Hosting A Successful Public Tasting

By Christopher Schooley, SCAA Coffee Design & Experience Coordinator

The central experience in the world of specialty coffee is tasting coffees, thinking about them, and discussing them with others. Perhaps we enjoyed a number of cups of coffee or espresso based drinks before we ever stopped to really take careful consideration of them, but it was when we were very purposely paying attention to every sip and being introduced to the idea that there were nuances there to be discovered, and when we noticed that first detectable difference between one coffee and another, that we were hooked and knew we wanted to learn and taste more. And then we wanted everyone else to share this experience with us. The very nature of revelation is that you are then compelled to share it.

The question is, what is the best way to introduce new people to this tasting experience? One of the most important things to consider here is not just creating something approachable, but it is as equally important to be very clear about what it is that you want people to take away from the experience. This is where you need to decide about whether or not to do the tasting as a cupping or not. If you are going to use cupping you must remember that most everyone will be new to the experience and that you’ll need to explain the cupping protocol clearly. Keep in mind that this is a different way for people to taste a coffee, which has its benefits in terms of helping people to look at the coffees with a new perspective, but that what they experience here might not be what they end up experiencing in a prepared beverage otherwise. This speaks to the most important part of a public tasting.

Participants in a public tasting have to be successful in the tasting. This doesn’t mean that they have to be able to pick out all the nuances that you may be able to as an experienced cupper. In fact, telling the participants all the flavors that they’re supposed to be able to taste in a coffee can backfire. We’ve all been there, sharing exotic coffees with floral and citrus attributes and pointing to the coffees and listing all the things that WE taste in the cup, but this experience isn’t about us and what we taste. This experience has to be about the participants.

Talking about the modes of taste; brightness, body, and sweetness, is much more helpful than talking about specific flavors. From that dialog you can begin to hint at some of the specifics, but if you focus solely on these then a good deal of the participants are going to walk away feeling like they did it wrong or that you’re just making things up. Listen to the participants, and make it easy for them to answer. Don’t ask “What’s the acidity like in this coffee?”, ask them “Which coffee did you like best, and why?”, or even “Which coffee was the sweetest, or brightest, etc, etc?”.

Our tendency with a tasting is to use our most exotic or favorite coffees, but one of the best things that you can do in a cupping, or any tasting, is to put two or three distinctly different coffees on the table for comparison. This doesn’t have to be about which coffee is better than the other(s), but rather it’s simply about this coffee is noticeably different that than other(s). This is an easy way for participants to be successful in the tasting; they perhaps didn’t walk away from the table tasting floral and citrus notes, but they did walk away tasting that the coffees were different. You then also get the opportunity to talk about why the coffees were different. This is a golden opportunity to start a dialog with them about the various impacts on coffee quality with some direct context.They walk away with the sense that they did it correctly, they were able to detect something, they found out maybe why there was a difference in the first place, and that they would like to do it again.

Tasting Ideas:

1. Freshly roasted coffee vs. coffee roasted a month ago
2. Dry Processed coffees vs. wet processed coffees
3. Past crop vs. fresh crop
4. Components of a blend vs. the blend – (this is helpful in starting to get people to look for familiar characteristics in other coffees)

Christopher Schooley is a coffee roaster who works for Sweet Maria’s and Coffee Shrub and is the Immediate Past Chair of the Roasters Guild Executive Council. He has recently joined the SCAA team as Coffee Design & Experience Coordinator. Schooley believes that the surest path towards a deeper understanding of one’s craft is through the sharing of knowledge and open conversation, as well as challenging yourself to work outside of your immediate experience.