‘It will no longer seem unpleasant’: The art of coffee tasting

Update 4/20: I’ve changed this post after commenter Greg pointed out the distinction between coffee cupping and coffee tasting. I had not realized that the terms were used in different ways, and I appreciated the comment. – April

It’s strange, isn’t it, that we have to force ourselves to tolerate coffee? If you’re like me, you had to ease gently into your first cups with lots of added cream, sugar and flavorings, maybe because you wanted to feel grown up, maybe late at night, maybe driven by looming deadines and heavy eyelids, maybe just hoping that millions of coffee lovers couldn’t be wrong.

We’re not the first to feel that way: Sylvestre Dufour described coffee like this in 1685: “For the taste, in drinking thereof once or twice, one may easily accustom oneself to it, and it will no longer seem unpleasant…” People drank coffee for its caffeine and medicinal benefits, not for its taste. (For more, read Stuart McCook’s excellent post “When did people start to like the taste of coffee?”)

But for those who grow to like — and even love — the taste of coffee, there are realms of flavors to explore in slow, thoughtful sips. It’s serious stuff — as you would know if you’ve read a coffee flavor profile lately. Have you tasted blackberry or cedar in your coffee? Some people can.

Blogger Timothy J. Castle posted an article he wrote in 1996 about the taste of coffee:

Tasting a cup of coffee is a way of downloading months worth of history in a few seconds; what is lacking in completeness or accuracy of detail is made up for in the sheer volume of information imparted. It is essential, though, that the skill and experience be there to decode the information presented.

Coffee professionals “decode the information” of coffee through a process called coffee cupping. Sunday’s Wall Street Journal featured an article about the U.S. Cup Tasters Championship at the Specialty Coffee Association of America conference:

Two dozen contenders slurped, contemplated and spit through eight three-cup sets of coffee, trying to pick the cup that was different from the other two in each set. Some cups are so similar they come from the same region but from a different farm.

According to one blogger, coffee cupping began as a way for coffee companies to find defects in the beans they were buying, but it has grown to require fine-tuned tasting skills — not just an enjoyment for the taste of coffee, but an ability to discern between tastes, aromas and textures in a meaningful way.

Coffee tasting photo by Coffee Circle, Flickr Creative Commons.


Happy 75th birthday, Nescafe instant coffee

File this under “fascinating things I never stopped to think about”: Who came up with the idea for instant coffee?

Nestle didn’t invent instant coffee — British and American inventors had that covered starting in the 18th century — but Nestle apparently made it better. They’re celebrating the 75th birthday of their instant coffee product, Nescafe, this month, and you can read its history in an article in The Guardian Nigeria:

Following the Wall Street Crash and the collapse of coffee prices, the bank had a lot of coffee sitting unsold in warehouses in Brazil.

Nestlé was asked whether these stocks could be turned into a ‘soluble coffee cube’ to be sold to consumers.

Nestle hired a chemist to figure out how to make an instant coffee powder that would maintain the coffee aroma — and it was first sold on April Fool’s Day 1938 in Switzerland. (Read the whole story here.)

Not long after that, instant coffee became a staple for soldiers in World War II, and the U.S. military bought one million pounds of Nescafe in a year.

Nescafe image by Mark Hillary, Flickr Creative Commons.

The cult of Starbucks and why a good barista matters

By bfishadow on Flickr, Creative Commons use

What’s the biggest indicator of a specialty coffee shop’s success? Not the location. Not the ratio of couches to stools. Not the kind of soft-rock-alt-folk-jazz coming from the overhead speakers. Not even how good the coffee is.

It’s the baristas, according to a J.D. Power and Associates study cited today at Roast Magazine’s Daily Coffee News blog:

The report measures overall customer satisfaction with specialty coffee retailers by examining five key factors in order of importance. They are: staff (34%), merchandise (23%), cost (18%), facility (14%) and sales/promotions (11%).

The study gave Starbucks’ staff top marks, ahead of Caribou and Seattle’s Best and tied only with Dutch Bros. Coffee, which won the overall “best specialty coffee retailer” award.

Having friendly and knowledgeable baristas promotes attachment to the coffee shop brand — you feel at home. That also probably determines the degree to which customers are willing to fork over time and money for their coffee experience:

The report finds that customers spend an average of $7.31 per visit to a specialty coffee retailer. The average amount of time customers spend in the checkout line is 6.3 minutes.

This all relates to a March 2013  article on the Huffington Post examining why Starbucks continues to be so successful, despite its reputation as “the McDonald’s of the coffee industry” and large numbers of people (myself included) who dislike the taste of Starbucks coffee. The key is brand loyalty — that is, everything surrounding the coffee itself:

“The enduring brand loyalty is about the core offerings, which is not just coffee,” Raghubir explained. “It is the experience of going to Starbucks.”

