What do people get when they call a coffee retailer, confused, and ask for a good blend, something to introduce them to the world of specialty coffee?
We called, and this February’s coffee reviews describe what we got: a dozen interesting and rather different blends from twelve roaster-retailers. In all cases, the blend we tasted was the one recommended by the person who took the order.
The reviews record my personal assessment of the twelve coffees that came through the mail. They make up a rather impressive array, with blends ranging from the crisp, dry taste of traditional East-Coast medium-roast blends to dark-roast, heavy-toned, pungent West-Coast blends from Starbucks and Peet’s. The only outright dud in the collection came from a firm known for products other than coffee.
Throughout my twenty-five years of coffee writing I have preached a sort of relative relativity when it comes to taste in coffee. I’ve argued that good and bad are relative, but not absolutely relative. They are relative to category.
For example, to compare a drip coffee to a demitasse of espresso, or a Costa Rican washed coffee to a Yemen natural coffee, may be silly. But to compare two cups of drip coffee to one another, or two Costa Rican washed coffees to one another … well, that might make sense, at least as a beginning point for discussion.
I still preach relative relativity. However, I have been convinced that the time has come to start assigning numerical rankings to cuppings as my counterparts have been doing for some time with wines, beers and cigars. These rankings are expressed as a number from 0 to 100 under the OVERALL RATING heading of each review.
Nevertheless, despite this bow to the power of wine magazine precedent, I urge readers of this material to take a moment to read the entire flavor profile rather than jumping to conclusions on the basis of a single number. I also hope that they will keep the following in mind:
- Rating coffee is a much more conditional business than rating wines or beers. Refer to the section titled “Coffee Rating Caveats” for elaboration on this point.
- The judgments in this column, though they do reflect almost thirty years of mindful coffee tasting and talking, obviously come from me and are not dictated by some coffee angel fresh from the celestial cupping room. In the interest of good communication, and at the risk of appearing self-absorbed, I list what appear to be my personal predispositions under “Prejudices and Methods.”
- Finally, I have tried to reintroduce relativity into the rankings in a couple of ways: First, I’ve contributed a little section on each coffee titled Who should drink it. Although obviously intended to entertain, these little riffs are also serious efforts to identify the kinds of brewing styles (drip, French press, espresso) and drinking styles (black, with milk, and so on) that might suit the particular coffees involved, regardless of ranking. Second, I’ve broken these rankings out by roast style, following the categories worked out by the Specialty Coffee Association of America: light-medium, medium, medium-dark, and dark. Comparing two coffees at the far ends of that roast spectrum is a little like comparing white wines to red. My ultimate personal preferences should be clear from the overall rankings, but those who already know the roast taste they enjoy should be assisted in reaching their own conclusions.
If you want to know more about roast and its impact on flavor, consult “Reading the Reviews” below.
Prejudices and Methods
Although trotting out my personal prejudices may appear evidence of a bad case of narcissism, browsers of this column deserve to know what preferences lurk between my tongue and synapses, and how I came up with the numbers and conclusions recorded in the coffee reviews.
First the prejudices: In medium-roasted coffee, I find the usual fault with outright bad coffees: moldy, heavily fermented, grassy, green, and the like. But once beyond obvious defects and heavy-handed faults, I enjoy almost everything: hard, authoritative, squeaky-clean washed mountain coffees from Costa Rica and Colombia; dubious, half-fermented, fruity Ethiopian dry-processed coffees; soft and earthy-sweet Brazils; subtle, silky Konas and Puerto Ricos.
However, I do harbor a preference for two kinds of virtues in medium-roast coffees. I particularly like grace notes — those little fruity or floral or herbal tones that grace the top notes of some coffees. And maybe paradoxically, I admire coffees with a big, deep-bottomed, resonant body. In darker-roasted coffees I flat out dislike coffees with a burned or charcoal character, particularly if the charcoal tones are so intense that they mask other qualities of the coffee and thin the body.
However, I admire dark-roasted coffees with body and complexity, particularly coffees that develop the peculiar, mouth-filling combination of pungency and caramel sweetness that can be gotten with good dark roasting. If the pungent sweetness is achieved while preserving a little acidity or varietal grace notes, so much the better. In other words, in dark roasts pungent fullness yes, thin burned notes no.
