Ed. 12 – One of the most important factors that can determine the quality of a coffee varietal is aftertaste. Aftertaste is the finish of food or drink, and is defined as the sensation present in the mouth immediately following the removal of whatever food or drink was being consumed. Aftertaste sensations can linger for long periods of time or disappear very quickly. Of course, various aftertastes can be quite pleasant or they may ruin the flavor. Unlike body or acidity, aftertaste is something that nearly everyone has experienced and recognized at one point or another; in fact aftertaste is one of the easier principles of coffee cupping to learn because the principle is so obvious in many foods. For example, Mexican or Indian cuisine can present powerfully spicy, lingering aftertaste sensations. Water on the other hand leaves very little evidence that it was even there. The aftertaste flavors of most food and beverages fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, but they seem to be easier to identify.
Aftertaste is of particular interest for coffee connoisseurs because it affects what sorts of foods will integrate well. For example, a darkly roasted coffee will typically pair well with chocolate and other rich desserts. Better food and beverage combinations include either one dominant flavor and one passive flavor, or two very similar flavors.
When you apply this logic to coffee, you will observe that dark, full-bodied roasts are great with dark chocolate and rich desserts. Lighter roasted coffee varietals will pair better with breakfast foods and lighter fare. East African coffee is more winey in nature and pairs well with milk chocolate, while Latin American coffee is much brighter and compliments starch. When looking for good pairs, pay attention to the aftertaste of the coffee. If the coffee has an acidic lingering aftertaste, then look for subdued flavor to accompany. If the coffee has a rich, full-bodied aftertaste, then look for chocolaty desserts. When in doubt, steer clear of pungent foods. Coffee has an awful lot of flavor and if the food you choose doesn’t match, the mistake will be obvious. Blander foods like bread will pair with nearly anything because there are no flavors to clash, but coffee opens a giant door for error, so as you look to pair foods, begin with subdued options and try out new flavors individually. The best way to learn is to get creative and make mistakes, so brew up a pot of coffee and explore!
To this point, Reid and I have broken down the different components of tasting coffee. We have gone over the aroma, which is the smell you immediately pickup as your coffee is poured into a cup. We have discussed the presence of acidity in coffee, and the fact that it is a sensation detected the moment you take a sip. And we have covered the body of coffee, and more importantly how that impacts the overall taste. The next component of coffee, and the topic for this week’s “What Do You Taste?” is the flavor itself.
When describing a food or drink, one of the first descriptions someone would typically give would be the flavor. Flavor generally is easy to determine, but often times it is hard to break down. In the world of coffee, “flavor” does not have one definition that applies to every cup. In fact, when describing coffee, the flavor is determined by the specific combinations of the other components (aroma, acidity, body and aftertaste) of coffee.
To assist new and experienced coffee drinkers, the SCAA has created a coffee flavor wheel, which can be used as a helpful guide during coffee cupping. This wheel can be used when professional “cuppers” buy coffee, or it could be used for a newcomer to learn and understand more characteristics of the flavor of coffee. Regardless of your level of expertise, the flavor wheel can help every cupper determine the specific flavor profile in each cup of coffee.
When it comes to the flavor of coffee, there is no wrong answer. The bottom line is that everyone’s pallet is unique. The purposes of events such as coffee cuppings are to better educate coffee enthusiasts and allow one another to communicate and learn what others taste. Whether you pick up a hint of chocolate or a blueberry notes, hopefully you will now have a better understanding of how to answer, “What do you taste?”
Ed. 10: Taste, when examined in more detail, is an intricate sense particularly because it is not utilized as regularly as the other senses. It would be difficult to spend a day blindfolded, but when we burn our tongues, the inconvenience does not disrupt our routine dramatically. For this reason, many people fail to develop a strong sense of taste. An ability to perceive acidity is an important part of building an acute palate, but one must also explore body, flavor and aftertaste in order to communicate a complete picture. Armed with these elements, a coffee enthusiast can widen their perspective and form more advanced opinions regarding various coffee.
