I recently visited Barrington Coffee at their roastery in Lee, MA, in the heart of the Berkshires. Roastmaster Brian Heck, along with fellow coffee alchemist Paul, guided me through Barrington’s process of coaxing the delicate aromas and fine flavors out of their unroasted, green coffee beans. It takes an artisan’s practiced touch, a connoisseur’s critical taste, and a farmer’s dedication to his crop to create the consistently outstanding coffees Barrington is known for.
Brian began by guiding me through the roasting process, from bag to finished bean. Barrington Coffee has three roasters, the largest handling up to 60 lbs. and the smallest able to roast as little as 1/4 lb. at a time. When I visited, Brian and Paul were manning all three roasters, producing select origin as well as blended coffees.
The roastmaster begins by hoisting bags – up to 150 lbs. each – to a vacuum that feeds green beans into a waiting hopper, positioned atop an already-fired roaster.
With the fire off, the temperature is allowed to drop as the green beans are slowly added and gradually reach an equilibrium at a little above 200°F. With the fire on and drum turning, the temperature climbs and hovers in the 400°F range. The exact temperature varies by region and batch.
There is no set “doneness” for any given bean. Instead, the roastmaster checks the beans’ progress with a sort of core sampler, not unlike the tool we cheesemongers use to check on the progress of wheels as they age in our cave. Barrington roast times are relatively short by industry standards: the longer it takes to bring a bean to its optimal roast temperature, the more “cooked” or “baked” the final coffee will taste.
Once the right temperature is reached and the coffee has gone “exothermic”, meaning no additional heat is being applied but the beans’ temperature continues to rise, the roastmaster opens the door of the roaster, the finished beans spilling out to begin slowly cooling down.
As they’re cooling, the roaster looks for anomalies. Any beans that are defective, over-roasted (sometimes a bean gets stuck in one spot as it roasts), or under-ripe are removed with a practiced hand. Under-ripe beans are called “quakers” and, after roasting, taste more like toasted rice or popcorn than coffee.
Once the beans cool and (if applicable) are blended, they head into the bagging machine, where they’re weighed and bagged. This is still a manual process, the machines just expedite the pouring and ensure the numbers are right.
The bags are then heat-sealed, the familiar flexible wire tie is added, and Barrington’s signature “batch roasted in the Berkshires” seal is added.
So how does it all taste? Brian, Gregg (one of the company’s co-founders) and I cupped three coffees – all recently roasted and chosen to represent a wide range of aromas and flavors: earthy (Sumatra Aceh Grower’s Cooperative), brightly acid (Kenya AA Ruiru Mills Estate), and richly balanced (Colombian La Esperanza). Brian began by measuring out 9 grams of coffee per cup, adding water just off the boil, and allowing steeping for two minutes while it developed a thick “crust” of grounds on top.
At the second minute mark, we broke the crust with spoons and gently pushed it under the surface, our noses close to the surface, inhaling deeply the aromas released by the breaking crust.
A coffee’s aroma is just as important, (if not more so!), as the actual taste, and breaking the crust in this manner is the best way to assess it. After two more minutes, the grounds have settled into the bottom of each cup, and we begin to taste.
So what’s the proper way to taste at a cupping? A noisy slurp! We would lift each spoon of coffee to our lips, then slurp the liquid quickly back across the palate, covering the surface of the tongue and palate with a quick spray of coffee. This allows the flavors to be best and most completely appreciated. We started with the Sumatran, an earthy, heady cup, like the loam of a forest floor. It’s hard to find Sumatran coffees that are this deep any more, since processing standards have changed and tend to favor a more washed, “clean” flavor. But this depth is really what Indonesian coffee is all about, and Barrington’s has it. Next, the Kenya AA Ruiru, my personal favorite, exploded across my palate with incredibly lively acidity, dying down slowly and giving off floral and grapey aromas as the flavor dissipated. The final coffee was the Colombian La Esperanza, with a beautifully dense but delicate body, rising in pitch with a light acidity, but remaining true to its deeper and richer notes – a very pretty coffee, with an integrated diversity of flavors.
Quickly realizing that the Kenya AA Ruiru Mills Estate was my personal favorite, Brian filled a bag for me, Paul showed me how to seal it properly, and I attached the metal closing strip and seal. Of course, we had to make sure the coffee had its date of roast on the bottom – that same day, May 10! Shortly afterward, I thanked Brian, Paul, and Gregg for what had been an educational and delicious day at the roastery.
At Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, our ever-changing stock of Barrington coffees includes the Kenya AA, a single-origin espresso from Daterra Farms in Brazil, the company’s Espresso Gold, and several other select origin coffees. Look out for the Sumatra Aceh and the Colombian La Primavera in coming weeks.
In addition to being our coffee buyer, Matthew Swoveland is a cheesemonger and cheese buyer at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.