As for methods: I cup coffees blind. Someone else prepares the samples for me, and identifies them by number. While I’m tasting I see only the anonymous numbers, not the names on the bags. I find out whose coffee I’ve tasted only later, after rating the coffees and drafting my blind assessments.
I cup the coffees roughly in order of degree of roast, from light to dark, and then back again from dark to light. The reason: A good medium-roasted coffee can prejudice the palate against darker roasted coffees, and visa-versa.
I use standard American cupping practice. This procedure involves brewing samples identical in weight and grind in matching glasses, then assessing the coffee in three stages:
- Sampling the aroma by “breaking the crust,” or breaking and stirring the layer of ground coffee that forms at the surface of the cup while sniffing it vigorously;
- Tasting the coffee warm and assessing its body, acidity and taste, including its finish and aftertaste;
- Tasting the coffee at room temperature to correct or confirm earlier impressions, and to reassess acidity, which reads with particular clarity when the coffee has cooled.
Those who are interested in doing their own cupping are invited to consult “Cupping Coffees at Home”, excerpted from my book Home Coffee Roasting: Romance & Revival.
Reading the Reviews
Aroma, acidity, body and taste are the standard descriptive categories used by American professionals when assessing coffee. At The Coffee Review we use a rating system of 1 to 10 for each of these four categories. Ratings reflect both quantity (how much) and quality (how good).
AROMA. How intense and pleasurable is the aroma when the nose first descends over the cup and is enveloped by fragrance? Aroma also provides a subtle introduction to various nuances of acidity and taste: carbon tones, fruit, flower or herbal notes, and the like.
ACIDITY. Acidity is the bright, dry sensation that enlivens the taste of coffee. Without acidity coffee is dull and lifeless. It is not a sour sensation, which is a defect, nor should it be astringent, though it sometimes is. At best it is a tart, often rich vibrancy that lifts the coffee and pleasurably stretches its range and dimension. Acidity can be overpoweringly clear and wine-like, as in most Kenyas, sweet and delicate as in many Perus, low-toned and vibrant as in many Sumatras. The darker a coffee is roasted, the less overt acidity it will display.
BODY. Body is the sensation of weight that gives power and persistence to taste. Body can be light and delicate, heavy and resonant, thin and disappointing. Body tends to increase with darkness of roast until it peaks at about a medium-dark roast, then begins to thin again in even darker styles.
TASTE. Taste includes everything not suitably described under the categories aroma, acidity and body. An assessment of taste may invoke general terms like balanced, complex, deep, clean, rough or flat; it may identify specific defects like grassy or fermented; or it may praise positive nuances like winey, fruity or herbal. Taste incorporates sub-categories like finish (how taste characteristics grow, diminish or change as the coffee remains in contact with the palate) and aftertaste (sensations that linger after the coffee has been swallowed or spit out).
OVERALL RATING. The numbers for this heading run from 0 to 100, and are based on systems used for wines, beers and cigars. Their meaning:
- 95-100: An exceptional specialty coffee
- 90-94: An outstanding specialty coffee
- 80-89: A very good to excellent specialty coffee
- 70-79: An average to good specialty coffee
- 0-70: A poor to below average specialty coffee
ROAST. Degree or darkness of roast dramatically affects a coffee’s flavor profile, as does how the coffee has been brought to a given roast: quickly with high temperatures, slowly with low, and so on. Overly light roasts may taste bready, baked or grain like; overly dark roasts charred and thin. But aside from these extremes, no single degree of roast is necessarily better than another. Preferences in roast vary widely, influenced by tradition (New Englanders generally prefer lighter roasts, West-Coasters darker), brewing style (coffee intended for drip brewing is usually best roasted lighter than coffee intended for espresso or French-press brewing) and drinking style (people who take their coffee with milk often prefer darker roasts to lighter).
