..After all this IS a Cafe!
But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, still, alone, more fragile, but with more vitality, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls, ready to remind us, waiting and hoping for their moment, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection. –Proust, Rememberance of Things Past
My second favorite fact about coffee is that it contains between 800-1000 volatile aromatic compounds (that’s more than wine, for comparison), those evanescent molecules of chemical magic that make it possible to discern hints of apricots, vanilla, leather, and graham crackers in the grounds of a single cup of coffee. Those associations are our nose’s contribution to our enjoyment of each cup of coffee -- a complex sensory response in which the field of literature seems to be a little ahead of the field of science in understanding that there’s an intimate link between the sense of smell and memory: modern scientists are just now catching up to what Proust knew a century ago when he wrote of how the now-famous little madeleines rocketed him back to another tea table in another age (a good-sized excerpt can be found here).
Perhaps it's those associations that double the delight of a good cup of coffee, especially for the nostalgic ones such as myself: they're not just whichever aromatic compounds evoke apricots, they're the apricots that conjure up the caramelly apricot of grade school fruit leathers or the tart yet fermenty ones that rotted on the streets of a little high desert town as the tart desire of love first merged with its cloying combination of sweetness and habit and stained a favorite shirt in the process. You're lost? Don't worry, that’s the point: the intensely personal way in which our brains connect aroma (nose), flavour (tongue) with all the other synapses that fire behind them.
The tasting of coffee combines the workings of the nose and tongue and draws upon that bank of olfactory and flavor memories, all in a single cup. Yet if you're one of those who’s reading the descriptions of coffee and nodding politely, "Sure there’re hints of ginger in there…" or wondering if the mention of those notes of vanilla and almond means that it's a flavored coffee, trust me, we're neither making it up nor adding syrups to our beans. Whether you're pondering those questions, or pondering how to organize the dozens of amazing sensory experiences that flood your coffee cup each week, you might be as delighted as we were to discover the 33 Cups of Coffee Journal. The project of a native Iowan turned resident of "sunny Portland, OR" as he puts it, this little book does a lovely job of both guiding and documenting your coffee experience. A little section for notes as well as a spider web graph for the more visual thinkers, this little book breaks down the ultimate SCAA flavor wheel into its most accessible and distinguishable aspects.
Why 33? I'm not sure on the definite answer to that, but if you tasted and evaluated a cup of coffee every day for the month of April (and three spare cups somewhere in there), you'd be well underway to a new relationship with your palate and a larger bank of sensory memories to draw upon. How to start? For your first cup, if you’re the one brewing it, shut your eyes, sniff the grounds (if you don’t usually grind your own beans, this is a good reason to try it, either in the grocery store or with a friend's grinder), making note of anything that stands out (some of my past notes have been "fruity pebbles" for a naturally processed Ethiopian Sidama, and "yellow" for our Guatemalan Light. It needn't be fancy). For this part of the exercise, think about the degrees of floral, smoky, and spicy that you'll mark on the tasting wheel.
Once the brew's in your cup, sniff it again (smoky is often one of the key things that I'll notice here, which is often, but not always, an indicator of roast degree). At last, take a sip -- does it hit the tongue as sour or tart (think of that as the degree of Sour Patch Kids feeling on the tongue)? With the next sip, think about fruit and which springs to mind: is it berry fruit (that Ethiopian Sidama… )? Citrus fruit (Ethiopian Yirgacheffe reminds me of my mother who started every morning of my childhood squeezing a lemon into a cup of Lipton tea)? Stone fruit (once upon a time, we had a lot of Colombian Heavy Pedal that evoked Cherry Garcia ice cream&hellip ?
This post was modified from its original form on 18 Mar, 9:15
I do love my coffee
With the next sip, notice how the coffee moves across your tongue, its body or what's sometimes referred to as the mouthfeel. Just as there's a continuum from water to milk to maple syrup to honey in viscosity, the manner in which they slide across your tongue, an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe slides more lightly across the tongue than our Sumatran Full City for example. Pause after your next sip to notice -- how long do the flavors stay on your tongue: lingering like toothpaste or here and gone like cilantro? From there continue to sip, filling in the wheel as you can, knowing that some flavors are more unusual than others (it's not just smart marketing that we don't have the adjective "salty" in any of our flavour descriptions&hellip but if you’re looking, the Brazilian that we're currently roasting is an excellent example of a coffee that's both savory and sweet). And finally, keep tasting! Not that we're trying to sell books, but there are matching journals for wine, cheese, and the original 33 -- beer!
Where does all this tasting go from here? In the dreamier, story-telling part of my brain, each flavour ties to a memory, a story (I've had tasting companions tell me of Boston baked beans, their grandmother, and a particular bowl of veggie soup as paraphrases of a flavour evoked by a cup of coffee) -- 800-1000 aromatic compounds, 33 cups: however those compute, that's a lot of stories! There are also the proverbial brass tacks of the exercise of tasting: experienced palates can discern this array of aromatic compounds in the cup and trace them to their origins -- literally -- the point in the coffee bean's formation from tree to picking to processing to shipping or storage to roasting and of course brewing. This data can be used to provide valuable feedback all along the supply chain as well as pinpoint the region where a mystery coffee was likely chosen.
And so, to return to the passage with which we started, here's to remembering, both the flavors of our own pasts and those of the beans we drink. Enjoy!