Why Practice Coffee Tasting?
Michael Jordan is one of the greatest basketball players to have ever played the game. Undeniably he had a certain level of natural talent, however he also had an unmatched and exhausting practice routine that focused on the fundamentals of the game. You can practice shooting eight hours a day, but if your technique is wrong, then all you become is very good at shooting the wrong way. Get the fundamentals down and the level of everything you do will rise. --Michael Jordan As coffee professionals we taste a lot of coffee to evaluate samples for possible purchase and as quality control for our roasted coffee. In order to become skilled Coffee Cuppers we must practice and have solid fundamentals. Practicing at tasting sounds as ridiculous as saying you need practice at breathing. Except when you need to choose between two deliveries of coffee, the same variety, harvested two weeks apart, off the same farm. You better be able to tell them apart. That is the high pressure situation where all your practicing pays off. These are some of the exercises we use to hone our coffee tasting skills.
The first challenge is four sets of glasses which hold distilled water with different intensities of sweet, sour, salty or bitter solutions mixed in. The order which the concentrations are placed is randomized and we must identify them in order. The last challenge is a set of glasses holding mixtures of two or three sweet/sour/salt/bitter combinations and we must identify the combinations.
Organic Acids Matching
The first set of tasting glasses hold distilled water with an organic acid solution mixed in. Typical acids used are: quinic, malic, citric, tartaric, phosphoric and lactic. After that set of samples is tasted a second round of tasting occurs. Stations are set up with four glasses containing brewed coffee and some glasses have been tainted with an organic acid solution. The goal is not only to identify which glasses in the set contain the solution but also identify the organic acid. Each station only has one acid solution used in the glasses.
During a triangle test three glasses of coffee are set out labeled A, B, or C. One glass is different and two alike (presentation order of the samples is randomized). The goal of the exercise is to identify the one sample that is different.
In the two-out-of-five test we are given five glasses of coffee: A, B, C, D, E. Two glasses are similar and the other three are alike. The goal is to identify the two samples that are different from the other three. Like the Triangle Test, the presentation order of the samples is randomized in order to avoid presentation order bias.
A known sample glass of coffee is set out along with two unknown coded glasses. The goal is to identify which unknown coded sample matches the know sample.
As Professionals we can be officially tested within the industry by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) on our tasting abilities in versions of the Sweet/Sour/Bitter Evaluation Exam and the Organic Acids Exam. To really test ones taste buds and olfactory receptors for speed and accuracy one could enter the U.S. Cup Tasters Championship. The U.S. Cup Tasters Championship (USCTC) educates and motivates the coffee cuppers of the world, recognizes their credibility and status as on par with sommeliers, and promotes the concept of quality coffee. Recognizing that different taste preferences exist the USCTC does not ask contestants to judge coffee. Instead, participants in the competition test their skills to discriminate between tastes using the triangle testing format. Tasters receive eight sets of three-cups, or triangles, where two cups are identical and one is different. Competitors identify the one cup that is different, testing their ability to smell, taste, recall and concentrate on the task at hand against the clock. The competitor with the most correct answers in the shortest amount of time is the champion and automatically qualifies for the World Cup Tasters Championship. The competition begins with three-person qualifying heats. Scoring is kept in real time and displayed immediately for participants and spectators. The top six competitors move on to the semi-finals, where triangles increase in difficulty. The three high scorers become finalists. The overall winner takes the title. These are just a few of the tools those of us who taste coffee for a living use to get a workout and improve our fundamental skills.