So after two days at the Curso Internacional de Degustação e Classificação de Café, I must say that my expectations have been exceeded. Granted, my expectations were fairly low, not because of anything I had heard or any negative perceptions about the ACS, but simply because spending one month classifying commercial coffee and learning to cup defects is far from regularly cupping some of Brazil’s best coffees. A little bit about the course…
The ACS certification is one of the most widely recognized certifications worldwide. Completion of the course and a passing grade on the test gives one the title of “coffee classifier.”
The Course Instructors
The two main teachers for the course are Professor Davi and Professor Nilton. One would expect to have experienced teachers here in Santos, and on this, the course definitely delivers. Between the two of them they have over 100 yrs experience in classifying coffee. What I find even more amazing than their knowledge of coffee, is their humility towards coffee. How many times have you come across someone who learned how to pour some latte art or took a few SCAA or other coffee courses and is dogmatically condescending to you because they think they hold tons of “coffee knowledge.” And yet here are two guys each with over 50 years experience and the humility they show is amazing. They love coffee; not boosting their egos by telling you how they are “coffee experts.”
By nationality the class breakdown is 16 Japanese, 1 Taiwanese, and 1 American. By gender it is 16 male and 2 female. There is a Japanese interpreter for the Japanese students, and both the Taiwanese student and myself speak Portuguese.
Cupping Lab: This part will be lead by Professor Davi. Every day in the cupping lab we will examine five cups each of two different qualities of coffee. We are prohibited from describing the coffees in technical terms (ferment, Rio, Riado, duro, mole, etc). Instead we need focus on our own perceptions of what we are sensing and hone in on it. I remember when I was training on Le Nez that I started viewing aromas as being in some sense 3-D. Depending on what time of day, what I had just done, how I was feeling, I seemed to smell different aspects of the same aroma. I like their approach to teaching this (although Davi keeps insisting that they are not teaching, they are simply demonstrating how they do it here in Santos). Instead of hammering home “This is the rio defect, this is the rio defect, this is the rio defect” day after day, they force you to keep searching by asking “what do you sense, what do you sense, what do you sense.” Instead of easily slapping a label on the coffee, we are forced to search our own perceptions and augment our repertoire; to put more “knows” on our “know-ledge.”
Classroom sessions: The main focus of the classroom sessions will be in physically sorting the green coffee. However, I was quite impressed by the content that we will cover apart from this. Looking at the course packet, we will cover everything from the history of coffee, to botany, to coffee plant morphology to agronomic aspects to disease and pests to warehousing to processing…. A lot of good stuff.
How is this course different than the SCAA Cupping Judge Course?
The SCAA course is more a series of tests. A lot of pressure in a short period of time. Although there is a small part on classification, the SCAA course is, I thought, concerned more with your ability to distinguish specialty coffees from each other. What are the different types of acidity and what does each taste like? How do you use the SCAA form in evaluating coffee? What are some of the essential aromas found in coffee and can you identify them. The Santos course is a more pragmatic course for those who trade coffee. It is much longer (one month in duration, though only 2 hrs/day) and the purpose is to teach the student how to classify grades of coffee, identify defects, and understand the procession of coffee from field to port.
Why are you taking the course if you work only with Specialty Coffee and not lower-grade Commercial Coffee?
If one is to say “this is not that,” then it follows that one must have knowledge both of “this” and of “that.” Most roasters in the United States (and even nearly all of the ones that profess they perform some sort of “Direct Trade,”) rely on the use of coffee brokers and importers to perform this task for them. The importers are their safeguard against commercial grade coffee, or, worse yet, defective coffee (past crop, rio, ferment, etc). The problem with this is that you are at the mercy of what the importers are buying or willing to buy for you. Our system of putting together microlots from various small producers and vacuum-sealing at source is not feasible under this system, so we assume the safeguard role ourselves. (So if you ever buy some Casa Brasil coffee that you don’t think is up to par, you know where to point the finger.) As Casa Brasil grows, more and more money is at risk and thus we have an even greater need to ensure that we are delivered what we bought. If I miss some ferment or even a slight astringency, money is lost.
Who can take the course?
As far as I know, there are no prerequisites to take the course. The three main requirements are 18+ years old, high school diploma, and a statement from your dentist that your mouth is healthy. I guess they figure that anyone who can spend a month away at a coffee course is serious about coffee. The levels of the students at the course are all over the board, though everyone has at least some experience in coffee. The two big impediments are language (Portuguese only, the Japanese students have brought an interpreter), cost (the course is not expensive, but you must live in Santos for a month), and opportunity cost (a month is a long time to be away from work).