Nagpur-based Mithilesh Vazalwar opens up on life as a professional coffee taster and AeroPress whiz
For Mithilesh Vazalwar, 29, making the perfect cup of coffee is a science. He grinds the beans on the spot, measures them on a tiny weighing scale and keeps a check on the temperature of the water, before putting the ingredients into an AeroPress. As a heady aroma infuses the air, he moves his face close to the cup, dips a spoon and takes a quick slurp. “This is how you actually taste coffee. It’s called cupping, and involves understanding the variables in coffee—how and when it was roasted, the grind size, the brewing method and duration," he says. Nagpur-based Vazalwar belongs to the small number of Q Graders in India, professional cuppers who are accredited by the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI), an international non-profit that works towards improving the quality of coffee produced globally. Vazalwar was certified by Melbourne-based Veneziano Coffee Roasters. He represented India at the recently held World AeroPress Championship in Seoul, where he competed with coffee experts from 60 countries, and cupped close to 400 coffees. Edited excerpts from an interview:
While French Press has been around for decades, AeroPress is a more recent invention. What are the main differences in the flavour of the coffee? Is one better than the other?
French Press uses a mesh filter which does not absorb the oils, allowing the particles to get into the coffee, which many people like. It tastes bolder and has a bigger mouthfeel. AeroPress uses a paper filter which absorbs the oil, and no micro particles get into your cup. The taste is cleaner and sweeter, with no sediments. I wouldn’t say if one’s better over the other, as that’s quite subjective. However, I’ve seen many people moving from French Press to AeroPress, saying they’ve never experienced that sweet clean finish before.
Has the Indian coffee drinker become more discerning or is coffee still about frappes and flavourings?
Many people associate black coffee with bitterness. This is actually just one component—coffee has 850 flavour compounds. Even when I serve a pour over, I tell people to try it without milk and sugar. Compared to two years ago, consumers are now understanding what goes into their coffee and there’s more awareness about speciality coffee. It’s becoming cool. More roasters are coming into the picture and I won’t be surprised if, in a year or two, we see customers coming to a café or roastery with specifications on grind size and brewing temperature.
Tell us a little about becoming a certified Q grader.
It’s intensive. For almost a month before the Q Grader exam, I was on a diet of salads, hummus and pita bread because I wanted to keep my tongue sensitive enough to pick on minor subtleties. The exam is divided into 22 tests—one theory and the rest, sensory. In the cupping test, you have to cup four flights (each flight contains six different coffee samples that the candidate grades)—Asia, Africa, natural and mild. It’s conducted in red light so you can’t see what’s in the cup, and have to use only smell and taste. You have to be super quick and give a score on 10 parameters like flavour, aroma, aftertaste, acidity and balance.
What do you think of the quality of coffee being grown in India, and the move towards home-grown coffees vis-à-vis imported beans?
What people don’t realize is that India is the sixth largest coffee-growing nation in the world, and the quality is mind-blowing. People from other countries are coming to India with the intention of investing in speciality coffee. People are ready to pay more for a cup of good coffee. Specialty coffee is marketed as elite or expensive, which it’s not. It means you’re roasting it fresh, sourcing it good and brewing it with a method. As it gets popular and more roasters come up in India, there will be healthy competition. Earlier, farmers didn’t know where the coffee beans they grew was going. That’s changing now, with roasters asking farmers to experiment with their lots and demanding better quality.
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