By Sherri Johns
Sherri Johns, a professional coffee taster, consultant and head judge for the Cup of Excellence program, tastes coffees from all over the world with people from around the globe, shares some of her insights with Tea & Coffee Asia.
When bringing a group of cuppers together for a very specific job of identifying excellent, good, ordinary and poor quality coffees, calibration is necessary to ensure cuppers record observations on coffees with a baseline of consistency.
Not to be misconstrued as collaboration, but garnering the experience and professional expertise of a varied group of professional cuppers and bringing them to the same page. To do so, we review sensory aspects of coffee.
Sweet, sour, salt and bitter. Everything we taste, including coffee, can be summed up under one or more of these categories. But before we have coffee, we have water. Water is critical to the taste of coffee. Each cup of brewed coffee is 98.5% is water. Water must be clean, fresh filtered and free of off-tastes. The water must also be fresh, not over boiled. If so, oxygen will be lost and coffee will taste flat.
Now that water is not an issue, grind and dose proper amount for tasting. For many, sensory perception is a building block of flavor profiling. ‘Clean’ and ‘sweet’: what do we mean by these words?
A ‘clean’ coffee tastes clean or clear without a muddy finish. A transparency and clarity as if it was a clear soup broth. The flavor is there, without heaviness. ‘Clean’ directly reflects to how a coffee was harvested. As an example, coffee cherries are picked when ripe and red.
‘Sweet’ has to do with how a coffee was processed. Was the coffee cherry cleaned and pulped the very day it was picked? Was the coffee cherry pulped with clean water? Both clean and sweet are qualities reflected in tasting or cupping. When evaluating coffees, the first impression is whether the coffee is clean and sweet, from the very first sip and spit.
Coffees can be described like fine wines: we refer to body, flavor and acidity.
First the body of a coffee. Yes, brewed coffees will have a different body. Body is the weight or viscosity of how coffee feels on your tongue. If you drink milk, this is an easy way to describe body. Try a sip of whole fresh milk, then non-fat milk. The non-fat milk is thin, without lingering finish. The fresh whole milk will stay on the tongue longer.
Generally, coffees from Africa and Latin America are light- to medium-body. Coffees from Indonesia are heavy body. Once accustomed to tasting or cupping, you will be able to discern a coffee’s body.
Try these combinations to get started: Costa Rica is a lighter body then Sumatra. Colombia has a lighter body then Guatemala. Yemen coffee is heavier than Kenyan. Within a region, coffees will vary in body. Taste Guatemala and Honduras, Peru and Brazil.
Acidity, the most misunderstood component
Acidity: low, medium and high.
Imagine apple juice, orange juice and grapefruit juice. Apple juice is smooth, with very low acidity, and soft. Orange juice is slightly tart, with a little snap - more of a medium acidity.
High acidity is similar to grapefruit juice: snappy, tang and zip would be words one might use to describe high acidity.
Coffee needs acidity to compliment its other components, body and flavor. This acidity is not sour or a negative in coffee, but a useful component to the overall coffee experience. High acidity or bright coffees would be Colombian, Costa Rican and Kenyan. Try these next to a syrupy-soft Indonesian, Brazilian and Nicaraguan.
Flavor: is the coffee nutty, chocolaty, jasmine, plum, strawberry, cedar? Flavors are what linger. What can you identify on your palate? After clean, sweet, acidity and body, what’s left? Flavor.
Again, a reference to what you normally have in your region of the world. Certain fruits or popular tastes can be identified by the cupper. Some characteristics are culled from the masses, like chocolate. Everyone knows what chocolate tastes like, but is it dark chocolate, baker’s chocolate, milk? Nuts? What kind of nuts? Pecan, walnut, hazelnuts?
After spitting (if cupping), or swallowing (if tasting), what’s left? Did the coffee leave an enjoyable, pleasant, long, lingering finish? Or is it harsh and astringent? For the most part, cuppers agree on the above.
There are regional and global differences, perhaps the most pronounced is in acidity. As the head judge leading teams of cuppers from all over the world, I cup with a multitude of cuppers. As an example, Asian people are generally more sensitive to acidity, possibly due to a more refined palate in the food they eat and grow up with. North Americans thrive on acidity in coffee. That could be why many American cuppers enjoy African coffees. Typically we begin our day with a glass of fruit juice. We are used to this profile in the mornings. This may be why Colombian was originally the morning coffee of choice for most consumers in the US.
To build your skills in coffee cupping and tasting, you simply have to do a lot of it. Compare opposites, try challenging your skills.
Take light bodied coffee against heavy bodied ones, low acid along side high acid. Try them for yourself and every time you eat a mea
l, try to pick out the flavors, keep on practicing. Do this with friends and colleagues. Coffee is not only about sensory experiences, it is also about people and sharing. I am often asked “what’s my favorite coffee?” Difficult to say, I really enjoy many coffees, prepared in a variety of brewing methods: drip, espresso, toddy, press. You name it, and I’ve drunk it. Between great and bad coffee, I prefer great!