January 26, 2014

Coffee Tasting

Same medium roast brewed in (left to right) Keurig, French Press, and percolator
We thought that a coffee tasting would be a fun thing to do on a weekend morning. Doing a side-by-side tasting, whether of coffee or wine or types of tomatoes, is such a great way to develop your palate, and zoom in on otherwise-subtle flavor differences and characteristics and your likes and dislikes. It's also just a nice way to slow down and focus on something thoroughly pleasant.

The only snag in this particular tasting was that most of our tastings in the past have been done after a certain three-year-old's bedtime. But I'm enough of an old lady that I knew I couldn't taste coffee at 8 P.M. so that wasn't an option this time. Willem was just a touch testy about our focusing so much on something other than him during his waking hours-- something he, by definition, could not participate in. But we combined the first round of it with breakfast (there was more tasting to be done later on during nap time it turned out, as you'll see below) and he was a pretty good sport about it for the most part. The kid actually has a shockingly good sense of smell, so we thought it would be fun to let him smell our coffees at least and see if he had anything insightful to add in that department. (As I said he was a bit goofy during all of this, so the best we actually got out of him was "smells like a skunk".) Moving on...

We have various options for brewing coffee in our household. Generally on weekday mornings we use the Keurig single-cup brewer, even though it lacks romance and isn't really much faster than other methods. (We have a little mesh reusable insert for it that you put your coffee of choice into so we don't use hundreds of those plastic k-cups each year.) When we warrant a greater volume of coffee, we use a percolator my grandmother gave me and makes a pleasant gurgling sound as it brews. And in the past year since I received it in (under) my stocking for Christmas, we sometimes make it in the French Press, which my brother-in-law, among others, is certain does the superior job. So we attempted to sift through all this and learn some things.  
We decided to first compare the ways of brewing coffee with the type of coffee constant-- we went with Starbucks Medium Roast House Blend for this. Notes on our first go at coffee-tasting below.
Brewing Methods:

  • Tiny bit of an unidentifiable, slightly funky smell.
  • It was fine to drink, though it was the coolest cup of all three. 
French Press:
  • Bit more nutty, richer, earthy.
  • The most pleasant to keep drinking as the three cups gradually cooled and we sipped back and forth among them.
  • Clearly the hottest coffee brewed this way. 
  • Surprisingly weak and watery when tasted next to the other two cups of coffee.
  • We tasted all three before adding any sugar/cream and then again after adding those. After adding the sugar and cream, the predominant taste I got when sipping from this cup was cream (yet I hadn't added any more cream to this than to the other cups).
These results were from following the brewing instructions for amount of ground coffee per cup in the manufacturer's instructions for each. So perhaps we could taste again and try brewing with the percolator using more coffee to increase the taste and combat the watery factor. But based on the results of this tasting alone, we felt that the French Press was the way to go. It made me reconsider that maybe the French-Press method really is worth the four-minute wait while it steeps. (As a side note, the low-tech aspect of the French Press is appealing too, since we were without power for half a day recently and would have been without caffeine if not for this simple carafe and the ability to boil water on a gas stovetop.)

So then, we decided for round two that we needed to taste a few different coffees to highlight the taste of the coffees themselves, all brewed in the French Press. We knew that ideally we should compare all medium roasts or all dark roasts; alas, we compared three that we had in the house at the moment-- one medium and two dark. We made sure all were whole-bean, though, and ground them just before brewing. Also, since I knew I would be swayed by the temperatures of the coffees and since we own just one French Press, we put the first two types after we brewed them each in a separate thermos until we had all three ready to pour and taste so that temperature was pretty consistent among them. We tasted all three before adding sugar then after adding sugar (skipped the cream this time to focus more on the taste of the coffee). Results below.
Types of Coffee Brewed in the French Press:

Illy Whole-Bean Medium Roast:
  • Lightest in appearance (no surprise since it is the lightest roast).
  • Nice taste.
  • Once we added sugar: smokier, caramelly, mild, and, after a couple of sips....almost cloyingly sweet/sappy. It was a good lesson that sugar goes farther in a lighter roast, since we added the same moderate amount to all three but it was distracting in just this one.
Vermont Coffee Company Whole-Bean 100% Organic Dark:
  • Richer smell and taste than Illy.
  • Once we added sugar: velvety, lush, drinkable, thickest body/mouthfeel of the three (a little too thick I thought but certainly tasty).
Starbucks Whole-Bean Dark Roast Espresso Blend:  
  • Once we added sugar: slightly more interesting flavor than above, nicer and not as thick body. Not a lot to say here, but this one was interesting, had a pleasant body and the sugar aided it rather than took it over, so it was the favorite of these three.
Overall I found it really interesting to focus on really tasting rather than just consuming coffee. I learned about the effect of adding sugar to coffee. Compared to drinking coffee black, sugar really seemed to bring out the flavor of the coffee-- much as salt does in food. Cream just covers up coffee flavor, which I guess I knew, but was interesting to have proven to me. 

Another general tidbit I gleaned from all this is that, rather than having a set amount of sugar I take in coffee, I actually prefer less in a lighter roast. I found a lighter roast is overpowered by sugar more quickly than a darker roast and gets cloying.

Finally, I learned that as coffee roasts get darker, some of the complexity is lost. As we have come to enjoy coffee more in our household over the years, we do like to have more coffee flavor, but it seems there is a tipping point between getting more flavor from a darker roast and it just being so dark that it's a simpler, flatter taste. Case in point, the coffee made with the VT Coffee Company roast seemed darker (and had noticeably sludgier dregs at the end), but not as interesting a flavor as the Starbucks blend which was not as dark a dark roast.
Thicker dregs of Vermont Coffee Company Dark Roast (middle)
All of this said, the truth about my coffee drinking habits is that for the last month or so while I could get store-bought eggnog, I enjoyed whatever coffee I was drinking with just a tasty dose of eggnog (speaking of disguising true coffee flavor):
And we promised Willem we'd have to do a tasting one day soon that he could fully participate in. Perhaps chocolate, or types of oranges, or nuts....we'll see.    


  1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WH5SSZmGlcY

    You could have let Willem participate!

    Season 5 starts Wednesday. I'm excited. Trailer in next comment. As you know I'm terrible with an iPad and can't leave another link without losing the comment...

    1. Ha ha. Since he seems to get a buzz from a couple bites of chocolate after dinner I don't think we'll try that.

  2. www.youtube.com/watch?v=eYaG851TpXM

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  4. Ha ha. Since he seems to get a buzz from a couple bites of chocolate after dinner I don't think we'll try that.

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