Before I experienced a coffee tasting firsthand, the term always conjured up images of caricature-level-pretentious wine tasting events fused with black-clad beatniks in a coffee shop. I recently attended a coffee tasting, and I can tell you that my preconception couldn't be farther from the truth.
The atmosphere was relaxed when I walked in, and that signature, delicious aroma of freshly brewed coffee floated through the air. The event was held in a beautifully appointed, little coffee shop reserved for the event. There was a table set up in the corner displaying labeled carafes of various coffees, informative placards, mugs, stacks of tiny notebooks and pencils, and, my favorite, a tray full of premium, glossy chocolates.
The understated ambiance drew me in right away.
As I quizzed the event coordinator about the coffee tasting, I soon found out how to taste coffee like a true connoisseur. The first thing he explained was the lack of sugar and cream on the table; that's the most common curiosity for neophytes like me.
It turns out that additives like cream, sweeteners, and toppings cloud the palate and distract you from tasting the actual coffee. Many of the coffee's traits, like cherry notes or smokiness, get obscured when mixed with other flavors and textures. You simply can't taste the fullness of the coffee if it's laced with milk, hazelnut syrup, and cinnamon whipped cream. That's why it's best to taste coffee hot and black, with nothing more than a cup and some concentration.
What's the second most common question about coffee tastings? "Why do we need paper and pencils?" The little notebooks and pencils aren't meant to be pompous. You're supposed to use them to jot down your notes, so you can figure out what you like and why.
After tasting a few varieties of coffee, you'll start to pick up on a theme: maybe you're a crisp and acidic lover, or a died in the wool cinnamon roast lover.
How to Taste Coffee
Fire up the coffee pot and grab your notebook. You can do a coffee tasting right now, with the coffee beans in your kitchen. Here's how:
Cup the Coffee: This doesn't refer to the act of pouring coffee into a mug, but cupping your hand over the mug to trap the scented steam and inhale it. What do you smell? Warm cocoa notes, a smoky acidity, or hints of fresh berries? There is no wrong answer. Write it down!
Sip and Slurp: Forget everything your mother taught you about manners. Go ahead; slurp that coffee into your mouth. Make sure you get some air in there and concentrate on what you taste. This is the part where the flavors and body come into play. What you taste and how you interpret the flavor notes is subjective. If you're looking to see what flavors make you tick, this is definitely something to jot down in your tasting book. Nothing is too crazy; I've seen "rubber tires" and "autumn leaves," although those are definitely undesirable traits for coffee!
Location, Location, Location: Where does the coffee, with all of its flavor and body, hit first on your tongue. Close your eyes and concentrate. Is it the middle, the sides, maybe even the back of your tongue that comes alive and experiences the coffee first?
The Social Part: Now comes the talking part. Share and compare your notes with others at the coffee tasting. It's a fun part of the process to see who has similar tastes, and if there's one particular coffee that everyone loved or hated.
Alas, the chocolate had nothing to do with the coffee tasting itself. I had desperately hoped for an edict that the chocolate squares were to be used as some sort of palate cleanser between samplings. Instead, they were simply a treat to share after the tasting portion of the event had concluded.