Over the last two years, I have had the pleasure of participating in a couple of dozen cuppings and coffee tastings, and the more I do, the more I enjoy them and realize their importance to becoming a better home barista. At first, my hesitance with tasting was that I could not draw a direct parallel between cupping and my pursuit of my making a better espresso for myself at home. Nothing in cupping relates to espresso making technique, but the skill of identifying taste is so important in the pursuit of better espresso. In progressing to better taste, it is so important to be able to keep reference points for evaluation and repeatability as well as interacting with others who may be able to provide instruction. Doing cupping and tasting of coffee has been a real big help for these purposes as I am able to keep track of coffees in the many taste dimensions, and I have started better relating preparation parameters to the taste results, eventually accumulating to a better brew. I am also better able to describe and relate aspects about what I like and dislike in more explainable terms.

A Recent Tasting
To better illustrate, let me describe a tasting I did a few weekends ago with Matt Taylor from Mercury which I enjoyed very much. It was a treat to try two coffees from Madcap Coffees Varietal series which they are now brewing and stocking, as well as a Ritual Roaster coffee which a visiting barista had gifted. The session was great as Matt took out some Chemexes with paper filters and we brewed and tasted all three side by side. This is one of his preferred brew methods these days as the he likes the resulting clarity / balance combinations.

In this particular session, the highlights were:

  1. Finca de Dios Guatemalan from Madcap Coffee was a bit of baking chocolate smell that well represented the shot that was based on a dark chocolate base with some orange acidity that provided some interest.
  2. Naranja y Amarillo El Salvadorian from Madcap Coffee is named after the Orange and Yellow Bourbon varietals that it features. The nose is a bit tropical and flowery, and the taste opens up with strong citrusy acidity that is followed by light tropical fruits on a deep caramel flavor. The coffee had medium body that felt well balanced.
  3. Los Manos Honduran from Ritual Roasters was one of the more unique coffees I had tasted in a while that was roasted extremely lightly. The nose hinted at its uniqueness with fresh delicate tobacco aroma reminding me of father’s pip tobaccos that intermingled with tropical fruits. The cup brought out these tropical fruit that specifically highlighted mango and papaya on a faint caramel base ending in a light lime acidity. Memorable.

Tasting Challenges

Having enjoyed this last session so much, it brought back memories of the challenges in my first tasting sessions. With some encouragement, I soon realized that nobody is born with this skill, and that it would be fun for me to learn it through some training and lots of practice. At the end of the day, the skill boils down to two main difficulties for me: being able to associate the smell from a brown liquid to a smell from something totally different and being able to segregate different smells and tastes into individual components. Normally a smell has a visual clue that makes smell identification easy. When you see a banana, one expects a certain fragrance. With coffee there are no visual clues, and on top of that there are many flavors to identify.

Along with these main challenges, I was also able to put certain descriptors on a continuum in my mind which I could later use for description. When you are tasting coffees side by side, this becomes much easier to do and helps build a referential points for future tasting. For example, when trying to describe body, it is important to be able to assess this component on a relative scale compared to other coffees.

Being able to taste a black coffee and describe it as having a fresh tobacco aroma and then taste the liquid to have papaya notes, may sound a little stretched. But given a coffee with these kind of wonderful qualities, and some training, I believe that most people can learn to describe coffees in a way that others can relate to. I encourage all home baristas to participate in tastings as they strive to improve their skills to make repeatable shots at home.

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