Coffee Tasting: More complicated than you think

There are more than 800 organic compounds in the glorious coffee bean, giving coffee a higher degree of flavour complexity than nearly all of its rivals. It is thanks to these organic compounds that coffee can claim to be one of the most overwhelmingly satisfying experiences in terms of its aroma and taste. It is these volatile organic compounds however, that give coffee makers and lovers their biggest challenge. The challenge comes not in the form of enjoying the sensory delight of coffee but, in preserving and extracting the full quality and quantity of the organic compounds in the bean. Coffee, it may come as a surprise, is a fruit and so, like wine, it requires an equal amount of attention and care to bring out its full flavourful potential.

Bringing the coffee bean from the forest to your cup comes with some of the same difficult hurdles that winemakers face in getting grapes from the vine and into your wine glass. Wine must be degassed after fermentation to remove excess carbon dioxide before bottling. Similarly after roasting coffee, it will begin to release carbon dioxide, which is why coffee is packaged in airtight bags with release valves to allow the carbon dioxide to escape. One hurdle of making wine, is producing it in an environment absent of oxygen and while we may thrive in an oxygen rich environment, like wine, produce like coffee deteriorates in quality as it oxidises. But here’s where the comparison ends, while a 100 yr old bottle of wine may be highly desirable, coffee is best served fresh. 

In a perfect world, you would have a coffee roaster in your house placed next to a grinder, where you could roast the coffee and grind it to order. This is one of the reasons why your expertly prepared cup of coffee from your local independent cafe, tastes way better than the coffee made from the many months old roasted coffee sat on supermarket shelves. Especially from cafes that have their own dedicated roasters on site. So unless you’re a superbly skilled home barista, if you’re interested in tasting top quality coffee, do yourself a favour and take a trip to your local independent cafe.

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Coffees taste different, or at least they should if you are drinking the right ones. All the variables that occur between the seedling being planted and the coffee in your cup, effect flavour. As a coffee drinker this is both a blessing and a curse. As a blessing it means that there is a whole world of coffee to explore and a whole wealth of flavours to excite the tastebuds. As a curse however, it means that you can become overwhelmed by choice and struggle to find or know which coffee you like best. This is where tasting becomes not only an enjoyable experience, but an invaluable tool in creating a map towards your ideal coffee. Tasting can help you discern the difference between coffee varietals, provenance and production methods. Helping you to get a feeling for whether you’d prefer a washed bourbon from El Salvador or a natural heirloom from Ethiopia.

Tasting coffee can be a great way to distinguish one coffee from the next, but in terms of an objectively critical method of separating coffees in terms of flavour and quality it can be difficult. Flavour is a somewhat subjective experience, we rely on our olfactory senses to recognise the aromas and flavours we are experiencing and from time to time these senses can be inconsistent. Olfactory senses are designed to detect changes in stimulus, not long bold flavours that are consistent and continuous. Just think of the smoker who does not realise that they smell of smoke. There can also be difficulties when tasting multiple coffees in one sitting, palates need cleansing between cups, so as not to confuse the flavours you are experiencing. This is often easiest with filtered coffees as the filter removes the coffee foam, which while it tastes great, can coat the mouth and leave residual flavours. Palate cleansers can be anything from a glass of water, a wedge of apple or even a slice of bread.

Tasting something as complex as coffee has a difficulty in itself, just distinguishing one aroma from many is far more difficult than distinguishing the association to one distinct aroma or taste. Just remember that tasting is a personal experience and while for many of us, we will be able to distinguish the same or at least similar flavours, there are no right or wrong answers.    

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Now we know a little about coffee tasting and how to prepare for a tasting, it is worth noting that there are two methods of tasting coffee. There is the professional method of tasting commonly known as the ‘Cupping’ method and the more common method of tasting which I will call the ‘Common’ method. The ‘Common’ method consisting of drinking a cup of coffee and describing what it tastes like. The more professional cupping method is a great way of directly comparing coffees and it is for this reason that it is chosen by master tasters. Having grown out of a need to compare coffees for exporting, export warehouse kitchens grew into cupping rooms, where coffees would be compared on cupping tables. Exporters would line up rounded white bowls side by side, fill them with coffee grounds and pour over hot water, leaving them for around 3 minutes to brew before beginning the tasting process.

Tasters begin by ‘breaking the crust’ which is a layer of coffee grounds that rise to the top of the cup sealing in all the wonderful coffee aromas. Tasters then cup their hands over the bowl and plunge a spoon into the crust, while inhaling the bounty of aromas released. The grounds are then spooned out and disposed of before tasters begin slurping the coffee from an often expensive and personalised silver spoon. This allows the coffee to reach around the mouth, accentuating the flavour profiles in the coffee, here the flavour and quality of the coffee is judged before often being spit out. Tasters will often revisit the coffees throughout the process to see how they change and develop over time and as they cool. The tasters then allocate scores to the coffees to try and distinguish those with favourable characteristics for exporting. You can see here many similarities to the wine tasting process.

The tasting method most of us use however, is to buy a cup of coffee and drink it, describing as we go what it tastes like. This is the method I will be using to taste coffee and there’s a good reason why. Besides it being in my opinion, a more pleasurable way of enjoying a cup of coffee, it is also the way most people actually drink their coffee and I hope to be as close to that experience as possible.

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