Alert in Albuquerque: Spring breaking at the Southwest Chocolate and Coffee Fest

Creamy and light or black and bold, Albuquerque’s Ninth Annual Southwest Chocolate and Coffee Fest was a mecca for indulgent sipping and savoring March 16 - 17 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. One hundred and fifty vendors filled the Manuel Lujan Building at Expo New Mexico offering up samples and hoping for sales to 11,000 guests who poured into the space over the weekend.

Coffee and chocolate were the headliners, but all sorts of eats and drinks played supporting roles including beer, wine, tea, soft pretzels, vegan doughnuts, custard, crepes, salt-water taffy and, of course, chili-spiked New Mexican fare. Other perks were painting classes and a Kids Zone where the youngsters could bounce and ride around in a shrieking miniature fire engine with a real dalmatian. And if this sounds too buzzy, a Bend and Brew yoga class delivered a Zen start to Sunday morning.

The festival is organized by Blue River Productions, owned by Dean Strober and Lena Armstrong-Strober, who led the yoga class. The pair make a striking combo of stoked and chill. The energetic Strober, who darted expertly through the shoulder-to-shoulder crowd, said the event started in 2010 with just 38 vendors and 6,000 guests. Its growth is not surprising given Albuquerque’s coffee scene. The city has an astounding number of independent coffee shops with brews for all palates – smooth iced coffees, carbonated nitros and all styles of roasts for espresso-based concoctions and drip coffee.

Proprietors and roasters from some of these establishments had the chance to strut their stuff, (er, their beans) in the Cups and Cakes event held on the eve of the festival. A select number of attendees learned the finer points of coffee appreciation by “cupping.” Roasters use this serious method of coffee tasting to investigate the qualities imparted by varying degrees of roasting and evaluate the qualities of different types of beans.

Before approaching the tall tables where each roaster had their ground coffee, participants fortified their stomachs with chocolate mousse and red velvet brownies supplied by Q Cakes.

Proprietors and roasters had participants smell the grounds to get the fragrance of the coffee variety. Then, they poured 200-degree water over the grounds and let them steep for four minutes before “breaking” the cap of grounds, pushing them down into the bottom of the cup with the back of a large (soup) spoon. Right after breaking, participants were encouraged to inhale and sniff the cups to get the “aroma,” which they said is not the same as the fragrance of the grounds.

After all this sniffing, we were allowed to taste the brew using metal soup spoons. The roasters encouraged participants to move their sample through all regions of the tongue – the tip, the sides and the back, since different regions of the tongue are responsible for sweet, acid and bitter. Unfortunately, there were grounds in the samples, but that did not keep us from slurping and enjoying the flavors of caramel, chocolate, earth, red wine and spice. It was not too different from a wine tasting and proved that a universally appealing type of coffee does not exist.

Sharon Shapiro had driven to Albuquerque from Santa Fe to attend the event with a friend. She said she preferred the roasts that had chocolate notes in them. She spent a lot of time in Africa, she said, and drank a lot of coffee there: Kiva coffee, from the Congo, mountainous areas.

“I think this was superb. If this was really an experiment, it was really [well-done],” Shapiro said. Although the festival is nine years old, this was the first year for “Cups and Cakes.” I liked the

lighter roasts that had more acidity, crispness and fruitiness. Unfortunately, it turned out that light roasts have more caffeine than dark roasts, according to roasters from several different coffee shops. I prepared myself for some late-night reading.

I came away from the coffee tasting and from the festival loaded down with a new coffee mug and two bags of beans, Ethiopian Yirtgacheffe and Monsoon Malabar, as well as truffles, espresso cordials, a giant pretzel and vegan doughnuts (lavender lemon and maple). Also, I learned that the

Strobers are organizing the Brain Freeze Ice Cream Festival scheduled for June 8 - 9. Albuquerque must have a very cool ice cream scene as a counterpoint to their hot coffee culture.