Interestingly, this “Starbucks experience” can also cut the other way as independent coffee shops try to differentiate themselves from the green giant. In a Slate post titled “How Do You Compete With Starbucks in the Coffee Industry?” cafe owner Peter Baskerville offers this advice for independent coffee shops:

It’s OK to be familiar with your customers: Chains like Starbucks can’t risk their brand value by allowing service standards to be determined by their transient university student staff, so they create and enforce strict codes and processes for “serving” customers, which I think is inappropriate for the high-repeating clientele. Long-term independent cafe owners are not so constrained and can leverage the opportunity that multiple visits creates, to become familiar with their customers.

This seems to be the trend: Starbucks has mastered the art of repeatable routines, but independent cafe baristas still have a lot of opportunity to build customers’ loyalty to their “brand.” Starbucks baristas — at least according to the J.D. Power survey — tend to be knowledgeable and fast because they’ve had training drilled into them over and over. This is why you can walk up to a Starbucks and know exactly what you’re in for. Starbucks is comforting, predictable and unsurprising.

Independent coffee shops have different opportunities. They, too, can have friendly and knowledgeable baristas who are trained with Starbucks-like drilling and memorization. They might not have Starbucks-level brand recognition, but the people behind the counter are more important than the range of menu options or anything else. Bonus: They also know the community better, they have more flexibility — and they don’t all play the same Norah Jones albums over and over and over. Then again, J.D. Power and Associates didn’t ask their survey respondents about that.


Just like the latte art competitions I mentioned a few days ago, did you know that there are national barista competitions?

Read what a Starbucks barista learned from the job. 

Top 10 coffee shops in the U.S.

While I have my own personal favorite coffee shops to frequent, Bloomberg.com recently published The Daily Meal’s compilation of the top American Coffee Shops. 

The panelists consisted of ten bloggers, baristas, roasters and Daily Meal editors. Through, what I imagine would be a very jittery and tasty process, the judges decided on the best coffee shops the United States had to offer.

Multiple coming from the Pacific Northwest. Coming from a completely unaffiliated native Pacific Northwesterner, of course.

Check out the full list here. 

Do you have any favorite cafes spots you cannot seem to give up? Comment below.

Starbucks continuing the fast global spread


Especially in cities, no matter where we are, a random Starbucks jumps out and entices coffee lovers with the latest hazelnut concoction. We take five steps out of the coffee shop, and we are at another Starbucks chain location.

Starbucks dominates the coffee world and their hold on customers will only continue to grow.

Indonesia Today recently reported on Starbucks recent claim to produce 100 more store location in Indonesia by 2016 and 100 in the Philippines by 2017. 

Indonesia Today reported:

Howard Schultz, Starbucks chairman, president and ceo, committed to continuing to invest in the region following this week’s market visit to Indonesia and the Philippines, where he met with Starbucks partners (employees) and customers.

“With a population of more than 600 million people, an emerging middle class that is driving strong consumption and a robust and resilient economy, Southeast Asia presents a compelling growth opportunity for Starbucks,” (said Schultz).

Yes, we have seen the Seattle based company do good for the environment and small town farmers, but does the world really need the world count of Starbucks increasing by the hundreds?

Here in the states, no. However, other countries may not mind.

According to an interview with “Aaron Allen, founder of Orlando, Fla.-based Aaron Allen & Associates LLC, a global restaurant consultancy,” conducted by Nation’s Restaurant News, my American view of chain shops may be vastly  different than that of someone in another part of the world.

“Consumers in emerging markets don’t view chain restaurants with the same stigma as we have come to view them in the States. In fact, they welcome and are flocking to them for all the obvious reasons, but also because they are often starved for the higher standards of consistency, service, safety, sanitation, and novelty the Western chains are bringing along with the cache of being an American brand,” (said Allen).

In Southeast Asian countries  Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines, Starbucks already currently owns and operates over 700 stores.

Differing greatly from the 10,787 Starbucks locations in the United states and the 17,003 globally in 2011, according to company statistics.

That  sounds like enough. But, alas, the international franchise continues to grow. With their growth, however, they are promising to continue to better farmers and residents as reported by Daily Coffee News in a recent report referencing Schultzes company announcement of progress:

“Emerging markets, particularly in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, are having a booming population growth,” Allen said, “and that equals demand and a population density. There’s also an amazing thirst for American and Western brands.”

Allen said the U.S. restaurant industry is very sophisticated. “The competition in America is such that operators here have become much more sophisticated and have more fully expressed — and formalized — standard operating procedures,” he said. “Consumers in emerging markets don’t view chain restaurants with the same stigma as we have come to view them in the States. In fact, they welcome and are flocking to them for all the obvious reasons, but also because they are often starved for the higher standards of consistency, service, safety, sanitation, and novelty the Western chains are bringing along with the cache of being an American brand.”

Maybe the growth of the famous chain may not be bad event for some locations, but if I see another Starbucks lining the streets of Washington, D.C., I may go a bit insane with the lack of coffee diversity.

Pay it forward, coffee edition

You’ve probably heard of people who go through a fast-food drive through and pay for the meal of the person in line behind them.

Something similar is now happening with coffee: People are paying for future coffee customers’ drinks in an act of goodwill that originated in Italy and is catching on around the world. When you buy a cup of coffee, you pay the barista for an extra “suspended coffee” or two, which will be given to people who are homeless or otherwise cannot afford the luxury of a cup of coffee.

