‘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.