Body is one of the most difficult concepts in coffee for beginner connoisseurs to grasp. Body is not nearly as emphasized as acidity or flavor can be. Acidity is a very loud cupping element, for example a flat soft drink is notably different (more bland) than a freshly carbonated soft drink. Flavor on the other hand appears in every food; it is near impossible to ignore the chocolate flavor in brownies. The second, and more subtle reason that body is so difficult to perceive, is that it does not appear as a strong element of food. Most of the taste practice our tongues receive every day comes in the form of food and not beverage. This leaves the ability to perceive body completely undeveloped and unrefined.
The best way to begin to understand body is by constructing a scale. On the extreme ends place a milkshake and water. Water will represent a thin-bodied beverage, while the milkshake will represent a thick-bodied beverage. Most coffee varietals should fall in the middle, but when you compare the body of one cup against another, you can refer to the scale.
Generally speaking, most Indonesian varietals will fall on the milkshake side of the scale, and most Latin American coffee will tend to fall to the watery side of the scale (see below). East African varietals vary by country, which renders a generalization about body unrealistic. Single origin Latin American varietals will often have a thin body because of the wet processing utilized in Latin American coffee farms. Contrast that method with the dry processing used predominantly in Indonesia.
Ed. 9: When you think of acidity, many would think of citrusy fruit like a lemon or an orange. The truth is coffee is also a great example of a product which can have high amounts of acidity. But what makes coffee acidic? How does acidity impact the overall taste of the coffee?
The acidity in coffee depends on a variety of factors including the bean itself, where the bean is grown, the processing method (wet or dry), and the degree of roasting (light or dark). Coffee beans grown at higher altitudes, such as many in Central and South America, have higher acidity levels. Coffee beans processed by the wet method are also higher in acidity than those processed by the dry method.
The acidity of coffee is actually a sensation one picks up upon drinking coffee, which is felt on the front and sides of the tongue and the roof of the mouth. A similar comparison would be the carbonation in soda. You don’t actually taste carbonation as much as you feel it, although it’s very much a part of the soda’s flavor.
So now you know acidity is as much as a part of coffee as it is in a lemon or a lime. Acidity is a major part of a coffee’s overall taste, but often times overlooked. Whether you like high or low amounts of acidity, it’s always present in every cup. The next component of coffee is the body itself, and that will be discussed by Reid in our next post, so be sure to stay tuned for the next edition of “What Do You Taste?”.
Ed. 8: There is a point in every learning process when the student must leave the classroom and venture in to the real world. Doctors do not become doctors the moment after they have read every biology and anatomy book on the planet. There is something essential to the idea of being an expert that requires experience. Matt and I have learned quite a bit about growing regions and brewing methods for coffee, but until we begin to taste coffee, we haven’t done much more than move some beans and water around. In order to understand the way coffee tastes, we must learn how to categorize and communicate our thoughts as we experience various stimuli.
Understanding flavor and taste is much more scientific than I perceived, and I feel that a comprehension of this science opens the door for anyone to develop an acute pallet for coffee. The most fundamental idea regarding the science of taste is flavor profiling. Profiling simply breaks taste in to five main categories; aroma, acidity, body, flavor, & aftertaste. Although wine connoisseurs and gourmet chefs use a similar system for profiling, one should employ this system only in regards to coffee. Over the next few weeks, Matt and I will cover each of the main topics regarding flavor, but we will begin this week by discussing aroma.
As science has developed, aroma has revealed itself as such a large part of taste, because in a sense aroma and taste are the same thing. Taste and aroma both originate in the same way, but our bodies break down various experiences in to water soluble and non-water soluble chemicals. Water soluble chemicals are perceived as taste, while non-water soluble chemicals are perceived as smell. Spicy foods, for example, taste spicy, but because oily spices do not dissolve easily in water we perceive spice in an olfactory manner (we smell it). This of course implies that many of the things we consider to be attributes of taste are actually smells and vice versa.
With this concept in mind, we approach smell with our mouths open, literally. This is to say, when you smell coffee, wine, or any food it is important to leave your mouth ajar in order to allow air to flow over your taste buds. Have you ever noticed that you can’t taste very well when you have a cold. This phenomenon can be qualified by the fact that your olfactory nerves which are used for smelling are blocked. When these are blocked, all non-water soluble chemicals in the food or beverages you consume are unperceivable.