Degree of roast can be measured with some precision through the use of a specially modified spectrophotometer popularly called an Agtron after the name of the best-known manufacturer of these devices. Agtron numbers, as the readings provided by these machines are usually called, represent a measurement of certain near-infrared wavelengths not visible to the human eye. These wavelengths are a good indicator of degree or darkness of roast. The smaller the Agtron number the darker the roast. The lightest palatable roast measures 95; the darkest 25.
In our coffee reviews, the Agtron number preceding the slash indicates the darkness of the coffee in whole-bean form; the number following the slash indicates the darkness of the coffee in ground form. The larger the difference between the two numbers the more likely the coffee embodies a wide range of roast taste.
The descriptive terms that follow the Agtron numbers under the Roast heading of the reviews (medium, medium dark, and so on) represent the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s language for various degrees of roast. These deliberately simple terms avoid the glamour of more popular roast terms like French, Viennese, Espresso, Italian and the like, which can be confusing because their use varies so widely. A Starbucks regular roast may be considerably darker than many espresso roasts, for example, while a Viennese roast can mean almost anything depending on who’s doing the roasting and the labeling.
Coffees brought to light-through-medium roasts often display tell-tale flavor traits that coffee professionals call varietal characteristics: the wine-tones of Kenya, for example, the floral tones of Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, the full-bodied earthiness of Yemen Mocha. In darker roasts, varietal characteristics become muted, and other, more general taste complexes associated with advanced degree of roast emerge: first a combination of pungency and sweetness, then carbon or charcoal tones. Flavor categories may transform under the impact of roast. Coffees that are very acidy when brought to a light roast often develop sharp, pungent notes in a dark style, for example, whereas low-acid coffees may become sweeter when brought to a darker roast.
Coffee Rating Caveats
We need this section because evaluating coffees has very different implications from evaluating wines, beers or cigars.
The reason: Coffee is a continually changing collaboration rather than a fait accompli in a bottle or box. Good wines get put in bottles in the winery, usually by the same people who grow the grapes and produce the wine. Although wine changes while inside the bottle, that change is reasonably predictable. On the consuming end, all that needs to be done to enjoy a wine is to properly store the bottle, open it, pour the wine (in some cases after a proper interval), taste it, then carry on about what you’re tasting.
Coffee, on the other hand, is subject to a globe-spanning sequence of operations by a succession of people stretching from grower to consumer-brewer, people who live in different parts of the world and don’t even know one another’s name, much less work at the same winery.
The whole thing is kicked off by someone who grows and picks the coffee fruit. A second party (usually) buys the fruit and removes the soft, fruity parts from the seeds, then dries the seeds (now called beans), two steps together known as processing and both crucial to the ultimate quality and character of the coffee.
The processor usually sells the dried beans to a third party, the exporter. The exporter may blend beans from different processing mills before bagging and shipping them. He even may do exotic things to the beans, like aging or monsooning them.
A fourth party imports the coffee into the consuming country, though in most cases he spares it any further manipulation, confining himself to passing judgment on it and selling it to a roaster.
At this point the coffee is subjected to perhaps the single most influential act of all: roasting. The roaster also may blend beans from a variety of crops and regions.
The retailer (by my count we’re now on our fifth active collaborator) performs a simple but very significant service: handling the coffee sensibly and selling it before it gets stale.
Finally, the consumer (the sixth actor in the coffee drama) buys the coffee, grinds it (usually), and finally produces an actual beverage. But we’re not even finished here, because the friend the consumer/coffee brewer just invited in to share this meticulously grown, processed, roasted, blended, and brewed coffee may be moved to dump an ounce or two of white liquid into it, not to mention a spoonful of one of seven or eight different possible sweeteners, all with differing effects on the final beverage …
Thus, by the time it is drunk, a coffee has been subject to at least seven momentous processes carried out by seven potentially unrelated parties resident in anywhere from two to four parts of the world.
Coffee is not bottled or boxed. It’s not just bought, opened and drunk. It’s a multicultural, transoceanic, culinary work-in-progress.
Which is why I like writing about coffee, a beverage that lives and changes and lets everyone from grower to consumer to step up and take a creative whack at it.
