The Next Step to A Career In Coffee: Taste All The Things

Last year I lead a tasting with a new barista. If you’ve never thought to formally taste coffee, this article can get you up to speed. As I do with all new baristas, I lead him through an exercise tasting & smelling soda, orange juice, and two types of milk. After each sensory experience, I explain what we’re measuring (soda is highly aromatic, orange juice activates salivary glands, the coating textures of milk on the toungue, etc.). Then, we drink coffee. As I described coffee to my student – he surprised me – he confessed he’d never eaten any stone fruit before. No peaches, apricots, plums, or nectarines!

As we drink coffee during these exercises, I try to pry descriptors out of the students in front of me. I know this exercise strikes fear into the hearts of many, who wonder why a coffee expert asks them for their taste. I do it anyway. I do it because the moment you begin your coffee career, you should begin to taste your coffee.

This little piece of career advice seems so simple. So pure! Right? And yet, in my experience working with no small number of baristas, many never tasted coffee and actively thought about it until I put them through the exercise. As they taste, they fumble for words. Often they try to cheat by looking for marketing material, or reciting what they think the coffee should taste like.

Once they’ve mumbled two or three words, I’ll take a turn. I’ll give a description of the coffee’s aroma, flavor, body, aftertaste, acidity, and let them know if I liked it. They’ll just look at me like I spoke to them in a foreign language. In a way, I did.

There is only one difference between my palate and a beginner’s: practice. When I started drinking professionally coffee at 25 in NYC, it was a good time to learn. My trainers encouraged frequent tasting, and soon other companies hosted coffee tastings regularly. I went to as many tastings as I could. At first, I struggled. Coffee tasted like coffee! I took furious notes on cupping forms and in journals, wondering how people found notes of blackberry, lemongrass, or tomato?!

Then someone brought a beacon of wisdom into my life. “You eat about three times a day, right?” I do. Sometimes more. “When you eat, do you think about what you’re tasting?”

Boom. I’d built in the option for a tasting exercise three times a day, and I’d never even thought of it. I didn’t have to only think about tasting coffee – tasting anything expanded my palate and helped me learn to describe my experiences. Suddenly, I began to taste all the things – fruit, chocolate, vegetables, bread, beer, wine, cocktails, seafood – all with a renewed fervor. I realized that most the time spent eating, we are rarely thinking about taste at all, at least beyond whether we enjoy the flavor. Good or bad is our standard tasting binary.

But figuring out why it’s good or bad, and having the ability to describe it, is a powerful thing. This winter tomato is bad because of its mealy texture and watery flavor; an august heirloom tomato is meaty, juicy, and sweet like candy. Soon, you can distinguish and describe your preferences in food, and use that to apply to other foods.

Sounds fun, right! Right. Well, except for this. Remember at the top when I said to taste all of the things? I wasn’t kidding. Often new tasters run out and clear the store of expensive and delicious things. I encourage this, because I encourage building a habit of tasting. But I also encourage tasting bad things. All of the things.

What do I mean by bad things? I don’t mean taste things that society in general does not define as food. But don’t be afraid to go out on a limb and taste as much as you can – at least once. Learn from the experience, and file it away. Taste things you don’t expect to like – you may confirm your theory, or you may be pleasantly surprised. Also, plan to acquire new tastes over time. Your physiology impacts how or if you like certain flavors, so be sure to revisit tastes again and again.

In coffee, many high-falutin coffee professionals refuse to even try tasting coffees from major corporate brands. The thing is, most people who drink coffee, drink coffees from those major brands. They use it as their frame of reference. Without knowing their reference, I imagine it must be difficult to explain why your coffee is more special to you. I also often think that folks would be surprised – companies like McDonalds are striving to make a cup of coffee that tastes as good or better than yours. Taste it, so you know what you’re up against.

Taste burnt things. Taste your mistakes, especially when learning how to make coffee. Taste milks processed and homogenized differently. Taste everybody’s coffee, even your grandma’s (my grandma used Albertson’s brand ground coffee from a can! Mm!).

When you’re done tasting for work, head out on the town and go find delicious things to taste. Taste things from farmers markets, from cheese mongers, from winemakers or from local distillers. Listen to how the experts sharing tastes with you describe their experience. Ask bartenders about their drinks – deconstruct them, taste variations, try finding unexpected delights.

Soon, you’ll be showing up at a coffee tasting with the confidence of a coffee professional. I’ll never forget my first moment of confidence – I was at a large public tasting in New York, and the facilitator asked the crowd for flavor notes. “It tastes like black currants” I said, after recently eating a currant scone. “YES!” the facilitator exclaimed, and went on to describe exactly why that flavor was produced in that particular coffee.

I felt like I won the lottery – but really, I’d just tasted all the things.

Anne NylanderComment