|CAFFEINE CONCLAVE. VA Tech students listen to coffee expert Brian Babcock hold forth on his favorite subject.|
College students are notorious coffee fiends. Like most universities, Virginia Tech in Blacksburg runs a highly successful campus java joint, a self-operated and -branded outlet called Deet’s Place that grinds its own beans and also proffers ice cream and pastries and hosts live entertainment events.
Something else it has been doing recently: hosting a series of “Deet’s Coffee College” classes presented by former assistant manager/brewmaster Brian Babcock. Babcock had presented the first three of his planned four-part coffee series last year when the shooting tragedy on the Blacksburg campus forced cancellation of the final installment.
“A lot of the growth we’ve had in specialty coffee consists of educating the consumer,” says Babcock. “The best way to do that is to have these types of classes. A lot of people are afraid to educate the consumer, but that makes loyal customers if you’re equipping them with knowledge.”
This year, Babcock plans to try again. The first of the planned four classes, COF 101: Introduction to Coffee, was held September 4th.
Presented in a Powerpoint format that lasts about 90 minutes, it provided an historical overview of coffee, as well as how it is grown and processed and what makes quality coffee versus commodity grade. It also touched on the roasting process, brewing styles, and coffee flavor nuances.
Babcock accompanied his talk with a series of pictures he took during his trip to the Selva Negra coffee farm in the mountains of Nicaragua over the summer.
The next one, planned for early November, is a hands-on lab that seeks to demonstrate how grind size and brewing method affect the taste of coffee. The different brewing media, such as French presses, brewers and mocha pots, are each demonstrated with coarse- and fine-ground beans, with students getting to taste the different results.
Babcock also explores different water ratios. “I also touch on espresso because it’s a different method of extraction. Basically, we change the variables to show the effects they have,” he says.
The third class, scheduled for next spring, is also hands-on, a “coffee cupping” exposition that takes students through the same process used by coffee buyers to evaluate the quality of different coffee crops, and by roasters to tweak roast levels. Similar to a wine tasting, a cupping involves a “sensory evaluation” (i.e., sloshing the liquid around in one’s mouth) that tests such factors as body, finish and acidity.
“I’ll do two or three ‘flights’ on three different coffees at a time, usually a Central American, African and Indonesian coffee to show the different characteristics of those different growing areas,” Babcock explains. “I’ll also do two or three different roast levels of each to show how roast level affects taste.”
He also discusses processing methods to show how these affect taste. Processing methods turn the raw coffee tree seeds into coffee beans by removing the pulp from off the seed (which in its raw state resembles a cherry). This affects the ultimate flavor of the coffee made from the beans.
The last class was originally designed to discuss terms like Fair Trade and “shade grown” but Babcock says he may substitute a class in which he demonstrates an actual coffee roasting.
The classes are held in a dining hall seating area after the venue closes for the evening. The first class drew about 40 participants. If the hands-on classes draw that many or more, Babcock says he hopes to hold several sessions to accommodate everyone (he uses his own personal equipment, which limits the number of participants).
Babcok is a veteran coffee shop manager and roaster who worked for about a year and a half at Deet’s, where he provided coffee roasting expertise.
Those who complete the entire series will receive a certificate and coffee-related prizes, such as tins and scoops.
“Introduction to coffee opens students’ eyes to the word’s second largest traded commodity,” says Babcock. “There’s a real curiosity out there to know about what’s behind those $4 lattes.”
Deet’s for the Sweets
Deet’s Place on the campus of Virginia Tech Univeristy in Blacksburg is a premier coffee emporium that roasts its own beans and also offers a variety of sweet treats. It recently earned its second Golden Cup award from the Specialty Coffee Association of America, presented in recognition of excellence in brewed coffee. It offers its own blends—including the very popular “Hokie Blend” (the school’s sports teams are known as the “Hokies”)—and has 17 different varieties of coffee available in more than 15 flavors. The beans are used to make a variety of coffee drinks ranging from espressos and lattes to basic cups of regular and decaffeinated coffee, and are also sold in bulk.
The drink menu also features a wide variety of herbal and regular teas, including the popular chai and bubble teas. Food offerings include Edy’s brand ice cream and sherbet in cones, cups, sundaes, and shakes, as well as soup served in a bread bowl, chef salads, sandwiches, fruit bowls, bagel chips with sun-dried tomato dip and various baked goods like muffins, turnovers, bagels, cakes, pies and cookies.