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Experts pick out the flavours we'll all be wanting more of.

Byline: BEER

ON a good day Mike Riley can taste 200 coffees. A similar shift sees Sean Franklin tracing identical flavours through grapes and hops.

"Mornings are better," says Mike, head of coffee at Taylor's of Harrogate.

Sean, head brewer at Rooster's Brewery, also in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, says: "What you're selling is interest and excitement."

Both are rare breeds - professionals with extraordinary sensory capabilities who can detect fruit-like acidity in Kenyan coffee, exotic earthiness in Sumatran, lychee aromas in Cascade hops from Washington State, US, and the peach and spice of the Liberty variety.

And both rely heavily on small-scale experimentation before nose, palate and educated hunch combine to produce commercial batches.

The sample roaster at the 123-year-old Taylor's can take only 200 grams of coffee beans at a time, but the larger trial roaster can accommodate five kilos for experimentation before the information is saved and developed on computer.

Similarly, a couple of miles away at Rooster's where Sean and his son Sam operate one of the country's most innovative brewing operations, a product development assessment is the first step to any new beer.

"Everything we produce new goes through three or four stages," says Sean, revealing their small-but-perfectly-formed brew kit.

"It's the first part of a balancing act. There's a big demand from wholesalers for individual products, but it's quite risky for us to try something on the big plant so we go through this process of research and development. It's very automated, it's excellent, it cost a fortune."

We've been spending a full day with coffee and beer enthusiasts and absorbing their intensity, which makes you wonder why there are those who still think coffee is coffee and beer is beer and never the twain shall meet. But there's a lot more connecting them.

"I joined Taylor's as a trainee taster 22 years ago," says Mike Riley. "Now I run the quality assurance department. I then moved on to be coffee-buying trainee and spent three months in Kenya.

"We send people to Nicaragua, Brazil and El Salvador as well. I'll be going to Sumatra and Ethiopia this year and I've already been to Mexico.

"We have an ethical approach on how we source our coffee - some of the farmers we deal with employ hundreds of people who are dependent on our prices.

"The market goes up and down so we constantly check the weather reports. If a frost hits the growing season it can do a lot of damage."

Observing a coffee taster in full flow is an interesting experience. He scoops a spoonful from a line-up of cups and with a long, deep slurp, throws it across his palate, chews, then projects it into a metal container which looks for all the world like a champagne bucket.

In the meantime he's impressing us on acidity levels, toasted hazelnut, caramel sweetness and berry flavours. "Arabica has more finesse," he says.

Scoop. "Robusta is more resistant to disease." Slurp. "In general, the higher the altitude the better the coffee - it grows more slowly and develops flavour. Nicaragua is the most important growing country to Taylor's, we get 30% of our coffee from there. Java is full-on chocolate." Spit.

Where Taylor's headquarters is all smoked glass and exposed brickwork, Rooster's (and its development arm Outlaw) is what Sean Franklin describes as "a long shed" - a Nissen-style hut with a curved and ribbed roof.

The office is a container on stilts, but the main 25-barrel (900 gallons) brew plant brought eight years ago from Crooked River in Cleveland, Ohio, is about as efficient as it gets.

Sean studied wine in Bordeaux and Burgundy as a young man and he delights in comparing aromas and flavour compounds between grapes and hops.

"We don't aim at the main market, our beers are a bit different," he says. "Big sales mean beer is less individual. I thought when I started (in 1985) I'm going to learn exactly how to produce beer with an intensity of aroma balanced by a primacy of taste and a long finish so the beer hangs around a long time.

"Beer isn't an alcoholic commodity.

Speak to anyone in the wine industry, they'd pay an extra pounds 2 for a bottle of wine if you say it's going to taste better. I can't get the right price but I can get the right taste, so what do we use?

Hops. We can get grapefruit flavours, lychee flavours, peach flavours, etc etc.

"There's always going to be vegetable characteristics in hops and spicy, fruity and floral aromas, so how do you get the floral to the fore and not be blown off? "You know you're doing well if people can taste the flavours. The trick is to have enough of the aromatics in the first taste for people to like with less on the second and less on the third. Then they go back for another, chasing the flavours.

"You don't give them a smack in the face so that they don't want any more. You have to be ingenious to stop getting too much spice at the end from a hop; that rasp in your throat.

"We set about deciding on what flavour we want, so for our Yankee bitter we're looking at Muscat grapes; for Wild Mule it's Sauvignon and for Wrangler, passion fruit."

Sean's obsession with hops is equalled by Mike's boundless enthusiasm for the coffee bean.

He explains how Kenyan coffee is "just amazing" served with freshly squeezed lemon juice; why Ethiopia - where the deciduous plant still grows wild - is "the home of coffee" and how volcanoes, hurricanes and politics can have an effect on his supply. "We moved into Zambia from Zimbabwe when things got too bad," he says.

Sean and Sam have also developed their portfolio through a complementary choice of raw materials. They use only Golden Promise malted barley in their beers, the variety used in the Scotch whisky industry. That it comes at a premium price is secondary to the desired effect, even for Yorkshiremen.

"We started off using Maris Otter malt but that has too much flavour," says Sam. "Basically we use it as a sugar source, which is important in terms of clarity. The colour is important to us - if you want the hop aromas you don't show a lot of malt - and coloured malts disguise hop aromas."

Sean, former wine-man, opens the hop debate even further. Contrary to popular belief, fresh doesn't necessarily mean best, he reckons.

"We keep hops up to two years and store them at 3[bar]-5[bar]C," he says. "I like the maturation of aromas, you can use hops too green and what you smell in your hand doesn't translate to when they're boiled.

"With Amarillo and Crystal varieties, the bitterness vanishes then there are only aromatics left - Crystal has got a really orange flavour, but you'd normally describe the smell of old hops as 'catty'."

He then defines his Dry Irish Stout as full of coffee and chocolate flavours. Mike Riley compares Columbian coffee to India Pale Ale and explains how Kopi Luwak is made from beans first passed through the digestive tract of the wild civet cat.

It all goes to show that beer is coffee and coffee is... something else.


ATTENTION TO DETAIL Sam and his father, Sean Franklin, of Rooster's Brewery, in Harrogate.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Aug 7, 2009
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