excerpted from Jacqueline Sainsbury’s article in Food Arts, December 2010 issue.
Just as it seems that the industry would never make its way out of sugar-free nonfat half-caff soy vanilla gingerbread lattes (hold the whipped cream, please), customers appear to be swinging the pendulum and taking their cup of java straight up. Coffee consumption sans dairy, sugar, syrups, and chocolate sprinkles rose in America in 2008 from 27 percent to 34 percent in 2009, while preferences for coffee with sweeteners or dairy fell from 31 percent in 2008 to 24 percent in 2009. This volte-face could be a result of mercurial public taste, a collective cinching of purse strings, or a quietly orchestrated movement set out to show just how good pure coffee can be.
Following in the footsteps of enology, easy to use flavor wheels have been drawn up by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, categorizing descriptors for ease of use and understanding. Taking the idea a step further, the SCAA divided the categories between two wheels: The first differentiates taste (sour, sweet, salt, bitter) and aroma (enzymatic, sugar browning, dry distillation). The second tracks flavors resulting from external changes (fats absorbing odors and fats absorbing tastes), internal changes (fats and acids changing chemically), aroma taints (improper roasting and fats absorbing tastes), and taste faults (loss of organic material and acids changing chemically).
With over 1,000 scientifically identified aromatic compounds in coffee (compared to wine’s 700), there is much to taste. The most complex beans—from arabica plants (one of 6,000 coffee species)—come from higher altitudes and produce 75 to 80 percent of the world’s coffee. These beans typically carry the more desired flavors, including caramel, chocolate, flowers (honeysuckle, jasmine, dandelion, nettles), fruit (particularly citrus), fresh walnuts, toast, spices (clove, cinnamon), roasted cereal or malt, tobacco, and baked potato skins.
As with most, if not all, agricultural products, geography affects the taste of coffee. While it’s possible to wax poetic about the terroir of Jamaican Blue Mountain versus Lake Atitlán coffee, there are several general characteristics found in the major coffee producing regions of the world: Beans from Latin America and the Caribbean are fairly simple, have a bright acidity, and light body. Those from the Asia-Pacific are floral, sometimes quite earthy, and have a full body, while Africa, coffee’s motherland, produces round flavors reminiscent of dried fruit and chocolate with a fair amount of acidity and wine-like characteristics.
Enthusiastic and occasionally fanatical, coffee proselytizers are hard at work to launch coffee beyond its coffee-flavored sugar milk past. While coffee is on a wine trajectory with its own diagrams, specialists, and courses, it’s doubtful that coffee cuppings will ever rival the popularity of wine tastings—alcohol holds the ultimate trump card. (It’ll be a long month of Sundays before someone admiringly remarks about a cup of coffee—as Voltaire once did of a Burgundy—that it “smells of merde.”) Armed with tasting knowledge, consumers and professionals have a whole new liquid to swirl, sniff, sip, and spit.