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Silence falls in the brightly-lit room. There air is odourless, as perfumes and aftershaves are forbidden. The tasting may already have begun.
This is the scenario that professional coffee tasters often experience when in the midst of their work, choosing the blends to put on the market or judging the quality of the blends in international competitions, like the Cup of Excellence.
The work of a coffee taster resembles that of a sommelier, requiring competence, concentration and training. Because behind every simple cup of coffee, lies an entire world that experts can perceive by focussing on the coffee’s appearance, colour, consistency, perfume and taste with notes that range from flowery or fruity, to hints of chocolate or toasted bread in the quality blends – or in the poorest blends, even disagreeable aftertastes like hay or stagnant water.
«When growers send us the tastes of the new harvests, there’s always a lot of excitement in the company.» Roberto Freddi is a professional taster and works in a long-standing roastery in London. «Monmouth Coffee opened in Covent Garden in 1978. At the end of the 1970s, the so-called ‘coffee culture’ was yet to be established.»
Today, the London firm is considered as one of Europe’s leading coffee brands, responsible for changing the way coffee is imported, toasted and enjoyed. «Every morning, we show our clients the characteristics of the blends, but the most exciting moment is when coffee arrives from all over the world,» Roberto explains, «And the team gets together for a ‘cupping session’ and compiles the report in utter silence.»
In just a few sips, tasters must re-live the beans’ journey – from the fields to the cup – and indentify the greatest number of elements that make up the coffee’s aroma. And what’s needed is a great deal of concentration: it doesn’t take much to distract a taster and prevent him from perceiving all the details. The environment in which the tasting takes place is of the utmost importance: the room must be light and calm, with no foreign smells or sounds. Tasters mustn’t wear any kind of scented cosmetic and even a too-strong toothpaste can be problematic.
During an internationally important cupping session like the Cup of Excellence, nothing is left to chance. But tastings are also an important event for coffee companies, attended by professionals and tasting consultants, and now, tasting sessions for amateurs are gaining in popularity. Regardless of who is doing the tasting or where it’s taking place, the basic rules go unchanged: smoking is prohibited before tasting, as cigarettes interfere with the coffee’s aroma. It’s ideal for a taster to have an empty stomach, either in the late morning or afternoon. Before beginning, between one coffee and another, it’s recommended to rinse your mouth with water. Tables should always have bread or breadsticks available, to chew between one coffee and another. And no taster should overdo it: tasting more than ten different kinds will result in sensorial saturation.
Watching a taster carefully, the first thing you’ll notice is that he smells the coffee in the cup and evacuate the consistency and colour of the drink, moving the spoon around the cup. Then, he’ll take a small quantity of coffee with the teaspoon and have a small sip, making sure to distribute the coffee evenly around the palate, keeping it in his mouth for a few seconds while trying to understand the bouquet of scents and notes. Then he swallows, takes a deep breath, analyzes the persistence of the aroma.
All of the taster’s perceptions and comments get written down on a standard card. The very best experts are able to recognize the differences between different kinds of coffee, identifying the various pluses and minuses of each variant: from the cultivation methods (using hormones, for example, that stimulate the plant’s maturation and give the beans a bittersweet aftertaste), to the harvesting methods, to the toasting – and even up to the way the coffee is served thousands of kilometers later.
«The final steps are crucial. After such demanding procedures and such careful work on behalf of so many people, all that needs to happen is that the coffee maker is defective or the barista isn’t paying attention, and the coffee gets ruined,», concludes Roberto Freddi, explaining how experts in the field enhance and add value to coffee: «Every roaster creates their own blends, from the most delicate to the strongest, from sweet to intense. And the coffee machine has to be of high-quality.» The last link in the chain is the barista. «The beans should be ground just before serving the shot, and be careful with the milk. If it’s too hot, it’ll kill any trace of the coffee’s taste!»