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Tasting or "Cupping" Coffee

Learning to distinguish roast is a very important step in learning to taste and buy coffee expressively. Once we move from distinguishing roast to discriminating among coffees by country or region of origin, we enter a more ambiguous realm. Signs, brochures and websites bombard us with light and full bodies; mellow, acidy, bright, and distinctive flavors; rich and pungent aromas; and on into the mellow, full-bodied tropical sunset.

Most stores carry 15 to 30 varieties of single-origin coffee, all of which have to be described somehow on a sign or brochure or package. Websites may carry even more coffees. By the middle of the list, you sense a certain strain; by the end, the writer sounds desperate: "stimulating and vibrant," writes one; "an exotic coffee with a lingering aftertaste, full-bodied and provocative," writes another; "stands apart in its own special way," adds still another. Perhaps. Is the emperor wearing his new clothes? Do these coffees really taste different?

They do and they do not. Broad differences stand out on a coffee-educated palate as clearly as do sugar and salt. It would be difficult for even a half-trained palate to mistake a Kenya for a Sumatra, for example, or a Yemen for a Guatemala. On the other hand, subtler differences can be striking, but are difficult to communicate and, above all, may not be consistent from crop year to crop year or from farm to farm. No sane coffee professional would pretend, for example, to be able to consistently describe the difference between a Guatemala Antigua and a Guatemala from another part of the country, or between an estate Costa Rica and an estate Panama, or even, as was clear in a recent scandal in which Panama and Costa Rica coffees were sold in place of Hawaii Kona, between a Panama, a Costa Rica, and a Hawaii Kona.