The Flavor of Coffee

September 13, 2011

This is another Guest Post from Pierce Young, a Coffee Professional working primarily for Visions Espresso in Seattle, Washington.

I recently had the pleasure of attending a cupping at Seattle Coffee Works. To say the least, it was one of the most interesting cuppings I’ve ever attended. I feel like “coffee tasting” was the more accurate term, than cupping. There was nothing formal at all about this tasting. There was only one cup of each of the 18 coffees, as opposed to the usual 3 (and sometimes 5) cups that are laid out to taste each coffee. Amongst the decaf, the blends, the Roasted For Espresso, the natural processed and the washed coffees, everyone found something they liked.

People wove to and from the cupping table, and around each other in a maelstrom of activity. The talk of the table was the Ethiopia Worka, a naturally processed coffee which tasted strongly of berries and vanilla. And yet, on this table, not three cups away, lay what I considered to be a true gem. While everyone was talking about how flavorful and heavy the Ethiopian was, I was lavishing in the clarity of a balanced cup that had a wonderful complexity, sweetness and a fantastic finish. The cupping was blind, and so at the time we didn’t know where the coffees we were drinking were from, but I had clearly stumbled upon a great washed Central American coffee.

With so many coffees on the table, it was clear that no two tasted the same. The Sumatra was heavy with chocolate and nutmeg, the blends were balanced and smooth, the Central Americans were sweet with light acidity, and the Ethiopians were powerhouses of wild fruit flavor. Sometimes two coffees shared a similar attribute, while others were completely different. Yet if pressed, I’m not sure that I could identify a common element that all of the coffees on the table had. I assume that there must have been one, but I struggle to pin point what it was that made all of those coffee’s taste, invariably, like coffee.

I think that this lies at what the core of what coffee tasting is about. No two coffees will ever be the same (heck, it’s really hard enough to get one coffee to taste the same twice). What makes a coffee wonderful, is how it tastes in comparison to other coffees of the same species, region, or country. And, what differentiates coffees from a certain species, region, or country is how different they are from coffees from other species, regions, or countries. Understanding the permutations of these differences leads us away from appreciating how coffee-like a coffee is, and helps us to understand how unique and amazing every coffee can be. Everyone has an affinity for different flavors. And finding a flavor of coffee which is going to suit your taste, can be a difficult task. But, I think that the start of this adventure is finding a coffee which ultimately doesn’t taste like coffee.

Some very influential people have written some negative things about naturally processed coffees in the past. And, in the past, I was inclined to have their opinion weighing in my mind every time I enjoyed a naturally processed coffee. However, as I attend more and more cuppings with non-coffee professionals, I have begun to appreciate, the differences which allow people to accept coffee as a specialty beverage. It’s always an amazing thing to see someone at their first cupping and watch them experience coffee that doesn’t just taste like coffee. And, in my experience, %70 of the time it’s not a washed coffee which changes peoples opinion about what coffee can be.

Oh, and for the record, the coffee that I loved so much on the table, turned out to be the #1 Cup of Excellence from Columbia. But, who am I to say that on that day, in that blind cupping, that natural Ethiopian coffee wasn’t the winner? Because at the end of the day, it was the natural Ethiopian coffee which I saw change peoples minds about coffee, tasting like coffee. I just happened to notice that the Columbia, while it tasted like coffee, tasted like really really awesome coffee.