Learning to Taste

We were at Stumptown’s headquarters for their weekly cupping. We’d only been to a few cuppings before, at Phil & Sebastian in Calgary, and were geeking out, you can say, to be cupping in the Stumptown Coffee. Intimidated as we started out, we quickly relaxed as the man guiding us through the activity was calm and chill and just – normal. There was no pretentious hipsterness happening here. It wasn’t a show or performance. We were just people who love coffee gathering around a bunch of coffee.
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Last week’s cupping at EDSA Beverage Design Studio (photo by @trentrollings).

“Just say what you taste and what you smell – there’s no wrong answer! If you taste tomato, say tomato and if you taste grass, say grass. If you taste rainbows, unicorns, or sunshine, that’s totally legit too!”

Weird as it may be, he’s kind of right. Our sense of smell and taste is linked to memories, to emotions, to other senses. When I taste certain roasts of Brazil, I’m camping in the woods. When my husband tastes the coveted Panama Geisha, he sees fireworks.

I asked our Stumptown guide, “How do you refine your pallet? How to you get better at tasting?” How can you tell me that this tastes like a red delicious apple when I just taste fruit, or even more basic – coffee?

What he told me surprised me. While I thought the answer might have something to do with just keep drinking coffee, you’ll get it eventually, it had very little to do with coffee itself.

Keep tasting food.

Notice the flavor of the food, pay attention to how it feels in your mouth and what parts of the tongue notice it. Name the flavors. Expand your vocabulary. Train your mind.

Go to the grocery story and buy as many types of apples as you can find (or any other produce, for that matter), and give yourself (and your friends) a tasting test. Learn to tell the difference between a granny smith and a red delicious.

In our coffee journey this past year, I’ve learned a lot about coffee. But I’ve also gained some new insights into the world of food too. I grew up with the basic spices of salt and pepper. After college I “discovered” basil and knew that it went well with parmesan cheese. When we got married, I realized that we’d keep eating out a lot of the time if I didn’t get learning.

As I stood over the stove yesterday, cooking an intensely aromatic Thai chicken curry (loosely based off of Gordon Ramsey’s recipe here), I realized that a lot of what I’ve learned has been a result of being in the coffee community, of being a barista. Here are a few of those thoughts:

1. Notice every flavor.

I’ll taste a coffee and the quickly pass it off to someone else asking, “What do you taste?” I’ve learned to taste many new flavors through other people. As I inhaled my simmering curry, I noticed the different flavor notes. In one breath I got the spicy of the pepper, the sweet of the vanilla, and the savory of the chicken stock. I realized that I have different categories now. I don’t just smell the dish as a hole but I’ve learned to notice and appreciate the individual parts.

2.  Practice, not perfection.

It’s a mantra for Latte Art Philippines and I’ve taken it to apply to cooking too. I learn more each time I stand in front of the stove. I learn more each time I mess up, too, whether it be while steaming milk (I’d been positioning the steam wand all wrong!) or making curry (I used too much salt). Working with coffee has taught me not to cry over spilt (or burnt) milk; it’s a life-long pursuit of learning and experimenting.

3. The possibilities are endless.

There are 54 people competing in this year’s National Aeropress Competition. Fifty-four different tasking cups of the same coffee will result. Everyone’s coffee will be the same but their factors different – water, grind size, filters. It all affects the taste.

During a slow shift, I opened a copy of The Flavor Bible that floats around the shop. It lists what flavors go with which flavors and it tells me foods I would have never dreamed of combining. I went home that day and combine some coconut with chocolate and chicken and create something delicious.

4. It’s better with friends.

Not only is it better to eat with friends or drink coffee with friends, but it’s better to be inspired by friends. This week we discovered that you can re-carbonate flat Coke. We experimented with homemade Sprite and came out better for it. Kevin handed us a container of kaffir leaves and I love tasting whatever creation Yassie comes up with. Surrounding myself with people who also love to create and grow in their skill and tastes makes me better too.
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