Different coffees come from all around the world and are prepared in a variety of ways, offering the drinker a huge choice of flavours and styles – ranging from light to full-bodied, and from very acidic to lightly acidic. The sheer quantity of varieties can be rather overwhelming or confusing for a newcomer to gourmet or speciality coffees. However, just as there is a fairly well defined and widely understood system for appraising wines, so there is a comparable system for coffee.
Introduction to coffee tasting
A professional taster (normally working for a green coffee trader or a coffee roaster) will have a selection of equipment, including a large number of white cups or, together with hundreds of sample boxes, trays for roasted and green coffee, scales for measuring, a small grinder, a small sample roaster, a spittoon, tasting spoons and, in the best-equipped and most up-to-date establishments, equipment for measuring the moisture content, the roast colour and even the chemical composition.
The appearance of beans varies to the trained eye. In terms of flavour, the coffee from different areas can be loosely classified. Coffee from South America has a bright acid and clean flavour; some East African, Yemeni and Ethiopian coffees taste winy; arabicas from Indonesia are heavier bodied; while Indian coffees are less acid but can be equally full-bodied.
When a coffee is being appraised, the taster has 10 criteria to consider:
TYPE: e.g., washed robusta, unwashed arabica
TASTE: e.g., strictly soft, harsh
BODY: e.g., lacking, too heavy
ACIDITY: e.g., some, too much at the top
AGE: old to fresh
DEFECTS: e.g., sour, grassy, musty
CUP: e.g., roast, watery, burnt, old
OVERALL ASSESSMENT: e.g., neutral, spicy, hard
AROMA: weak to strong
FULLNESS: slight to considerable
To become a good coffee cupper, as a taster is called in the trade, takes many years’ experience, which is usually gained on the job. Tasting coffee is similar to tasting tea or wine, although it is agreed that wine is easier to taste because it persists on the palate for longer.
The coffee taster first assesses the green beans, noting their appearance and aroma, and checking for visual defects. Next, after roasting in small sample roasters, he or she smells a freshly roasted and ground sample. Using several cups for each coffee sample, the taster infuses the samples in near-boiling water, and then noses the brew. After 3 minutes, the brew is lightly stirred and smelled again. The resulting foam and floating grounds are removed and the tasting proper begins. The taster takes a spoonful of coffee into his or her mouth with a vigorous (and noisy!) slurping action that aerates the coffee and enhances tasting.
The taster then “chews” it around the mouth, ensuring that all the taste receptors on the tongue are covered. The coffee also has to be lifted to the back of the mouth, where flavour retention or aftertaste can be detected; this is a major indication of the coffee’s body. The taster then spits out the sample before repeating the procedure with all the samples, taking notes as each brew is sampled. Many tasters use a one to five or even a one to ten scale, although others use more individual methods.
Do not be deterred from attempting your own coffee tasting. You will be surprised at how quickly you learn to differentiate between varieties in order to recognize your favourites. Eventually, you will also be able to ask for, and even create, interesting and rewarding blends.
The first step, as in wine tasting, is to acquire the correct vocabulary and to gain experience in using it. There is no substitute for drinking different kinds of coffee as often as possible. This will give you an opportunity to find out which kinds are available and which kinds you like – or do not like.
Coffee tasters’ vocabulary
Professional tasters use a variety of scales and notes to describe and assess the brews they taste. Here are just a few of the ways they describe the various aspects they are looking for in each cup:
AROMA: animal-like, ashy, burnt/smoky, chemical/medical, chocolaty, caramel/malty, earthy, floral, fruity, grainy/green/herbal, nutty, rancid/rotten, rubber-like, spicy, tobacco-like, winy, woody.
TASTE: acid, bitter, salty, sour, sweet.
MOUTHFEEL: balance of flavours, astringency, body.
Tasting coffees at home
Invite two friends to taste three different coffees. For your first tasting do not look for fine differences, but think about identifying the main characteristics of, say, an East African and an Asian coffee. For example, Ethiopian coffee is high in acidity and low in body, while a Sumatran coffee will have a low acidity and a full body.
You will need three sets of three cups – white, medium-sized ones are best – and, if you want to spit out the coffee as the professionals do, a spittoon.
