Coffee Tasting: The Mouthfeel of Milk

May 17, 2010

I have a confession: I’m guilty of having a snobbish attitude against drinking coffee with milk. Real coffee drinkers should drink their coffee black. I saw milk as a mere softener of the bitterness of bad coffee. Well over the last few weeks, I’ve been making 8 O’clock Coffee in the morning and have been adding milk to soften the bitterness of the bad coffee. But I had a micro-epiphany. One thing that milk does that adds another dimension to coffee is what it does to the mouthfeel. Mouthfeel is how it feels in our mouth. Water is thin. Cream is creamy. Maple syrup is thick (By the way these terms are my own. I don’t know if there are a standard set of mouthfeel terms used by coffee experts).

Why I called this a micro-epiphany is because I now realized the different experience one should expect with a high quality latte. The mouthfeel of milk is another dimension to the taste profile of coffee that make things interesting.

Coffee Tasting – First Impressions

March 13, 2010

The first time I was introduced to tasting different coffees from different parts of the world was a coffee tasting session at Aldo Coffee in Mt. Lebanon, PA. We tasted three different coffees: Ethiopian, Central American, and Sumatran (Indonesian). What was my first impression? Whether or not these are true descriptors of these coffees, this is what I have as an impression: Ethiopian coffee was very bright and fruity; Central American was bright and floral; Sumatran was smooth and heavy.

At that time the Ethiopian coffee seemed too intense. So much was going on in my mouth that I wondered if I could handle that first thing in the morning.

The Central American coffee (I don’t remember exactly where it was from) had a floral aroma. It wasn’t as “in your face” as the Ethiopian.

The Sumatran coffee was smooth, not as bright as the Ethiopian or Central American coffee. The other characteristic was it’s body – it felt thick on the tongue, kind of sticky to the mouth.

These were my first impressions. Since then, I’ve taken a liking to the Ethiopian coffees. This is my starting point in developing a familiarity to different coffees.

Coffee Tasting – Brain Images

March 11, 2010

I’ve wondered why it is easy to say if something is sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and even umami (you know, “Mmm. Tastes like steak.”). But it is much more difficult to describe the subtle flavors. We can recognize flavors – “It tastes like grandma’s chicken soup.” or “It tastes like mom’s apple pie.” But to describe what grandma’s chicken soup tastes like is not so simple.

Scientists now are able to take brain images when we are tasting something. These two-dimensional pictures of neural activity in our brain are complex and irregular. Actually these images are similar to brain images when we are looking at people’s faces. So think about this. In the same way that it is easy to recognize people’s faces, but difficult to describe them, it is the same with flavors.

So here is what I take away from all of this: I am going to stop trying to eloquently describe the taste of coffees. I may be able to have some general description, but I won’t try to recreate taste profiles you would find in a wine tasters’ magazine. So what to do? In order for me to recognize people’s faces, I have to see their faces over and over again. It is even better to be able to spend the time to become familiar with the person. I ride the bus to work and back. There are many people that I see daily. At the beginning they are a sea of faceless faces. But over time, I begin to recognize the bus driver’s face; I recognize the ladies who wait at the same bus stop with me day after day; I find out their names, what they do, one got cataract surgery, the other plays flute in a community band. These strangers even become the friendly faces of people I gradually begin to know.

It’s time to do the same with coffees. There are coffees from Africa, Indonesia, South America, Central America, Hawaii. . . . How to befriend coffee? I guess I’ll just have to drink more to taste more.

Uncovering Hidden Demons – Mission Revisited (2)

March 3, 2010

So after my slump through January and most of February 2010, this past week I was reading a book called One Paradise Drive by David Brooks. He normally writes for the New York Times and appears on PBS regularly. I normally like what he says. He typically says things I would say about various issues. But most of all he is a people watcher and able to describe American culture quite articulately. He is not anti-American. I actually get more patriotic when I read what he says about American culture. But at the same time he is able to look at the American culture objectively.