The movement has reached Bulgaria, Canada, Britain and Australia so far, and I won’t be surprised if it comes to the U.S. soon. The movement has become an email forward and even has its own page on Snopes.com, so you know it’s hit the big-time.

In the latest iteration of the trend, Starbucks has embraced “the spirit” of the idea in Britain — whenever you pay Starbucks for a “suspended coffee,” the coffee giant will donate the equivalent in cash to a British charity that works with homeless people.

To me, Starbucks’ version just isn’t the same: It doesn’t feel quite as organic or spontaneous. It doesn’t allow you the pleasure of knowing that someone else will actually receive your extra coffee in the same physical coffee shop location. But still, it’s nice to see the gesture catching on. It’s also a testament to the strength of people’s emotional attachment to coffee — we prefer even our anonymous giving to be caffeinated.

Photo of person with coffee by Dmitry Barksy, Flickr Creative Commons.

Rewards for being… Disloyal?

If you have a coffee addiction, you know very well the perks of utilizing a coffee punch card. Every cup of java you purchase warrants you a hole punch on the prized business card giving you one “free drink of choice for every ten you buy.”

Going to school near Portland, Oreg., I am very familiar with competing local coffee shops.

However, in Boston, ten local cafes are binding together to be disloyal. Every eighth drink, purchased at any of the participating coffee shops, will grant one free drink.

The collaboration is intended to promote movement around the city. Businesses acquire new customers and residents explore more of the city.

Overall, it’s a great system for both cafes and coffee drinkers.

Video of the week: The ‘Willy Wonka’ of latte art

Mike Breach is a barista who goes way beyond hearts and leaves when he turns latte foam into art.

Watch this video and see how Breach makes faces, cityscapes and other images in the fragile space on top of a latte:

For more, check out Mike Breach’s Tumblr, Baristart.

Related: Did you know that there are latte art competitions?

Greeks may live longer thanks to coffee


Coffee is already magical: it can transform a sleepy zombie into an alert worker.

However, it may possess even more benefits. According to a recent article at The New York Times, the high life expectancy of some Greek Island residents may be linked to the coffee they drink.

“This boiled coffee seems to generate antioxidant substances,” said Dr.Gerasimos Siasos, a professor at the University of Athens Medical School and an author of the study, which appears in the journal Vascular Medicine.

He and his colleagues found that older islanders who drank the boiled coffee had better functioning endotheliums — the layer of cells that line blood vessels.

The article also attributes the remarkable health of the Island inhabitants to their lifestyle choices and diet.

Well, this is some good news for coffee lovers.

The NYC sugar ban is back


New York residents continued to drink their large, over- sugared drinks past March 12 when the New York City ban on over sized sugary drinks was set to take place, according to a recent Yahoo News article.

The ban, championed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was  struck down March 11—less than 24 hours before it was set to take effect—by state Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling, who argued that the new regulation was undermined by loopholes. Tingling noted, among other things, an exemption that would have allowed state-regulated stores like 7-11 to continue selling large sodas.

The ban on sugar coincides with his platform to increase the health of everyone living in the city, according to a Reuters article.

Despite the ban being overhauled, city officials have asked an appeals court judge to reinstate the ban, stating that it helps reduce obesity in consumers.

However if they are going to proceed with the banning of these large drinks, they, too, should fix the problems Tingling originally found.

NPR also researched the canceling of the ban, partially focusing on why Tingling decided the ban would not be effective.

What’s more, Tingling noted, the regulations wouldn’t have applied equally across eating establishments. For example, sugary milk products would have been exempt, as would 7-Eleven and other convenience stores, and supermarkets.

Those gaps in the law would have seriously limited its effectiveness, says David Just of Cornell University’s Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs. He says the ban would not likely have made much of an impact on overall calorie intake.

The ban would have affected chain stores such as McDonalds, Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts in the city.

McDonalds and Dunkin’ Donuts had already planned on not adding sugar to their coffee selections, but were opting to allow customers to add their own sweeteners after ordering.

According to a New York Times article that came out prior March 11, the ban would have affected various well-loved concoctions:

The city’s new regulations regarding coffee hinge on delicate calculations about milk, calorie and sugar ratios. As with other sugary drinks, coffee cups 16 ounces or smaller are unaffected. But unlike sodas, which will max out at 16 ounces, cups of coffee larger than 16 ounces can still be served as long as the barista adds no more than three to five packets of sugar. (The limit depends on the size of the drink.)

And once the drink is handed over, customers can add as much sugar as they want.

Starbucks, on the other hand, was planning on still adding sugar to their large drinks, but only after customers asked for it.

Even after these loopholes, though, city officials are still trying to push their ban on sugary drinks on the people of New York City, and the people of the city have their own opinions as to how the city should be handling their time.

Commentators on various news sites have responded to the updates:

NY city officials ought to focus on educating and promoting good habits to its citizens rather than restricting their rights. It’s as if they no longer trust the people to make their own decisions. What does that say about the kind of society we are becoming?

Do you feel strongly about someone taking away your right to have sugar in your morning beverage? Comment below.