAY when they’re tasting crops to see what Starbucks should buy. We cupped Kenya coffee beans that had been stopped at various stages of the roasting process and it was very interesting to see how the flavor of the coffee improved, grew more complex and then lost that complexity when it was finally (at the end) over-roasted.
After the cupping, we headed over to Lucques for a coffee pairing lunch to see how the regional coffees paired with – ir didn’t pair with – various foods. Photos of lunch are here, and more photos of the College event are here on Flickr. If you’re curious, Starbucks is thinking about offering Coffee College in the future to members of the public, but isn’t quite ready to list a date for potential students to sign up.