A morning with a taste expert
In ancient times, they protected kings from people wanting to poison them. Today, tasters guarantee excellence. Meet the Columbian Alexis Rodriguez working in this field at Nespresso.
An icy morning in January, Canton De Vaud, Switzerland, from it's tour ronde, the town of Orbe Overlooks a plain that stretches as far as the eye can see. At the heart of this no man's land, a modern anthill is at work, 24 hours a day - the international headquarters of Nestlé Nespresso. Its smooth-walled architecture, set off with a pattern of overlapping rectangles, is reminiscent of the elegant casing of its capsules. The aroma of coffee filtering from deep within starts stirring my still half-asleep sense of smell. It’s 8:30am. Time for a little coffee. At the entrance to the factory, like in an haute couture workshop, collections of capsules create a large and colorful wall fresco. The voyage to the world of coffee has begun. I spot a coffee plant with green leaves and red berries. Where am I? In Nicaragua, India, Kenya or Switzerland? A lover of horticulture is tending to it, delicately wiping its leaves. The jewel in the crown of the Nespresso Grands Crus. The first coffee makes me feel tipsy. Delicately tasting a Ristretto I am now at the bar of an Italian trattoria… A warm accent from South America brings me back to reality. Draped in a researcher’s coat, Alexis Rodriguez, surrounded by five other tasters, invites me to “la degustación”. A rare privilege, the importance of which I realize when I have to take off my jewellery and put on the regulation white smock and rubber-soled safety shoes. Let’s not joke about science. With his diplomas in microbiology and biostatistics and his many travels to wherever the magic bean grows, the green coffee manager, born in Bogotá in Columbia, starts the ceremony.
In a gathering that borders on the religious, a man who has been a Nespresso taster since 1999 carefully lifts the lid and breathes in. He then plunges his silver spoon into the container, which is always the same so that the taste does not change. He brings the spoon to his lips, eyes closed, and forcefully and very noisily sucks in the hot beverage to soak up its deepest flavors. With the precision of an oenologist, he moves the beverage around his mouth and spits it out in one quick movement. He notes a couple of things on his computer and rinses his spoon with a splash of water. Every morning the same ritual is repeated up to five times at the same pace, with the same level of precision and the same symphony of slurps.
Sitting by the bay windows that open on to the river Orbe, I discover that here, in the green coffee tasting room, is the beating heart of Nespresso. Every month, in order to select the best beans, nearly six hundred samples are tested by this group of specialists. A laboratory, unlike any other. A standardized process with very strict rules: tasting happens before midday, when the taste buds have not yet been bombarded by too many spices and tastes. Wearing perfume or scented creams is also not allowed. Unused to this score where the notes become tastes in a clever alchemy, I silently witness the concert. Sitting at a round table with mini stainless steel basins and minute personal computers, the tasters solemnly participate in the ceremony. In front of each of them is a parade of six cups, grouped in a perfect line under a small card displaying the name and the map of the country that the coffee comes from (Columbia, Brazil, Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Kenya, Ethiopia, India). The green coffee is placed dry in the white porcelain coffee pots. The coffee pots are then filled with fresh water heated to between 90 and 92°C (194 and 197.6°F), always 5g of coffee to 100ml of water. From the first tasting, the 3D trip is instantaneous. The beans from India remind me of the mysterious landscapes that I’ve crossed. Those from Columbia conjure up images of high mountains hollowed by waterfalls. Those from Brazil bring to mind its plateaus. Recognizing basic tastes such as acidity, bitterness, sweetness, saltiness, fragrances or other typical notes requires hard work. But sensitivity is physiological and that’s what is expressed first of all, says Alexis Rodriguez. That’s surely true. As I try to slurp the liquid myself, with a sound that goes against all my good manners, I scratch my throat, half strangle myself, sneeze in a very non-technical way and spit out the subtle cru that seems to me to have a strange taste. It’s clear that I’m no expert!
Every morning, the ritual is repeated up to five times, at the same pace, with the same level of precision.
An architect of aromas, Alexis Rodriguez explains to me how he honed his senses at the laboratory of the largest cooperative of Columbian producers, “la Federación Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia”. I worked on the development of saps. These components are the precursors of the smell and the taste of coffee that only appear after roasting. The equivalent of the fermentation of cheese.” For two months a year, he practises his talent in twelve countries, each containing three production areas. In a few sentences, Alexis Rodriguez manages to take me along with him on his quest of the Nespresso ‘AAA Sustainable Quality’ programme that vouches for the quality of coffee produced in a way that respects the environment. As if on a imaginary screen, I watch a film of his meticulous visits to faraway plantations. Making sure that they keep to their sustainable commitment in the harvest, production, drying and fermentation processes, I imagine him letting the freshly harvested beans dance in his hand to measure their quality. “Only the top 1% of the world’s green coffee crop meets Nespresso specific taste and aroma profiles as well as its demanding quality standards”, he says.
From a poetic name invented by the marketing teams of Nespresso, Alexis Rodriguez has to create the harmonies of the GRANDS CRUS of tomorrow. Carefully stored and then very lightly roasted and ground to better appreciate the notes and the origins, the subtle mixes of green coffee are then put together in hand-made capsules. After validating the choice of these aesthetes of taste, the formulation is given to the factory for industrialisation, and it then goes through application groups to be redimensioned and undergo final testing. Several special editions are created this way every year.
Able to detect a thousand identifiable substances with his sense of smell, Alexis Rodriguez trusts his palette to appreciate the harmony of a piece of orange peel and a cup of Indriya, a mix of Arabica and Robusta from southern India. I feel more at ease with this trip of the senses: I see myself in a fuchsia pink silk sari, wandering through the green forests and reserves of the Kanartaka region....Paris-Lausanne, four hours by train, thousands of kilometres covered in just a few moments of tasting.
Six hundred samples of green coffee are tested here every month to develop the best crus.
Text : Catherine Bézard - Photography : Alain Longeaud