Here is what he wrote,

We are influenced, far more than  most of us admit, by some longing for completion, some impulse to heaven. . . the possibility of a magical conversion process. By mastering the skills . . . I will be able to transform my present caterpillar self into the shimmering butterfly that is the future me.

The context of this quote is David talking about all the various magazines with pictures on their covers with perfect people, perfect houses, perfect cars, perfect foods, perfect everything. Studies have shown that most people will buy magazines of things that they can identify with, but show images of people and things that are a little more perfect than they. So the basic marketing thought is to dangle a carrot in front of people promising a more perfect and improved version of themselves. Then people will buy it.

As I have been experimenting and tasting different coffees, I have been trying to find the secret even a tried and true method to develop a fine and discerning palate. I want to distinguish between floral, fruity, nutty, chocolaty, earthy coffees. I don’t think the goal is unrealistic or too ambitious, but I think in the process I have stumbled upon a little hidden childhood demon. This little demon is just a little nagging thought that incites fear and insecurity. What is my little thought demon? “Others are better than you. They are bigger, stronger, smarter, more sophisticated, and have a more discerning palate than you!”

Here is the insidious nature of this thought demon. It comes with a lie, “But don’t worry. I’ll help you get better. I’ll make you a better person. If you try harder, work harder, and find the magic solution, you will be as good as they.” I know I’m getting a little philosophical and introspective. But uncovering this little thought demon has enabled me to begin my taste journey again.

So what did I do with this little thought demon? I spoke to it, “Little demon, you may have befriended me when I was a little boy. You pretended to me my friend. But I don’t need you or want you anymore. Jesus is my friend, and I know He strikes fear and trembling in you. So leave me alone! You are just being a frustration and a nuisance to me.”

That’s it.

Now I can continue the journey. We were all meant to progress and mature. Road blocks and hindrances should be dealt with as we encounter them one by one. All positive desires are within our reach. Let’s go.

Guy’s Update Since November 2009 – Mission Revisited (1)

February 27, 2010

So I don’t know how many of you have noticed but my last post was in November 2009. The end of 2009 was pretty rough. My family and I all got H1N1 at the end of October 2009 – yes, I tested positive – but I think the bugs are long gone, and our immune systems are now supercharged. I couldn’t eat for one straight week. Then even worse, for the next two weeks I couldn’t taste anything. My taste buds were shot.

So believe it or not, I didn’t even drink coffee during that whole time. I drank tea. I had been trying hard to develop my palate to finely discern the subtle nuances of freshly roasted coffee, just like an Olympic contender training like a madman – well maybe not. Then wham! I can’t taste anything.

Since then I’ve tried to revive the drive I formerly had. I’ve found some scientific papers about brain images when people are tasting things. Unfortunately, it just hasn’t been the same. But I think I may have stumbled on the source of my issue. It’s time to revisit my mission for Guy’s Cup of Coffee.

Coffee Roasting and Tasting – It’s Still the Nose and the Tongue

November 2, 2009

I’ve been experimenting with different roast profiles.

I gave my popcorn-popper-roasted Sumatra coffee beans to the scientific adviser of our lab. I told him one roast was stopped at seven minutes and thirty seconds. The other roast was stopped at eight minutes. A few days later, he commented about how different the taste profiles were when the difference in roast was only thirty second.

My quick description was that the lighter roast seems to maintain delicate aromas for the nose. The darker roast seemed to give characteristics that were more noticable to the tongue – thicker body, nuttier, heavier attack to the tastebuds. To get the best of both worlds, just put the two together and make yourself a good cup of coffee.

So tasting still comes back to the nose and the tongue. So in this flu ridden time – do your best to protect your nose and your tongue.

Coffee Tasting – What’s the Value of a Scoring System?

October 19, 2009

I personally think the extreme in the world of tasting is in the wine business. It gives everyone an inferiority complex about not being able to taste what the experts taste. It kind of promotes an elitism. It may even be used by unscrupulous critics as a means of marketing and promotion.