But beware of buying coffee simply by name instead of taste. Because next year’s Clever-Name-Coffee Company’s house blend may be radically different from this year’s blend, despite bearing the same name and label. The particularly skillful coffee buyer or roaster who helped create the coffee you and I liked so much may have gotten hired elsewhere. Rain may have spoiled the crop of a key coffee in the blend. The exporter or importer of that key coffee may have gone out of business or gotten careless. And even if everyone (plus the weather) did exactly the same thing they (and it) did the year before, the retailer this time around may have spoiled everything by letting the coffee go stale before you got to it. Or you may have messed things up this year by keeping the coffee around too long, brewing it carelessly, or allowing a friend to pour hazelnut syrup into it.
Everything that appears on this site is merely a starting point for experiment and dialogue, no more.
Cupping Coffee at Home
(Excerpted from HOME COFFEE ROASTING: ROMANCE & REVIVAL, KENNETH DAVIDS, St. Martin’s Press 1996. ISBN #0-312-14111-4)
Obviously the most reliable long-term way to evaluate coffee is to drink it the way you usually drink it, but mindfully.
But if you’re after a knowledge of coffee in its larger complexity and variety may want to approach tasting more systematically.
The professional cupping ritual has a relatively long history. It appears to have been well established in its present form by the mid-19th century. Variations of it are used today by coffee growers, agricultural boards and graders, exporters and importers, and roasters and blenders as a way of evaluating coffee and what we do to it.
Traditional cupping is redolent with a sort of mahogany-toned, 19th-century romance. The gestures are arcane yet functional, and the trappings — sample roasters, water kettles, silver spoons and spittoons — as solid yet mythic as the fittings of an old ship or country store.
Although turning a part of your house into a permanent cupping facility is not a practical alternative even for coffee fanatics, a simple, portable adaptation of the professional cupping ritual is.
Setting Up for Cupping
You will need identical or almost identical cups or heat-proof glasses, one for each coffee you plan to taste, and a round metal soup spoon. Cups or glasses that flare out a bit at the top are best.
Ideally you also need a feed-through, burr-style grinder, one that has settings from fine to coarse, so you can be certain that you are grinding each sample exactly like the others. However, since burr grinders are relatively expensive ($50 and up) you may end up using a blade grinder, one that whacks the coffee apart like a blender. If you do use a blade grinder make sure to time yourself, so that you produce an approximately similar grind for each sample coffee.
You also should have two glasses of water, one to sip from to clear your palate and one in which to rinse the spoon between samples. Finally, you will need a bowl or large mug in which to dispose of mouthfuls of coffee and floating grounds scooped off the surface of the brewed coffee.
Make sure to have paper and pencil at hand to take notes.
If you wish to compare coffees you obtain green, you will need to buy a copy of my HOME COFFEE ROASTING: ROMANCE & REVIVAL for instructions on home roasting. But most readers will be comparing coffees they have purchased already roasted.
Grind small samples of each of the coffees you plan to cup. The grind or degree of granulation should be as uniform as possible from one sample to the next. About a medium grind is best. Without getting obsessive about it, try not to mix coffees from your various samples while grinding. Sometimes coffee will cake up in various spots in a grinder receptacle. In this case, try to knock out the caked portions of one sample before grinding the next.
Place the same volume of ground coffee in each cup or glass. Use about two level tablespoons or one standard coffee measure per six-ounce cup. Meticulous professional cuppers weigh out 1/4 ounces (seven grams) of coffee per five ounces (150 milliliters) of hot water. Such precision is not important in general cupping, but consistency among samples is.
When all of your samples are prepared, fill each cup with identical volumes of water heated to brewing temperature (a little short of boiling). As you pour the water over the coffee make certain you wet all of the grounds. Fill the cups to about a half-inch below the lip.
Allow the coffee to brew for about three minutes before beginning the cupping.
The cupping itself is in three parts.
Breaking the crust and sampling the AROMA. A layer of saturated grounds will cover the surface of the coffee. Bend over the cup with your nose almost touching the coffee, and gently break this crust with your spoon. As you do so sniff. Sniff deeply and repeatedly, while lightly agitating the surface of the coffee with your spoon. Make mental and perhaps written note of the characteristics and intensity of the aroma of each sample. Be active; move back and forth between samples, breaking the surface of each coffee again to refresh the aroma.