Grind a tablespoon of beans for each taster and put the grinds in the bottom of a cup. Professional tasters measure the amount very precisely: some use scales to measure out 10 grams; others prefer 12 grams. Write the name of the coffee on a piece of paper and place it under the cup. After grinding one type of bean, shake or brush away as much as possible of the detritus before you grind the next. Professionals even grind a small amount of the next beans between batches to make sure that none of the previous type is left. You should grind sufficient beans to allow for a small amount of ground coffee to be presented in a dish near to the tasting sample.
Incidentally, the grinder must be a good one and be able to produce a consistent grind. You are looking for a grinding that will provide grounds of 0.2 to 0.6 mm with 7 to 8 per cent powder. The grind you need is that which is suitable for a drip (filter) machine, because this will release the aroma over the optimum period. Too fine, and the aroma will be released too soon; too coarse, and insufficient aroma will be released.
The amount of water is also precisely measured, because too much will make the coffee watery, while too little will make it harsh. Draw the water freshly from a cold tap, allowing the tap to run for a few seconds before you fill the kettle or pot. Switch off the kettle just before it boils, and pour the water on to the ground beans. If you have 10 grams of coffee in an average-sized cup, you need to fill the cup to just below the rim. Make sure that the water is equally hot for each cup, bringing it back to near-boiling point for each one if necessary. If you live in an area that has very hard water, you may need to boil it first to remove some of the chalk, which can affect the flavour. Some tasters prefer to make coffee in a pot and pour it into the tasting cups, but most pour the water directly on to the ground coffee in individual cups.
Although the technical word for tasting coffee is “cupping”, many tasters say that clear glasses are better. These make it possible to inspect the brew more closely. If you decide to use glasses, choose ones that are wider at the rim than wine glasses (which should be wider in the centre than at the top). The wider glasses make it easier to appreciate the aroma.
The taster noses the fresh ground coffee, then the cup or glass into which the water has been poured. At this stage the brew is not stirred. After 2 to 3 minutes nose the coffee again, using a silver-plated spoon (a soup spoon is ideal) to break the crust of grinds that will have formed on the surface. This will give you your first impression of the coffee.
Take a couple of sniffs. Remember that our olfactory sense diminishes after only 2 to 4 seconds’ exposure to a smell, which is our body’s way of dealing with all the new smells it picks up throughout the day. If it did not and the old smells were retained in our consciousness, they would mingle with the new. Some tasters try nosing with alternate nostrils, but usually a few seconds’ break is sufficient to revive your sense of smell. Write down your first impressions. Was the coffee earthy, ashy, floral – or something else altogether? Repeat this exercise with all the coffees you are tasting – and do not forget to rinse your spoon in clean water between coffees.
Next, gently stir the brew and take up a spoonful. Suck this into your mouth, slurping rather than drinking. You may think that this looks (and sounds) inelegant, and it does. But you are all doing this, so there is no need to stand on ceremony or to be shy. “Chew” the coffee around your mouth to get some idea of the acidity and body. Make sure you lift the coffee to the back of your mouth, so that you can detect aftertaste and flavour retention. This is a good measure of body, because the more aftertaste is present, the more body the coffee is said to have. The sense of body is an important one: is the coffee full-bodied or not? Acidity is more difficult to define, but you will feel it on the edge of your tongue. Spit out the coffee and write down your impressions.
Views differ on the second tasting. Many people feel that tea and coffee are harder to taste than wine because the alcohol in wine encourages persistence on the palate and helps to create an identity. Some tasters find it difficult to measure the range of variables in tea and coffee with one or even two tastings. You might, therefore, want to try all the coffees being tasted, “chewing” them to measure the body and acidity, and then to taste them again, but more aggressively. This time you are looking for individual characteristics and flavours ¬– is it sweet or salty, is there a flavour of charcoal, or is it musty? To taste properly you must “slurp” as hard as you can, drawing the coffee into the back of the mouth and spraying the soft palate. You will probably be making a lot of noise and quite a mess, but it should be fun, too. Remember to make a note of your impressions.
After 15 minutes, by which time the brews will have cooled, taste them again.