Updated: Sep 21
"That's Eric. He's a coffee snob". I've heard that line often. “He drinks the good stuff”. It’s a well-intentioned comment, often offered as an explanation for my coffee tastes.
It’s not entirely unfounded. I do like good coffee. I love coffee in fact. It's my favorite part of the morning. I drink it strong and black. To my dismay, I even get a caffeine withdrawal headache if I don’t drink it in a day.
But I'm not a coffee snob.
You see, snobbery doesn't describe someone who likes something very much. A snob is someone who likes the good stuff but can no longer tolerate the not-so-good stuff.
The truth is, I’ve rarely met a coffee I didn’t like. Sure, I have my favorites. But I’ve had many a satisfying coffee from a K-cup or a gas station. Sometimes a good cup of cafeteria coffee hits the spot. A snob wouldn't drink these.
That does not diminish my appreciation for good coffee though. I just appreciate the good stuff that much more. Maybe more than I should (let’s not dwell on this though).
You see, I find coffee not only to be a tasty morning beverage. I find it to be incredibly fascinating too. In addition to all the many different brew methods and roast types, many other factors affect the look, smell, and taste of coffee.
Some coffees are naturally fruity in flavor. Others are chocolaty. Some even have a subtle spiciness to them. And while many factors go into shaping the flavors of each cup, much of the flavor comes from the unique properties of the region that the coffee beans were grown in.
Single Origin Coffees
Allow me to get nerdy for a moment.
Coffee starts out as a small fruit, about the size of a cherry. The seeds at the center of these little berries are coffee beans. During the growing and harvesting season, the fruit imparts many flavors to the seed, just like a peach will impart flavors to the peach pit. These flavors remain in the bean as the fleshy fruit is removed, and the bean is dried and eventually roasted.
The flavors that the coffee bean takes on can vary quite a bit, depending on a number of factors (climate, weather patterns, soil type, etc). And many of the coffees from different areas of the world will produce a wide variety of flavors in the finished coffee.
Many of the coffees you find at the supermarket are blends of coffees from around the world. Coffee blenders carefully mix various coffees from various supplies to produce one consistent flavor. Coffee beans from Columbia were a little less acidic this year? Add a little more of an acidic bean from Kenya to even out the flavor.
You get the idea.
Without these blends, coffee’s flavors would change with each crop.
However, there has been a growing trend in the coffee industry to highlight the various natural flavors found in different coffees around the world. Take coffees from Ethiopia for example. Ethiopian coffees are often described as having hints of black tea and fruit. Though many coffees found in South and Central America are known for their sweet and savory flavor characteristics.
Tasting the Difference
Imagine a wine connoisseur, delicately cradling a cup of fine wine, eyes closed, first sniffing, then sipping the glass. A moment passes by before you hear him muttering phrases like “hints of wild flower” and “smooth with a clean finish.” We all know this image.
A good wine connoisseur will often know many of the details that went into producing a wine, like how weather affected the quality of the grape crop. He can even distinguish between the different types of grapes that are used in wine.
However, what many people don’t know is that you do not need to be a trained connoisseur to appreciate the many flavors naturally found in coffee. The variations in flavor are much easier to taste than you might think, though it often helps to know what you are looking for.
This is where my fascination for coffee skyrocketed a few years ago.
Tasted individually, coffees from different regions of the world usually taste like, well, coffee. But when two different coffees are tasted side-by-side (comparative tasting), their differences stand out, sometimes boldly. They both share the same basic coffee flavor, but your palate notices their differences, not their similarities.
And while comparative coffee tasting is fascinating, you can delve even deeper by guiding your sense of smell and taste through each coffee. When guided, you might sip a coffee and look for specific traits. Do you taste a natural sweetness? Is it more or less acidic? Is the texture smooth and creamy or thin and tea-like?
These are just a few things that you might step through while tasting a coffee.
When guided through a coffee tasting, you begin to develop a vocabulary that allows you to describe what you are tasting, which is a pretty fun skill to have. Before you know it, you may even begin to say things that you would have expected our friend, the wine connoisseur, to say.
How to Get Started
Developing your taste for coffee isn’t hard to get started. You can be as elaborate or simple about it as you like. As a bare minimum, all you need is a cup of good coffee, whether brewed at home or purchased from a coffee shop. But I would recommend having more than one cup of coffee at your disposal, as well as a scratch pad to take notes on.
While I don’t have the space to present a full description on how to have a coffee tasting, I will point you in the direction of a video by James Hoffman on coffee tasting here. He provides an excellent overview on how to get started.
If you are interested in developing your smell and taste for coffee, you may be interested in attending one of our coffee tasting classes, where we walk you through various types of coffee, teaching you how to taste and describe the complex flavors in each cup. RSVP to one of our coffee classes, which will be periodically posted to our events page here.
In addition to having a good time, you can expect to deepen your appreciation for one of the world’s most traded and consumed commodities. You will deepen your understanding of this diverse beverage, learning about how each region of the world affects the finished cup.
However, I must warn you. Learning to taste coffee isn’t for the faint of heart. Friends and family may discover your newfound appreciation for coffee. You might develop a reputation for yourself as liking good coffee. And before you know it, you may even be accused of being… a coffee snob.
Sip carefully my friends.