Bring up the topic of coffee tasting and you will quickly find that people are either enthusiasts or not. The enthusiast wants to try new things, has his or her own likes, HAS GEAR. When asked, they can describe all kinds of esoteric terms for different varieties. They can tell you how to brew the perfect cup. They like a French press versus a Bialetti. But what does that all mean anyway? How is one supposed to get started experiencing the differences in coffee?
The biggest factors for how your cup tastes are where it’s grown, how it’s processed and how it’s brewed. Where coffee is grown tells you flavor tendencies that you’ll probably taste. Different methods of harvesting, cleaning and processing and roasting play their part. The roasting process is the most widely know factor in a coffee’s taste but by no means the only one at this point in a coffee’s journey. The way coffee is prepared is the final way that the taste of a cup of coffee is influenced.
This is a broad topic and we’re not going to get too far into the weeds. Here is a summary of regional flavor tendencies for the major coffee growing regions.
|Central America – Often characterized as balanced. Good mix of fruit and acidity with a clean aftertaste.||Asia – Huge variety of climates and processing but overall heartiness and strength. Many coffee drinkers either like a lot or not at ll.|
|South America – Brazil grows 25% of the coffee we drink in the U.S. and shares some traits with their neighbors in the north. Often described as having a chocolatey body and a finish that isn’t as clean as Central America||Africa – Prized by experienced coffee aficionados for it’s complexity and bold flavor. In some locations like Ethopia, coffee is grown wild resulting in a wide range of tonal variations.|
Brewing offers us the most direct control over how our coffee tastes. The most popular brewing methods are steeping, pour-over or drip and pressurized like espresso. If you are evaluating coffee in your home, you have a lot of options for different brewing systems. One strategy is to purchase a French press for testing a steeping method and a cone basket drip coffee maker. Let’s outline how to treat each coffee maker and then we will talk about what to look for in the finished product.
Start by grinding one half cup of coffee on your grinder’s coarsest setting. (You do have a grinder, don’t you?) Some insist that you use a burr grinder to keep the coffee a uniform sized grain. Add coffee to press. Bring four cups of water to boil and then let the water sit for one minute. Add the water to the press. Stir the mix thoroughly. Set a timer for 4 minutes. Set plunger in press but leave at the top. When the alarm goes off push the plunger all the way to the bottom. Drink your coffee immediately.
The key here is the grind of coffee medium fine. You will have more control if you use a gravity pour over cone as opposed to a machine because you can regulate water temperature.
Cupping is the careful evaluation of a coffee’s taste at different temperatures to get an overall picture of balance, complexity, aftertaste, etc. Coffee growers have extensive testing procedures but we can whittle the process down to essentials to get most of the experience.
The Cliff’s Notes Cupping Process
Aroma – Once brewed, slowly sample the aroma above the rim of your cup.
Right after brewing – Drink in your first sip and let it cover as much of your mouth as possible. Breath in slightly (don’t choke!) to bring in aromatics released above the surface. Make not of initial taste impressions and the aftertaste.
Let cool some – Taste again and pay attention to how acid the brew is. Does the coffee seem that it has a complex taste or one that leans heavily toward fruit, earthiness, or other?
Near room temperature – Taste one last time and pay attention to sweetness and whether or not the coffee leaves a clean taste.
It is possible to get much more involved but you already have many ways to combine variations of brewing different stock from different regions. You don’t want to let the evaluation completely overshadow the pleasure of the end product.