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Coffee: Articles: On Tasting Coffee

Slurp. Swish. Spit.

Not very attractive, is it? And certainly not the romantic stuff that much of the business of coffee is built on. Still, slurping, swishing and spitting -- better known as cupping -- is the foundation of professional coffee tasters the world over. Armed with silver spoons, twirling tables and the ever-present spittoon, cuppers have employed the technique for more than a hundred years. 

Just the same, there are iconoclasts even within the community of coffee professionals who feel that cupping is a bit of a throwback to earlier times, when it's purpose was not so much to identify really great coffees, but to cull those that had defects, those that had been damaged in storage or shipment -- even to ferret out those rascals who might try to pawn off inferior beans for the good stuff that was originally purchased.

Cupping coffee is a ritual. Ken Davids, author of Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying, suggests that there really is no like ritual for "the lay person"-- those outside of the professional coffee world. I disagree.

Consider the breakfast cup. For hundreds of millions of people around the world their day simply hasn't begun 'til they've had their morning cup -- whether alone, or in the company of croissant, beignet, bagels or bacon and eggs. There is perhaps no more contemplated cup in the world. 

Consider the ritual of the dessert cup. Whether your after-dinner treat is tiramisu, death by chocolate, or a few chocolate chips, there are few better companions than an equally rich cup of fresh-brewed coffee.

There are more... coffee and a smoke. Coffee and biscotti. Coffee and Mozart. Even coffee and Zen. No rituals, indeed.

Tasting coffee -- savoring it, really -- can't be achieved with a simple slurp and a spit. Frankly, savoring a great cup of coffee deserves a ritual. It merits taking some time. Paying attention. Allowing yourself to be in the moment... and focusing on it. If you'd like something a bit more structured, allow me to suggest the following ritual -- a "lay-person's guide" for savoring coffee.

  1. Grind your coffee. Note the fragrance of the fresh-ground beans... spicy, earthy, nutty.
  2. Brew your coffee. Enjoy the aroma as it brews... heady and full of promise.
  3. Pour your coffee. Find a comfy place to sit. Feel the cup warm your hand.
  4. Sample the aroma of the cup. Is it sweet? Fruity? Notes of caramel?
  5. Breathe deeply. Release your breath.
  6. Sip your coffee. Go ahead... slurp it if you like. Feel the coffee bathe your cheeks, blanket your tongue.  Focus on its flavor... is it complex? Is it direct, simple? Swallow... enjoy its warmth.
  7. Breathe out through your nose. Savor the aromas that waft through your sinuses... are there herbal notes? Fruit?
  8. Breathe deeply. Release.
  9. Sip your coffee again. Wiggle your tongue. Does the coffee feel heavy? Viscous? Is it light and delicate?
  10. Breathe out through your mouth... feel your breath on your tongue. What new flavors and aromas do you sense?
  11. Breathe deeply. Release.
  12. Repeat, as often as you like.

Enjoy your coffee.  Savor a cup.  Savor the world.