Tasting Two by Two

And the number shall be… three?

There’s a tried and true technique called triangle cupping that’s used to identify which of three coffees is different. (For you Sesame Street fans, it’s a game of One of These Things Is Not Like The Others.) You take two samples of one coffee, and one of another; you randomize them so you don’t know which is which, and taste them with the goal of identifying the odd one out.

Triangle cupping is an excellent tool for building sensory skills. You can start simple: identify the one Kenyan out of a flight that consists of that cup plus two cups of Colombian. And as your skills progress you can make finding the odd one out increasingly difficult: try identifying the odd Sulawesi in a field rounded out by Sumatrans; or the Kona peaberry in a triangle of coffees where the others are estate-run beans from the same farm. It’s surprising just how much you can boost your sensory ability with practice.

Triangle cupping is also an excellent diagnostic for folks who roast coffee. Want to figure out which roast level brings out the very best in a given bean? Cup a triangle of two samples roasted at Agtron 47, and one at Agtron 46. Repeat at Agtron 45, 44, 43… Want to see if you’re maintaining the taste profile for your blend? Cup a triangle of Monday’s roast compared to Wednesday’s. A single cupping session may not tell you all you need to know… but cupped again and again, sooner or later the statistical weight of your choices will become clear.

Triangle cupping is not a particularly good technique, however, for really assessing — much less appreciating — the qualities of a singular cup of coffee. That’s understandable enough. The object of the exercise is, after all, to distinguish what’s different… not necessarily to celebrate what a given cup brings to the table. When you’re wholly focused on the effort of distinguishing the odd cup out, you’re likely to miss some of that cup’s more nuanced qualities.

Neither, as it happens, is tasting a cup all by itself an ideal method. This isn’t news to anyone who frequents a cupping table. Professional cuppers — on receiving a new bean from, say, Costa Rica — will by force of habit reach for the Costa Rican bean already on their shelves to use as a reference point, much as a pianist will seek out middle C. Unless you’re a bona fide super taster – the likes of Green Mountain’s Lindsey Bolger or The Roasterie’s Danny O’Neill, both coffee pros who are blessed with the sensory equivalent of perfect pitch — you’ll use a known quantity to delineate the scale for your tasting. As a result, your cupping notes tend to look… well, scalar. All of a sudden bean X is reduced to being merely more or less of a given sensory quality than the known value of bean Y.

Tasting Two by Two

Of late, I’ve stumbled upon a method that’s both accentuated and accelerated my appreciation and understanding of coffee’s innumerable sensory qualities. I won’t kid myself into thinking this is an original invention — I expect I’ve simply rediscovered a method that’s simply not much talked about — and that is tasting coffees in dissimilar pairs.

Take, for example, the two coffees on the desk in front of me; coffees which really couldn’t be less alike. I’ve already sampled them individually… and then we’ll try them together.

First, from Raven’s Brew Coffee in Alaska — Cherry Karma — an altogether intriguing bean with a curious pedigree. Grown on Balanoor Estate in India, it’s a dry process coffee from a land that, as a rule doesn’t do dry processing. Wet-processing, yes. Monsooned coffee, even. But dry-processed? In India, it simply isn’t done. At first blush, Cherry Karma offers an aromatic whiff of cardamom, with a slightly musty understory. Its flavor is marked by vanilla and faint notes of worn leather; its body is supple and its finish — while very dry — is subtly perfumed with a return of the same exotic spice.

Next to it, another cup with an intriguing story, Green Mountain’s Special Reserve Rwanda Karaba Bourbon. This cup is comprised of all bourbon varietal beans, and more, from only those beans picked during the eleven day period that marked the very peak of the picking season. Its aromas feature cocoa and caramel with a hint of coffee blossom; its flavors offer hints of dark fruit and dark, raw sugar. This is a fairly big-bodied coffee, and its finish resonates rather sweetly.

Sampled side by side, interesting things happen…

Cherry Karma retains its exotic notes of spice, and its subtle dryness assumes a distinct — though not at all unpleasant — distilled quality. The mustiness in its aroma is revealed in its flavor as a mineral quality… a dusty limestone. This is, perhaps, the flavor of a Monsooned Malabar at its finest… without a trace of the Malabar’s notorious numbing fuzziness. It’s focused, tight and dry.

By way of contrast, the Karaba Bourbon has become extravagantly sweet — extraordinarily honeyed both in its flavor and in its rather elegant finish. There’s a slight note of ferment that, borne by the sweet cup, takes on hues of wild honey wine. Even compared to the dry-processed Indian coffee, the wet-processed Rwandan is exceptionally round in body, and syrupy in its finish.

It’s worth noting that cupping these coffees side-by-side hasn’t introduced new flavors or aromas that weren’t present in some form when cupped individually. Instead, cupping these dissimilar pairs side-by-side has thrown the sensory qualities of these coffees into high relief; magnifying the qualities of each so that they can be examined in still greater detail and appreciated all the more for it.

Dissimilar pairs… give it a try, and see what you discover.