The Only Thing I Know About How To Taste Coffee
You will get better at tasting coffee if you do this
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When I tell people about Boss Barista, I usually introduce the podcast and newsletter by saying: “I talk about coffee and workplace issues.”
But honestly? I rarely talk about coffee. Not in the nitty-gritty sense. Folks regularly come on the podcast and share big ideas from across the industry—but the getting-coffee-from-your-local-cafe-and-talking-about-why-it-tastes-good conversations? Those don’t normally happen here.
But today, I’m giving you the only piece of advice that’s helped me learn pretty much everything I know about coffee.
I was inspired to think about coffee tasting and evaluation during my most recent podcast conversation with Suneal Pabari, co-founder of Leaderboard Coffee, an at-home game where folks are given 10 unmarked coffees and have to guess where they’re from, how they were grown, and what makes them special.
But Leaderboard doesn’t just send you 10 coffees and leave you to figure them out alone. The experience of tasting coffees with Leaderboard is interactive, and each box includes a set of guiding questions, plus access to expert tutorials:
We have the fundamental questions, our base-level questions, which is part of Section A. With each coffee we ask people: Where is it grown? We ask about the altitude, a question about the roaster, whether or not it’s a decaf, what varietal, and how is it processed.
With each of those [questions], we wanted to make sure that you don’t feel like you’re in the dark.
…We really care about accessibility and we want to make sure that people can learn and it’ll feel comfortable to learn. By wrapping it all around in this fun game vibe, I think it really hits the feeling of what we’re trying to create with Leaderboard.
The learning curve on coffee is so steep, and as Suneal pointed out during our conversation, many cafes and coffee shops aren’t set up as educational environments. I admire Leaderboard because it provides questions to encourage tasters to think about and examine what’s in the cup in front of them—and by doing so, to start building their palates and tasting critically.
Talking about Leaderboard as an educational tool made me reflect on how I learned about coffee, especially back at the very first shop I worked at, where no one was particularly coffee-savvy but we were all eager to learn. As I looked back, I realized that most of what I now know about coffee didn’t come from books or trainings or really even experience: It came from comparative tasting, or putting two coffees side-by-side and trying to articulate their differences.
So now, when people ask me how they can learn more about coffee, I adopt a similar approach to the one Suneal has set up with Leaderboard: Put two coffees side-by-side, and just taste.
All you need to get better at tasting coffee is to taste comparatively.
Really—ignore the flavor notes on the back of the bag, and don’t pay attention to anything you’ve read about the coffee. Just taste, and try to taste side-by-side. It’s hard to pull out a specific flavor note from a coffee when you drink it in isolation, but in a comparative context, you can tell if something tastes sweeter, feels heavier, drinks smoother.
We rarely get to taste coffee this way in our regular lives. And because it’s hard to remember past flavor experiences, trying to recall how a coffee tastes today versus yesterday can be challenging. If a coffee shop has two coffees on drip, order both and see if you can pick out the differences. Most coffee roasters also host public cuppings (at least they did pre-COVID days, and hopefully will again soon), where folks are invited to taste a variety of offerings.
I used to host a coffee cupping every week at a previous job, and helped hundreds of people wade through the terrifying task of identifying what they taste when they taste coffee. It’s not easy, and sometimes the expectation is that we’ll be able to taste a very specific flavor immediately—but that’s not a fair expectation, so it’s better to simplify your approach. Compare and contrast the coffees in front of you, but don’t feel pressured to put a label on what you’re tasting.
If you want to do side-by-side tasting at home, many roasters do variety packs that include small quantities of a number of coffees. Folks like Onyx Coffee Lab have a few options, from their Roaster Sample Box to their Catalog Box, the latter of which features four-ounce bags of their entire coffee menu. If you ask the barista at your local coffee shop, they can also likely recommend ways to set up comparative tastings at home, or even give you a few ounces of a variety of coffees to sample. And of course, you can always sign up for the next season of Leaderboard Coffee and join a global community of tasters trying to figure out what’s in the cup in front of them.
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