Tasting the coffees warm. Breaking the crust and agitating the surface to provoke the aroma usually provides sufficient activity to sink most of the grounds floating on the surface of the coffee to the bottom of the cup. However, you may need to remove some of the more stubbornly buoyant fragments of ground coffee with your spoon before tasting, particularly if you used a blade grinder.
The professional cupper lifts a spoonful of the warm coffee and, in a quick, explosive slurp, sprays the coffee across the entire range of membrane in the oral cavity. This is not an easy act to master, particularly given the training most of us receive in how to behave at table. Nevertheless, give it a try. The idea is to get a quick, comprehensive jolt of simultaneous taste and aroma. Note acidity, nuances of acidity, and taste; if the roast is a dark one note the balance of pungent, sweet, and acidy notes. Don’t swallow the coffee. Instead, roll it around in your mouth, chew it, wiggle your tongue in it. Get a sense of its weight or body, and the depth and complexity of its taste. Observe how the various sensations develop as the coffee remains in your mouth; some coffees may grow in power and resonance while others may peak and fade.
Now once again you need to defy table manners and spit out the coffee. Professional cuppers use three-foot high spittoons for this purpose. Obviously you don’t need a spittoon; a bowl or mug will do.
As you did when sampling aroma, taste repeatedly. Rinse the spoon between samples, and occasionally take a sip of water to clear your palate. Record your observations before moving on to the final part of the cupping.
Tasting the coffees at room temperature. Certain taste characteristics, particularly acidity, emerge most clearly at lukewarm or even room temperatures. Let the coffees sit for a few minutes, then return to repeat the cupping, refining and confirming your earlier observations.
You can amuse yourself plus establish a few general sensory reference points for cupping by conducting a few simple exercises.
Cupping roast styles. For this very revealing exercise you need to buy samples of the same green coffee that has been brought to two or three different degrees or colors of roast, then line them up and taste them. Such an exercise will give you some genuine experience to attach to generalizations concerning the impact of ROAST on coffee flavor.
Cupping unblended or varietal coffees. As a palate-training exercise, I suggest you start with a selection of coffees with contrasting flavor profiles. A good assortment might be a Sumatra, a Kenya, a Brazilian Santos, and a Costa Rica Tarrazu. Taste for the full body and low-toned, rich acidity of the Sumatra, the medium body and high-toned, powerful, wine-like acidity of the Kenya, the softer profile and medium body and acidity of the Santos, and finally the full body and clean, classic taste of the Costa Rica.
Then perhaps explore within coffees from geographical areas with related taste characteristics. You might assemble a collection of East African and Yemen coffees, for example. Cup a Yemeni Mocha, an Ethiopian Harar, a Zimbabwe, and a Kenya. Learn to distinguish the lighter body of the Harar, the earthy notes of the Mocha and the Harar, the heavier body of the Kenya and Mocha, and the subtle differences among the often high-toned, winey acidity they share in common.
For more on the flavor characteristics of various coffees and the nuances of coffee taste, see my COFFEE: A GUIDE TO BUYING, BREWING & ENJOYING (KENNETH DAVIDS, Cole Group, ISBN 1-56426-555-2).
Cupping blends. Of course you can simply cup to find out whose blend you like the best. However, once you master some of the basic taste characteristics of unblended coffees you also can take a first crack at understanding and analyzing blends in terms of their constituent coffees.
Cupping straight coffees and blends roasted for the espresso cuisine. The only way to properly evaluate coffee designed for espresso is to taste it as espresso. I suggest you first prepare identical 1/2-ounce samples (short pulls) using your espresso machine, taste them without sugar or frothed milk, then press another series of samples and taste them the way you normally drink your espresso. For detailed information on espresso brewing and cuisine, see my book ESPRESSO: ULTIMATE COFFEE (KENNETH DAVIDS, Cole Group, ISBN 1-56426-557-9).Cupping with Ken Davids — 12/30/96 — page 10