Balancing what we know, what we taste, and what we describe.
Have I told you that my first solid food was tofu? That was the first of many foods my parents introduced me to as a kid. I didn’t eat much off the kids menu - I just shared whatever my parents were eating. And since they were studying Chinese, we ate a lot of Chinese food, often at dinners where the primary language was Chinese.
At the time I’m not so sure I appreciate the opportunity to taste geoduck, or scallops stuffed into cucumbers, or szechuan peppers. But my parents at the time applied a very simple rule, and it’s one I still use to this day - try everything at least once.
Now a big part of my job is the ability to taste. And, my job takes me to places where food is unfamiliar. Rather than get upset, I get excited. I’m ready to taste new things. I head out into the world with a pretty lucky advantage in that I’ve thought a lot about the flavors of things I’m tasting, and I’ve tasted a lot of things. It applies directly to the times I’m tasting professionally – it’s a lot easier to think about the malic acids I’m tasting in a coffee when I combine what I learned from organic acids classes and from a tour of apple farms throughout the northeast US in the fall. It gives me the confidence to say which type of apple I’m tasting – from granny smith to honey crisp, and to say if it tastes like a county fair caramel apple.
A really important part of professional tasting is finding the balance between what you taste and what you can confirm with other tasters. This is called calibration for the uninitiated, and it can be quite a daunting task - being the first to describe a flavor or perception, and hoping the note will land like a good joke in a writers room - affirmations from everyone.
But the inverse is also an important skill. I have a piece of #nylanderwisdom I always share about tasting - “it’s is not a flavor-naming contest.” Having the ability to edit and refine the words used to describe a coffee to gain consensus is invaluably helpful, especially as you venture into roles beyond the barista space. Roasters, traders and producers all want to be able to understand and seek out the flavors customers are looking for, and convey helpful information. Consumers appreciate a simple and clear explanation of how a coffee will taste. They become increasingly skeptical as the words to describe coffees become more poetic - and so do I.
Sometimes knowledge isn’t power when it comes to tasting – especially when that knowledge is new and exciting to you. When thinking about describing a coffee, it’s also important to think about communicating its description to others. Just because you’ve learned that charcoal is a flavorless body enhancer, say, doesn’t necessarily mean that describing a coffee as having a “charcoal” body is desirable, and many people may not even know what you mean. Perhaps “dry” or “like paste” is more appropriate, because it’s more applicable.
So the next time you throw out a descriptor, and you get raised eyebrows as your response – think about the way you described the coffee. Did it really taste like bubblegum cotton candy? If so – how could you get people to connect to that descriptor? Maybe it was something like refined white sugar, a pure sweetness. Does that get more nods? Keep talking about your coffee until you get to “yes!”. Then try to build more and more refinement into your language. Soon you’ll be guiding flavor experiences smoothly at professionally.
If you liked this post, you may also want to read my primer on tasting – here.