This past weekend some friends and I went to yet another great tasting put on through the Experimental College at UW. The first was a chocolate tasting with the Chocolate Man, Bill Fredericks, earlier this year. On Saturday, it was coffee. (I just need one more stimulating equatorial product for a trifecta, but the first agricultural item I can think of that fits the bill might not be really feasible.)
The tasting was held at Victrola Coffee on Capitol Hill and was led by Laura Evans, who worked in coffee roasting for years. She was, like the Chocolate Man, engaging and incredibly knowledgeable. When my friend Sarah noted her appreciation for Laura’s style, I said yet again that that is what I love about all the teachers I work with at the cooking school: their passionate and idiosyncratic deep knowledge about their subject matter and how it’s both infectious and utterly adorable.
The event included an overview of coffee production and preparation, “from farm to cup.” We also had about three rounds of tasting or, as is called in the coffee world, cuppings.
The cupping process is actually much more involved than simply sipping a variety of cups. The coffee is evaluated at each stage, from whole bean, through grounds, through several stages of a sort of modified French-press brewing process.
Laura showed us the proper way to sort of slurp each spoonful, a similar style to what one does in wine tasting in order to aerate the liquid and spread it evenly over the taste buds. (I am sure there is a more technical term than slurp but I can’t recall what it was.)
And as with wine tasting, to the uninitiated, the sound of the proper slurp can be a little surprising, since we – at least in the West – are all used to “proper” ingestion meaning “silent.” So just like the wine classes I work at the cooking school, it takes a little bit of time for the students to get comfortable with making that much noise. (And of course, with coffee, you don’t have quite the inhibition-lowering effect you get with wine, where the slurp-comfort level ratchets up exponentially as the tasting progresses.) Laura’s well-honed slurp sounded precisely like the noise of rapidly peeling off packing tape on one of those dispenser thingies.
One of the cuppings focused on tasting coffees from different regions (Brazil, Indonesia and Africa), another on tasting the same type of bean through a variety of roasts (medium through dark). The last tasting was to try out some of the coffees folks had brought with them to see what we thought, now armed with our newfound tasting knowledge.
I was in dire dire need of some serious caffeine stimulation as I am suffering this week from some kind of mental fog, but unfortunately despite my pre-event caffeination and the opportunity to try several different coffees, I remained mildly dim-witted. Ergo, my recollection of all the great info is less-than-ideal, but here were some of the highlights for me:
- I would have thought I preferred a milder bean and roast, but it turns out that I seemed to like the full-bodied flavor of the Sumatran bean and actually enjoyed Peet’s dark roast more than I thought I would.
- When comparing the various roasts, I was also surprised that the less roasted a bean is, the more matte its finish. The longer roasting time actually brings out more oils, creating that glossy finish. I would have thought the matte beans were old or stale, just from looking at them, so in the store, I would have probably thought the dark roast beans were “fresher” due to their shine, but that’s not necessarily the case.
- I was endlessly pleased with myself when – after I tasted the Brazilian, and proclaimed it to taste like Folgers – Laura let us know that beans from that region are generally considered “straightforward” and will be usually included in blends to give a standard, basic coffee flavor. Super palate power – activate!
There are probably – through the multiplying powers of mixing and matching – about a million different ways for coffee’s flavor to be affected, starting from what altitude the bean is grown at, through and including how the end user brews the coffee. The tasting was an excellent way to get an overview of those different factors and I feel better-equipped for making my next coffee purchasing decision. I’d highly recommend checking these tastings out (the class size is kept small, so if you see it on the website, snatch it up). Victrola also has cuppings every Wednesday at 11 AM that are open to the public.