When I just entered coffee world, and I will not call it specialty coffee world, because it was, as I see now, commodity coffee – I did not know anything about varieties, origins, and processings.
And I was exploring. So I could easily try Sumatra coffee, or Indian Monsoon Malabar, or Jamaica Blue Mountain, or to pay crazy money for the expensive geisha coffee, that had no date of roast at all. And a classic one, to go to Starbacks to check out their single origins.
And there was always a conflict. Because I couldn’t taste what was written there in the tasting notes.
But until some time I pretended I could. (And I am by far not the only one!)
Now I know that, because it was a commodity coffee, and the roast was pretty dark, it would not be possible to taste jasmine flowers in that overroasted old geisha, or to taste strawberries in Musson Malabar.
But the stickers were saying it. And I was insisiting I feel it. Probably if I were more confident and honest with myself, I would have used the words “rancid”, “old”, “papery”. But I did not. I didn’t have enough vocabulary, and I hadn’t learn by that time to trust my receptors.
Only after some time I entered the cupping routine, started to eat more consciously, expanding my palate, and was able, with time, to taste more and more things. But it is a training process. And I am not a supertaster of any kind. It is just a training process of learning how to put what you are feeling into words, and do it fast and accurate.
And when I started to have that cupping routine, it actually made me understand how lazy my brain was. Cupping started to be a battle against the tremendous laziness of my brain.
I understood that if I knew the roaster, or the origin, and I liked it from the previous experience, I tended to put the poins I higher. – So almost immediately I found out that it is obligatory to cup blind, if you don’t want your expectations to interfere.
I understood that if I like the taste of the coffee, I tend to evaluate high the acidity and the body as well, and not to go carefully through them. I started to be more focused on every parameter.
I understood that the packaging, desigh, how expensive it looks, my first impression on how much the company invested in it, will automatically make me evaluate the coffee higher, will distract me from the taste itself, because I will make a connection between the expensive packaging and quality. It works the other way as well – if I am not impressed with the branding and packaging, I can lower the cupping points.
And the list goes on and on, I will write later more about cupping, how both useless and helpful it can be, if you find that topic interesting.
Right now my questions are about other thing.
I tasted lately one coffee, “X”. In two different locations, the same coffee, in a time period of 1 month. The tasting notes on the packaging are, let’s say, “mango”. But if you cup it, cup it blind, you will just taste the roast. Burnt, roasty, charcoal, smoky – that was what I wrote in my cupping form while tasting it blind. Twice.
So I am not even saying it doesn’t taste like mango, but does taste like pineapple, or hazelnut – and the tasting notes are inaccurate, but more or less close.
I am saying that there are no traces of specialty quality in the taste of the coffee, and the only thing you are able to taste is the roast itself. There is no chance even to put the “nutty” there, because there are no nuts.
But then I saw various people writing about that particular coffee, and repeating the “mango” story.
And I repeat, there is zero doubt of that coffee having any traces of “mango” – there is none.
So the reality is, again, eye-opening. It means that many people who write about coffee, write about food – haven’t dedicated time to taste, or to be actually tasting. They are writing about flavours, menwhile not trusting their sensations, but somebody elses wrong descriptions.
You don’t have to actually be a pro in sensory evaluation.
All of us, when we begin to taste, start with very pour vocabulary, and end up using 6-10 descriptors only.
We cannot taste “mango” yet, but we use the words like “roasty”, “smoky”, “chocolaty”, “fruity”, “nutty”, “citrucy”, “floral” – those broad descriptors are enough, yes, they are ENOUGH, to make an honest evaluation in this case of the coffee you are drinking. Yes, you will not look as smart as if you would be writing “This coffee tastes like rose petals and amaretto liquer, with a delicate notes of clementine peel” – you will not be looking so cool, no.
But on the other side, it is better to keep trying and make an honest description of the coffee you are drinking, yes, it will be short like “chocolaty”, “full body”, “balanced” – but you will not put yourself in the silly position of writing that it tastes like mango when it was totally burnt.
And the descriptors will come with time. When you learn to connect what you are feeling with words. It will come. It always comes. You don’t need any special talent for it. All you need is to keep practicing, to be connected with your sensations, and to be imparcial. It takes time, but it always comes.
That’s it for now.
As always, just trying to say that time invested in mastering a skill always pays off. And tasting is a core skill in food industry, and therefore in specialty coffee.
In other words, don’t be afraid to say “You know, man, I don’t taste here mango at all! ”
Because most probably you will be right.