Coffee tasting 101: Appreciate the brew

We’ve all been there. You’re in the coffee aisle of your favorite grocery store deciding what to get. As you examine each pack of coffee, you start to notice the descriptions of the flavor. One roast denotes flavors like “lush, spicy and with a hint of chocolate” while another proclaims “dried fruit, tropical wood and herbal notes.” As you compare the bags, you eventually settle on one, excited to get home and taste these amazing exotic flavors described on the packaging. But when you sit down with that first, freshly brewed cup an unfortunate inevitability usually occurs. You just taste coffee. It might be very good coffee, but the distinct flavors from the packaging are almost always impossible to detect. What is the problem? Is it false advertising? Is your palate really that unrefined? All the answers to these questions lie in the practice of coffee tasting, or coffee cupping, as it is more formally known.

Coffee, like other vices with rich histories, has a tradition of people whose sole profession is to taste and describe it. It’s a lot like wine tasting. Now I know what this makes you picture — some elitist group of well-dressed people standing around with coffee in fancy cups, slurping it and swishing it around in their mouths, only to spit it out into a bucket. The truth of the matter is that you’re not too far off.

Traditional coffee cupping involves 6-10 different coffees in three different forms: traditional brewed drink, then a sample of both the roasted beans and the pure, unaltered green beans. Tasters generally begin by smelling the roasted and green coffee beans to note the aromas. The brewed coffee is usually covered so that its smell doesn’t interfere with the beans. Once the fragrances have been noted, the brewed coffees are uncovered, and the tasters use spoons to start sampling them. The coffee is actually brewed by placing grinds directly into a cup of hot water, so as to not tamper with the flavor by filtering it. The tasters take small amounts of coffee with their spoons and slurp it into their mouths. The slurping actually serves to aspirate the coffee fully and to coat the entire tongue evenly. Then the tasters either swallow or spit out the samples based on preference. It may seem comical, but there are professionals in this field who have spent years developing ways to taste coffee and this is the product of their efforts.

But you may still be wondering where all the exotic adjectives to describe the taste come from. The most important thing to recognize about this is that these adjectives are often not meant to be literal. They are simply meant to invoke a kind of feeling or idea about the taste. For example, when a roast is described as earthy or woody, that doesn’t mean the coffee tastes like dirt and lumber — it might simply mean that the aroma is reminiscent of the woods, or freshly dug-up earth. The point is that these descriptions are more like guidelines and less like facts. So don’t expect too much from what the package tells you about the coffee. Instead just be conscious of what you personally find in the fragrance or flavor. You don’t need a complex, well trained palate to better appreciate your coffee — just pay close attention and you will start to come up with exotic descriptions of your own. Write them down and compare them to other roasts. With just a little practice, you will start to see a whole new dimension to your coffee.