So is there real value in having a scoring system for how something tastes, like coffee? When I was in high school, Roger and Ebert’s movie critics’ show on PBS became popular.  Most people watched it to see those two guys argue. But the best part of the show was actually seeing sneak previews in the clips they showed. That was in the prehistoric era before the internet. Those clips gave the show value more than seeing if Roger or Ebert gave a thumbs up or a thumbs down.

Somehow the same should be true in coffee tasting. On websites like Sweet Maria’sand Coffee Review you’ll find a scoring system.  I’m not sure how well I believe in a universal scoring system, but to take these scores as a general guide is not bad. I’m sure a coffee rated in the 90s would taste better than a coffee rated in the 70s. But we won’t worry about anything about the system that is more complex than that just yet.

So I would like to come up with a simplistic system and/or method that would help the average coffee drinker. Maybe answers to questions: Do I like the taste? Why? What is the first taste that comes to mind – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami (you know – the taste of meat. I actually had a cup of espresso that tasted like fish to me – yuck!)? Anything else? Would I like to drink this every morning?

The more I try, the harder it seems for me to try to describe what I taste. I just want something simple and a help to others like me.

Beginning a Taste Quest – A Coffee Tasting Mission Statement

September 23, 2009

going on a questI’m reading a book The Accidental Connoisseur – An Irreverent Journey Through the Wine World, by Lawrence Osborne. I identify with him quite a bit. He mentions that he did not grow up in a wine connoisseurs’ home. But he had a desire to develop a sense of taste.

Here is the quote I like from Mr. Osborne: Taste is not learned out of books; it is not given from one person to another. Therein lies its profundity.  . . . Taste is like a perverse coral: it grows slowly and inexorably into unpredictable shapes, precisely because it’s an offshoot of living itself. Acquiring taste, then, is not a result of study; it’s a talent for living life.

So what is my understanding of Mr. Osborne’s words of wisdom? Everyone has a beginning. Our taste for coffee can only be developed by beginning to drink a lot of coffee – all kinds of coffee – from all kinds of places – of many different roast profiles – brewed by many different methods. . . Sound like fun? I’m ready to begin.

This is the beginning of a taste quest. We will investigate – we will experiment – we will taste – we will enjoy – COFFEE!

Longing for a Technicolor Taste World

September 21, 2009

Anyone who read my descriptions to my junk food taste quiz would quickly realize that I am not very eloquent nor have a very discerning palate. As far as my tongue goes, all I can say is, “salty, sweet, sour, bitter. . .”  But maybe that is just par for the course. Expect anything more from the tongue  — might just be expecting too much. If a particular food does not have much aroma – which I think is most junk food – then all we can say is what our tongue tells us.

To me a taste world revolving around the tongue is just a black-and-white world. The nerve endings of our taste and aroma receptors are in very close proximity to the emotional nerve centers in our brain. I should have some brain tissue available to discover a Technicolor taste world out there. Ok, I’m dating myself – the analogy should probably be a non-HD world and an HD taste world – but I don’t have HDTV, so I can’t use this analogy.

Let’s get a little philosophical — I’ve mentioned before that developing our sense of taste may just come with practice. I also think it comes with a state of mind. More often than not we eat for sustenance – this is out of necessity. But every now and then, we should be able to eat for enjoyment. This doesn’t have to require spending outlandish amounts of money at a gourmet restaurant. With a little bit of effort I think we can get our hands on good food. Then it just takes the luxury of finding the time to slow ourselves down from the day to day rat race and enjoy being a human being who finds simple pleasure in food and drink.

Junk Food Taste Bud Quiz

September 16, 2009

While we are on our coffee tasting journey, let’s investigate common roads we have all been on. Tell me what comes to mind, taste-wise, when I mention these foods:

Oreo cookies: crunchy, dark chocolate cookie, sweet creamy kind-of-plastic white center, got some milk?

Nacho Cheese Doritos: salty, cheesy, Mmm – MSG! crunch – orange fingers – gotta lick ‘em

Potato Chips: salty, crunch

Dill pickle: sour, crunch, pepper

M&Ms: sweet, crunch, Mmm chocolate


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