Lets talk the taste
A piece motivated by my experience in the Q Grade course
29th Nov 2013
I’m polishing off a Doss Blockos Lager as the sizzling of my taste buddies ease from an obliterating Organic acids component of the Q Grade Exam schedule. At 300 Rosslyn St, West Melbourne, the tiresome wet November day is here, with a floor of coffee driven Professionals. The Professionals slurp, spit and concentrate, verging meditate, their way through layers of tasting noise. Squeezing answers from a sensory power, to succeed at passing the 24 elements required to qualify as a Licensed Q Grader in our Industry of Specialty Coffee. A tool to critique taste and quality in a language that is leaving Jibberish behind to welcome Coherent.
Three weeks ago my sensory hurdles began in an examination environment at the Single Origin Roasters Headquarters in Botany, Sydney.
Andrew Hetzel of CQI ‘Coffee Quality Institute’, in collaboration with volumes of coffee encyclopaedia tattooed to his retina’s led our small group of palates into a world where the depth of taste and smell extend beyond a false Tongue Map and 8 gm to 150 ml of TDS accurate, 93c brew water. Where it is a language, an exceptionally powerful and unique tool, that one must feel part Jean-Baptiste Grenouille from the novel 'Perfume' to completely comprehend.
I have gained the understanding of skills essential in the sensory assessment of coffee from the numerous days of preparing for exams. A prominent example being the Nez du Café vial kit. Identifying the smell for my nose and committing them to memory. The exercise strengthened my ability and believe in creating an investment in my palate memory. All the things a taster tastes and smells outside the cupping lab are his or her descriptive tools for the language required inside the cupping lab.
Organic acid tasting gave me the connection with Acetic acid and its tendency to throw out a balance of acids in some poorly processed Natural Coffees. Distinguishing subtleties that can indicate drastic points of difference in other layers of the crop to cup.
There is an ambiguous nature to cup characteristics of a coffee that requires clarity as to what is correct as a favourable and acceptable or undesirable depth to the cup. The yes to no answer is like an over caffeinated vision of a fine line. Some collaboration as a group of tasters here in Australia and abroad, with experience of such possible combinations and intensities of these characteristics, thanks to the coffee’s upbringing, would be a beneficial body for the developing palates in the industry. These palates often belong to Baristas and Roasters working with the bean in its final phases, where flavour attributes need to be communicated with precision for a consumer. Those enthusiasts who are at the far end of the coffee industry ladder, often in Café’s and Roasteries furthest from the origin of details like process, varietal, soil, farming practice, milling, sorting, transport. All such things effect that viscous juice resulting in the palms of our customers. That transparency word is quite appropriate hear.
Intimately related to this point of knowing how and who to convey and teach the fundamentals of a Cup’s makeup, are the conditions of the palates involved at assessing at each rung of the ladder individually. There is no Pythagoras theorem or formula to ensure we are ‘correct’. Each tongue and nasal passage has a memory of environmental and genetic impact that has developed over the time each of us have spent here. Individual perception of what exists on a cupping table and what one will prefer will never be precisely the same. Delicate palate memories. The training of one’s palate to differentiate personal preference and develop a palate memory of what is a favourable characteristic for a particular region, variety and roast, is the ignition point for where consistency and accuracy will advance the Specialty Coffee World – both in its progress from crop to roastery and from roastery to café.
Quality assessment of new season arrivals and the discovery of new crops and new farms in new regions require the diligence of tasters with trained sensory ability to recognize fault in the crop through cup. Generating an initiative for farmers and mills to also have a diligence and care for their product is imminent. Once the small percentage of the industry that influence directly what coffee paddles its way in containers to our shores have done their job, the select few that do it well, where does the thorough assessment extend to and remain relevant, when it’s the Roasters and Baristas turn to sculpt the bean, nurture it and present it with a dialogue to the customer? Does it all come from the SCAA in house score between 70 and 100 and the spider web of cup attributes received with the delivery? These assessments are based on the resulting cup after a ‘sample roast’ roast nature. As a Roaster, it is unquestionable how the influence of minuet increment change in a roast or the time of a roast effecting the cup. Those blueberries in your Ethiopian Harrar were sensational at 12 minutes – gone at 13.30 mins. From the Coffee Broker to the Roaster there is some mentation of what could be expected characteristics when the coffee is roasted to ie city, full city, filter. As in the situation in a cafe where you’re Barista can suggest if the coffee is suitable as a milk based or black espresso.
However, these often regurgitated descriptions in conjunction with some naive sensory analysis procuring from the resultant roast or extraction could be informed and accurate representations of the cup, from its roasting and extracting masters. If the Professional tasters knowledge could gravitate to those in need of that extra nudge, the understanding of presently ghost like influences on the coffee; like altitude, harvest and mill conditions, sorting and transport would provide that transparency that so commonly and heavily lacks.
A network of some of our Q Graders in Australia exchanging samples and notes and conversation would generate some wonderful opportunity. Out of this, voluntary Roasteries or Cafes could host cupping sessions where such Q Graders, alongside interested developing palates can gain exposure to the diverse cup qualities on offer in the Specialty world of coffee. The more we all taste, the greater that palate memory and the greater the language.
The top and bottom rungs of our industry would not seem so far apart if we all talk and taste together some more.