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Meet the Coffee Master Whose Tongue is Insured for £10m

December 10, 2015

Gennaro Pelliccia made headlines a few years ago, with a much publicized insurance claim on his tongue, worth £10m. But why are Pelliccia’s tastebuds so important? The Master of Coffee for Costa is largely responsible for ensuring the quality and flavor of what makes Costa Coffee’s blend the most popular of its kind in the UK. Pepper caught up with Pelliccia, where he spilled the beans on Costa’s roasting process, and how the tasting process works.

CI Costa

You’ve been in the coffee industry for around 24 years. How did it all begin for you?

I’m actually Neapolitan from Naples, and that’s what really got me to pursue this. Naples is really where espresso coffee started. So it was quite a precious thing for me actually—the fact that being Neapolitan was my heritage, my background. I actually thought: who better to tell the story of coffee than me? So that was really one of the key things for me.

With Costa, we knew the Costa family very well; both my mother, my father, and my younger sister have all worked for the Costa family in different ways. My sister and I used to be baristas, my parents have always worked with Sergio Costa (Costa Coffee’s founder) doing other things in the office, and helping the business grow many years ago.

My mother first started with Sergio in 1981, my father then joined in 1991, and that’s when I started in 1991 as a barista while I was studying. I then finished my degree in mechanic engineering, and I thought, you know what until I find a proper job, I’ll go work at Costa. I’m still here!

How does one develop their skills for tasting coffee? Is there a ritual that you have in particular before trying a cup?

Developing your skills is very much like the process with a sommelier and a chef. You start at the beginning, and you don’t know very much, and you learn, you make mistakes, you learn the vocabulary, you start understanding what the customer really likes, and then you start developing the flavors. That’s really what drives it all, the learning process.

Yes, we have some very strict rituals so when I’m cupping, tasting the coffee at the roastery, what I’m doing is making sure there are no defects in the coffee. That is the primary thing i do, and the first thing. I’ve got to make sure it’s clean, and that its gonna do the job it needs to do. The other thing I find very important is state of mind. I think that’s fundamental because when you’re trying to find particular nuances in the coffee. If your mind is elsewhere, it doesn’t help. Sometimes, the nuances can be very very difficult to find, so you have to be very clear.

Are there certain notes that you look for when tasting?

First of all, when I’m smelling, I’m ensuring that the coffee doesn’t have any defects, things like moldy notes, fermented notes, phenolic smells, chemical notes. But I’m also then making sure that the coffee has the right attributes—if it has lovely fruity aromas, has nice enzymatic smells like apple and lemon. I also look for the more sugar browning compounds like the toasty notes, the caramel notes. It’s exactly the same for tasting. When I’m tasting, I’m primarily looking for acidity, bitterness, body. I’m making sure that its at the right level.

Is there an ideal beverage for you that you think displays the coffee bean really well? Would you rather have someone try an espresso or a flat white, for example?

Definitely, without a doubt, the espresso showcases it. I appreciate pure espresso drinkers. I think the next one after that would probably be an espresso macchiato. I think a cortado as well, which is a drink we have launched in other markets, which hopefully will soon arrive here in the Philippines. It’s a very small glass with a double shot of espresso ristretto, with some wonderfully textured milk.

I just needed to ask—how does one insure their tongue for 10 million pounds?

Well, I didn’t insure it myself! The company insured it, and if anything were to happen to it, the company would be paid out and not me, let’s be clear here. The reason that it was insured was because in 2009, Costa wanted to remove a myth that was going around in the UK, and this myth was that all brewed coffee tastes the same. Costa was like, oh my goodness if it does taste the same, then what’s the point?

They wanted to remove this myth, so they commissioned an independent survey, an independent blind taste test, and this was on the full length and breadth of the whole UK and the results were astonishing. Seven out of 10 people preferred Costa’s cappuccino to our nearest competitors. And because of that, they decided to insure the person who was responsible for safeguarding the quality of the coffee.

As a master taster that is key in developing the quality or the flavor identity, what do you think sets Costa apart from other coffee chains in the world?

Wonderful question. First of all, I think there’s a lot of espresso blends out there that are actually very darkly roasted. When you darkly roast coffee, you only capture a certain small, niche percentage of people that want that kind of coffee, and that coffee is more accustomed to large milky drinks with a lot of syrup in it because dark roasted coffee, you can’t really taste much from it.

Then you have what’s happened now with this whole third wave movement of artisanal coffee that tends to be quite lightly roasted, very acidic which—don’t get me wrong I’m a fan of—but again, that’s very niche. I think what Costa has done, and what we do with our blend is that we roast our coffee in the middle so we really capture a much wider breadth of consumer, of customer.

Secondly, it has much to do with the environment that we create in our Costa stores, whether it be that you’re in here because you’re buying 20 minutes of time, or whether it’s because you need to meet somebody or you need to finish some work, we’re creating those environments exactly for that.

Then the third and final thing, which i think we’re doing a fantastic job of, is engaging our baristas so that they can engage with you to actually explain to you our story.

You were talking about third wave coffee, which is currently a huge trend right now. Does it affect or influence product development for Costa? Do you think, “Ok so people are liking this kind of acidic coffee, we should make something like that,” or something attuned to tastes right now?

Another beautiful question. I think, of course, trends will influence everything. Just look at fashion, look at food, without a doubt trends are going to influence our innovation. In the UK, what we’ve done is introduced an alternative espresso blend in our store. Not because the Mocha Italia isn’t good enough, but the contrary, as I’ve just explained, it’s perfect. Actually, our second blend is helping us capture some of the consumers who prefer those more niche tastes. Without a doubt, that third wave movement, with its lighter roast coffee and more acidic notes is fantastic, and we also have blends that do exactly that.

Do you think that the Philippines is ready for Costa’s kind of coffee considering the coffee scene in the country?

Oh without a doubt! You more than some of the other Southeast Asian countries, actually. It’s because of your Spanish influence in the past, you’re already coffee drinkers unlike some of the more tea drinking areas. So without a doubt, without a doubt. We are happy to be here, and we plan to stay here, and we plan to save you all from mediocre coffee.

Pamela Cortez Pamela Cortez

Pamela Cortez writes about food full-time, and has honed her craft while writing for publications such as Rogue, Town and Country, and The Philippine Star. She once rode on a mule for a mile just to eat mint tea and lamb in Morocco, and has eaten a block of Quickmelt in one sitting. Her attempt at food photography can be viewed online @meyarrr.

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1 comments in this post SHOW

One response to “Meet the Coffee Master Whose Tongue is Insured for £10m”

  1. Johann says:

    Haha. This man knows what he’s talking about (he’s got to, after all). I love the last line, “…we plan to save you all from mediocre coffee.”

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