Musing on Coffee Tasting

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Tasting Coffee

Randy and I have been enjoying coffee tasting together for almost a decade.  We have formalized the process, but we don’t call it “cupping” because, cupping is a formal process to rate coffee quality.  We already have the highest quality coffees.  Our quest is to get the most out of them.

We developed our own tasting protocol in which we brew coffee with a variety of methods like our customers do at home and tune our roasts and blends based on that.

We’ve learned a lot over the years.  Here are some of our interesting findings.

Tasting is Perception

Over the years we have noticed that I frequently identify almond in the coffee while Randy identifies vanilla, or I find basmati and Randy finds coconut.  When mentioned each of us can see the other. 
It is not being suggestible, it is a change in perception.  Like when looking at the “My Wife and My Mother-in-Law” cartoon and it suddenly changes from the young woman to the old woman and back.  They are both really there.  We perceive one or the other by shifting our attention.
Tasting is like that.  By changing perception, the same characteristics in the cup might present a different picture. 
Cartoonist William Ely Hill published 'My Wife and My Mother-in-Law' in the magazine Puck in November 1915 with the caption 'They are both in this picture — Find them.'

Resting Coffee Period

Did you know that coffee needs to rest for at least a day after roasting before its flavours fully emerge?  Before that a bad coffee can taste ok and a brilliant coffee may not be obvious.  Like red wine needs to breath after opening, coffee needs to rest for at least a day and some need up to 3 days.  A roast that needs longer than that may not be holding well and the roast profile should probably be adjusted.

Tasting is very, very context sensitive

The sequence of tasting coffees has a remarkable impact on the perception of taste.  Just like in music, certain notes together can be dissonant while apart they can be beautiful.  Similarly, coffee flavours can clash or compliment.  We have learned to try coffees in various sequences to verify our experience of the coffee.

We have learned that what we have for breakfast can influence coffee flavours an hour later.  We even noticed that, because flavour profiles change as the cup cools, that the second cup of a coffee may not seem to taste as good as the first one!

Brewing Temperature is Remarkably Important

We recently had a technical problem with the brewer at the cafe that caused it to brew to hot by about 5 degrees F.  It scorched the coffee to the extent that we held off launching a new coffee until the brewer was repaired and re-calibrated.  The coffee was over-extracted, unbalanced and somewhat bitter.  The same coffee brewed at the correct temperature (we use about 200F) is balanced, smooth and pretty.

At the other end of the spectrum, brewing at a lower temperature results in under-extraction that tends towards sour undeveloped flavours.

Grind Size is Remarkably Important

If your coffee grounds are too coarse, the brew will be under extracted.  This leads to an unbalanced often hollow or sour experience.

If your grounds are too find, the brew will be over extracted.  This leads to bitter and overpowering brew.

To make the situation more complicated, the grind size needs to be matched to the brew method. 

grind setting horizontal

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