How to taste coffee like an expert tastes fine wine

Take your latte to a new level with an expert lesson in coffee bean evaluation

Harriet Marsden@harriet1marsden
Wednesday 11 April 2018 10:21
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Wake up and smell the coffee – then prepare to taste it like an expert.

High street coffee is a relatively young industry in Britain, compared to say, wine, so it doesn't carry the weight of as much history – or indeed, the pretentiousness. But while wine (and wine tasting) is becoming increasingly accessible and down-to-earth, taking coffee seriously is seriously taking off.

“Cupping” – essentially a tasting session of brewed coffee to evaluate the quality of the bean – became a standard industry practice in the US in the late 1800s, or during the First Wave of American coffee.

It’s far from simple. As Rombouts’ coffee expert Jonathan Wadham explains: “Wine is essentially a finished product. Open the bottle, serve, taste and enjoy. Coffee is an ingredient, and a fresh one at that, so should be made to a recipe.”

But Rick Tingley, coffee specialist at Taylors of Harrogate, points to their latest survey which suggests that 21 per cent of Britons said it was more important to have good coffee in the house than good wine.

“I do believe that, with the way coffee is progressing, there will be a time where we will be able to discuss coffee in a similar way to how we discuss wine. The rise of specialist brewers, innovation in the category specialist blogs and social media will be the driving factors in this.”

Wadham, too, is optimistic about the future of cupping. “Wine only has around 250 flavour and aroma compounds, compared to around 800 that have been identified so far in coffee, so there is huge potential for tasting.”

In order to learn how to taste a coffee like an Frenchman sips a Chablis, The Independent headed the Shoreditch HQ and roastery of London coffee maestros Grind for a cupping with the experts: Sam Trevethyen (head of coffee), and Howard Gill, head roaster.

Sam and Howey begin by showing us the “green” (raw, unprocessed coffee, which is stable and travels well), before lightly roasting it until brown to get rid of the moisture. They explain that espresso is brewed much quicker with lots of water, at high temperatures and pressure, whereas filter or french press goes much slower.

Like wine (in theory) you're supposed to spit out what you try, but we're having far too much fun for that – which might explain the distinct levels of mania we experienced for the rest of the day.

As far as we could tell through the caffeine haze, here are the main steps to tasting coffee like a pro...

1. Smelling the dry

Pretty much exactly as it sounds: you inhale the aromas of the dry coffee grounds before adding any water. Strike the cupping bowl firmly on the table, and then bring up to your nose to allow the aroma to release.

They offer bean samples from South America (Brazil and Colombia) and Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia and Rwanda). The South American cups smell far creamier and more chocolatey, whereas the African samples have noticeable top hints of fruit.

2. The pour

The water is specially filtered – Howey tells us they use a “hardcore” filtration system – because tap water, particularly in London, is very hard with too many chemicals. “The purer the water, the more space the coffee has to extract,” he explains.

The cupping bowls tend to be quite wide, and we're told the ratio of ratio of coffee to water matters: around 13 grams of coffee to 230 grams of water, or 1:17. Given that an espresso is normally around 2:1, you see the difference in intensity.

The water should be approximately 94/95 degrees, so just off the boil. Let the grinds infuse for around four minutes.

Sam explains that good quality coffee still tastes good when it cools, whereas poor quality coffee decreases further as it cools, so consider splashing out for better beans.

A coffee cupping typically involves a good deal of slurping – and a hefty caffeine hit 

3. Breaking the crust

Using a flat, wide spoon (usually a soup spoon) angled away from you, break the bubbly film on the top to release the aroma. Push the spoon through the crust, about halfway down into the cup, and put your face right up into it. Inhale at will.

Howey tells us that the sweeter, chocolatey flavours go well with milk, while the fruity samples are best served black.

4. The taste

At last! By this point, we're almost salivating from the divine coffee aromas. We skim the top with the spoon, in order to avoid any floating grinds, and put a little on our tongues to slurp - yes, slurp, you heard that correctly.

To taste coffee properly, you should slurp – the noisier, the better – to coat the whole mouth and introduce oxygen, so it spreads to the back of the tongue. Attempt to spray the back of your mouth with the coffee mist, as this is where the real flavours and aromas can be identified.

Sam and Howey perform a professional twittering sound with their tongues, whereas I end up spitting most of it on the table.

Pretend to chew it, to give you more time to taste the coffee and appreciate the aromas. And leave the coffee to cool and taste again. As it cools, it releases more acidity, so the flavours change.

Clean the spoon in between each cup, and keep hydrated.

Pro tip: pretend to chew your coffee when it’s in your mouth, to get the full effect 

5. The ranking

Look out for the body, or texture / mouthfeel, and the acidity. Also take note of both the flavour and the aftertaste.

Clare Clough, the food and coffee director of Pret a Manger, has this advice for us.

“When tasting, I always recommend considering the flavour and acidity. Is it chocolatey, fruity, dark or light? Is the acidity sharp and bright or mellow and soft?

“As the coffee cools, consider the body and finish. Is the viscosity thick or thin? Is the finish quick and clean or long and lingering?”

Lost? You can use a cupping form to keep track, or get a taster wheel – like the SCAA Coffee Taster’s flavour wheel.

We “detect” that while the Ethiopian coffee remained floral and citrussy, the Kenyan sample had a distinct element of purple fruits, while the Colombian had a hint of tomato.

The Rwandan was especially interesting, because the original preparation involves keeping the husk on the bean while it dries in the sun, and removing it once it's dried - hence the boozy, cherry flavours.

We’ve partnered with Kahlúa to celebrate National Coffee Week and you could win an overnight stay at the Hoxton Hotel, Holborn, plus cocktails and dinner for two. To be in with a chance of winning, tell us which Kahlúa cocktail you'd most like to try by clicking here*.

*Terms Apply: 18+. Enter before 23.59 on 22 April 2018. Please read full Terms before entering.

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