Costa Coffee, the UK’s Number 1 coffee chain, uses just one blend for its espresso-based drinks: the smooth, round, and rich Mocha Italia. Originally created by the Costa Brothers when they started selling their premium coffee to local caterers in 1971, its exact components are a closely guarded secret.
It’s up to one man to make sure that today’s exclusive blend retains the same perfect balance of sweetness and acidity that the original had more than 40 years ago. Master Taster Gennaro Pelliccia is so key to Costa’s operations and quality control that his tongue was famously insured by Lloyd’s of London for £10 million. Why is the blend so important? “No single origin will give you the complexity or roundness required of the espresso blend,” he says. “We blend because we want to mix the characteristics of the beans.” Part of his job is to personally sample each batch of raw beans at Costa’s London Roastery in Old Paradise Street before they are roasted and sent to stores around the world.
Master Gennaro recently visited the Costa Coffee BGC branch to conduct an exclusive Masterclass during which he talked about what makes great coffee, led a lively cupping session, and even helped guests create their own Costa Coffee drinks.
We began the class by quickly inhaling the scent of three cups of freshly roasted and ground coffee beans from different countries. We were asked to describe the characteristics of each aroma. The rich and nutty Colombia beans were the most recognizable to the class. Kenya was citrus-like and enzymatic, and Indonesia was deep, dark, and earthy.
When we finished evaluating the aroma of the dry coffee, we carefully poured hot water (over 90 degrees Celsius) into the cups. “Wet every single ground,” advised Master Gennaro. We waited four minutes for the saturated coffee grounds to settle. A thick crust of grounds slowly appeared at the surface of each cup. Then it was time to “crack the crust.” We broke the crusty surfaces with cupping spoons and allowed the grinds to sink while putting our noses close to the cups to take in the rich aromas released into the air.
After cracking the crust, we used two cupping spoons for the surprisingly challenging task of slowly skimming the remaining grounds from the surface without disturbing the grinds at the bottom of the cups. It took several attempts to clear the surface (pros can do this by skimming the surface with spoons just twice, as Master Gennaro demonstrated).
It was finally time to taste the coffee samples. This was not something that could be accomplished quietly. “Spray the inside of your mouth with the coffee,” instructed Master Gennaro. Coating the back of the nasal passages and throat with coffee is the best way to fully explore the aromas and taste. We dipped our spoons into the liquid, took loud and sharp slurps from each cup, and rotated tastes as the coffee cooled. After the noisy slurping and swilling (and spitting, for some), we wrote down our tasting notes and discussed the aftertaste and finish.
The cupping session was a fun and fascinating way to refine the palate by evaluating the taste and aroma of coffee in its different stages. Even without a mental library of tasting notes to tap to creatively describe flavors and scents, it was still worthwhile to note the distinguishable characteristics that were easily observed in the different samples of single origin beans. And now I appreciate all the work that goes into selecting the elements that make the perfect cup.
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