I attended my first coffee tasting yesterday, at Trabant Coffee & Chai (the U-District shop). Alexa, one of the baristas at Trabant (at the far left in the photo to the left), led six of us through the multi-sensory educational experience involving words, photos, charts and five different coffees freshly brewed on their Clover machine.
I've attended numerous wine tastings over the years (including the recent, Zinfantastic Zinfandel Festival in San Francisco), and feel like I have a acquired a moderate amount of knowledge about wines, and although I've been drinking coffee longer than I've been drinking wine, I feel like a neophyte with respect to coffee appreciation. The coffee yesterday tasting marks my first steps toward better appreciating some of the finer points of this beverage.
Alexa told us that coffees are typically differentiated based on three primary sets of features: acidity, body and finish (all of which are used in distinguishing wine, as well). There are a number of aromas and flavors that are considered "bad", and a number that are considered "good". She passed around a Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel, produced by the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA), that showed a large number of smell and tastes that coffee aficionados look for. Nearly all of them are well beyond my current skills in discrimination, but it was interesting to see them laid out in this format (and I found myself wondering if a similar "wheel" exists for wine).
The current offerings that we tasted were the following (the "notes" are copied from the placard posted next to the Clover - I certainly could not have come up with these descriptors myself):
- El Salvador Retiro Estate: Balanced notes of strong chocolate and soft lemony acidity. Finishes with amaretto and apricot.
- Papua New Guinea Kunjun Estate: Strawberry-rhubarb and smoky cedar. Smooth medium body and rich on the finish.
- Colombia La Planeda Micro-lot: Flavors of jasmine and orange peel. Smooth mouthfeel rounded out by a juicy acidity.
- Ethiopian Yergacheffe Konga Co-Op (organic): Classic profile of chocolate and citrus paired with an aroma of raspberry lemonade. Creamy and heavy body.
- Kenya: A strong structured coffee with floral fragrance and tea like qualities. Bright lemon acidity, sweet nectarine and a long fruity finish complete this full-bodied Kenyan.
My favorite of the bunch was the Kenyan, although I think I was in the minority. "Full-bodied" is descriptor that has positive associations for me in everything I drink (coffee, wine, beer, scotch), as is "long finish". Subtlety is lost on me - in nearly every dimension of sensory experience - and so I typically need something that really fills my mouth with powerful flavors to enjoy the experience. I also tend to prefer tannic wines and bitter beers, and so don't typically enjoy milder, smoother flavors. Several of the other coffees were lighter in body, and they seemed to be better appreciated by several of the other participants in the tasting (one of whom has a fabulous web site devoted to coffee appreciation), who detected and shared various "notes" that entirely escaped my notice.
Among the other things I learned at the tasting (and in discussions with other baristas at Trabant this morning) were:
- Coffee beans grow on plants (that sometimes look like trees), and are, essentially, the seeds inside of berries of those plants.
- The beans have to be dried after harvest, ideally to a humidity level of 12%; they are laid out on drying patios (reminding me of the process by which the grapes for my favorite wine, Amarone, are prepared for fermentation), and typically tested by a coffee farmer biting into a bean to assess its humidity.
- The beans are extremely porous, and easily absorb all kinds of external substances; this is part of what gives each coffee variety its unique flavor (e.g., the soil and climate conditions where the plant grows), but is always why great care has to be exercised in handling the beans after they are harvested.
- There are many different varietals of coffee plants, as there are for grapes used in wine; a great deal of experimentation is going on in coffee growing regions to determine which varietals grow best in which places (sometimes extending to the level of a very small section of a plantation).
- The Clover machine enables baristas to experiment with the dose (grams of coffee), the water temperature and the steeping time; minor fluctuations in any of the above can have a significant impact on the resulting coffee flavors and aromas. It would be fun to try a tasting where a single coffee was the basis for a series of separate brews that demonstrate the impact each of these.
I discovered an article on the Clover in the current issue of Wired - The Coffee Fix: Can the $11,000 Clover Machine Save Starbucks? - that has additional information about the history, design and future prospects for this machine. It mentions some of the new coffees that are brewed in Clover machines, including Los Delirios, a micro-lot that is located at "13° 22'45.99"N x 86° 28'50.45"W, between 1,050 and 1,450 meters above sea level", and Kopi Luwak, "an Indonesian bean that's eaten by a civet cat, then 'harvested' from the animal's dung" ... and which sells for $100 / cup - or $600 / pound (!).
Coming back to Trabant this morning, I bought a 12 oz. bag of the Kenyan (for a mere $14.95) and will do a little experimentation of my own over the weekend - for example, seeing how this tastes (and smells) when brewed on my $80 Cuisinart DCC-1200 drip coffeemaker at home, vs. the $11,000 Clover machine at Trabant.
[Update, 2008-08-29: Tatiana Becker, co-owner of Trabant, shares some of her views on Starbucks' use of the Clover in a Seattle Times article, Starbucks Launches New Coffees for Clover Machines:
She said she doubts the small-batch Clover coffees, which Starbucks will sell for $2 to $4 a cup, will be feasible on a large scale for the chain.]