When smelling coffee, there are a few key points to look for. All smells can be broken down in to three major categories namely enzymatic, sugar browning, and dry distillation. Enzymatic aromas include citrus and flowery smells; i.e. lemonade or apple pie. Sugar browning aromas cover a wider array of smells which include caramel, chocolate, and nut scents. Examples of these can be found in both chocolate and vanilla ice cream as well as peanut butter. Dry distillation aromas, our third major category, include spices like pepper and combustive aromas such as a campfire or tobacco. It is quite common for coffee reviewers to write things like, “…this Central American varietal has a citrus-like acidity.” These sorts of comments are pointing out that the coffee is brighter in taste much like an orange or a lemon.
The acidity portion of this comment, however, refers to another topic completely which will be addressed in next week’s edition of, “What Do You Taste?”
Ed. 7: If you have been following this blog series over the last few weeks, you should feel a bit more comfortable with coffee basics. We have discussed geographic origins, and we have discussed various brew methods. This edition of, “What Do you Taste?,” will focus on the third and final major method of brewing on our agenda, the French Press. This method is another alternative to the traditional auto-drip machine that most people have in their homes and coffee houses. Like the pour-over methods discussed last week, the French Press does not require electricity to function. This method also produces a more traditional (and environmentally friendly) form of coffee because it does not use a paper filter.
The French press method of brewing was originally developed in the nineteenth century by accident. Before the press, coffee was simply boiled along with water. Brewers would allow the coffee grounds to settle and the precipitate would be consumable. A French man decided that he could use a screen to push the coffee grounds to the bottom of his pot in order to produce coffee faster. The Italian coffee movement elaborated on the idea and created a plunger and jug system that fit more neatly. This design has stood the test of time and exemplifies the idea that simplicity is often more desirable.
French Presses are often used in restaurants as a way to exhibit coffee as a visual attraction. Outdoorsmen and backpackers have found the French press’ design both environmentally friendly and light-weight. There is no waste aside from coffee grounds and unused coffee, and clean-up is a breeze. Simply rinse a press with water and it is good to go for another round.
Of course, the press has evolved and some press devices are lavishly decorated, while others are miniaturized for portability, but the original idea has remained for over 200 years. We recommend trying our Kenya AA Nguvu in a press pot.
Most coffee is brewed in a machine, which is understandable considering that people who make coffee at home have some version of an auto-drip device. Although most coffee found in restaurants and cafés is made in a machine, there are many other options out there. Often times these options allow for a higher quality brew, particularly if the person who makes the drink is aware of brewing standards. These standards require that water temperature must be anywhere between 195-205° F and that the ratio of coffee to water be two tablespoons of coffee per every six ounces of water.
Pour-over coffee brewing happens to be one of the more convenient ways of brewing coffee outside of a coffee maker. A pour-over system can come in many shapes and sizes, but all pour-over systems share a few common characteristics. They include a filter typically made of paper, a support device, and a nozzle or hole that allows the coffee to drip in to a container. Many of these systems do accommodate more than one cup of coffee, but the vast majority are constructed for single cup brewing. The main reason for this is that a user of a pour-over method is likely more concerned with quality over mass production, and that quality requires freshness as a component.
Now, you may ask yourself, how is this going to make the brewing process easier? The answer is simple. When you desire a cup of coffee, all you have to do is place a pour over support system over your mug. These are typically just a piece of plastic with a cradle that supports the filter on top. Next, place a filter in the cone and fill with the desired amount of coffee. You might consider pre-wetting the filter itself. Pour hot water (195-205° F) over the grounds evenly, let it steep for around 4-5 minutes and voilà, your coffee is ready! Of course you cannot preset your pour-over filter to work for you, but it is much faster than a typical machine, and the quality is unparalleled. The temperature of the water is much easier to monitor and the price of a typical filter system rarely exceeds twenty dollars. A pour-over system weighs very little, and the cleanup is a breeze. Convenience and mass production makes auto-drip brewers popular, however, when you can offer a customer a truly handcrafted cup, the pour-over method is highly recommended. However, a large auto-drip at your local diner can serve hundreds of customers each day, and a pour-over method simply cannot compete at that level.
The purpose of the pour-over is to deliver a remarkable cup of coffee without all of the bells and whistles. The convenience factor is hard to argue with even though the filter doesn’t have a clock radio built in. Sometimes simple is simply better, and in the case of the pour-over method you can’t get much simpler.