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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Iced Coffee at Christmastime

Iced Coffee at Christmastime
With cold brew coffee all the rage I’d nearly forgotten about iced coffee, especially the possibility that I could make it at home. During my Tuesday shift at EDSA, we received an order for two iced coffees. Eli reminded me of the simple process as we prepared the two drinks side by side using the Aeropress. As Eli was by my side, she was on a stool she created to reach the pour over bar at an appropriate level. That’s not pertinent to this story, but I think it demonstrates her creativity even more than it does her height.

Thursday morning was an early one as I prepared to travel across the city for a morning language class – one where the whole school gathers, not only celebrate Christmas, but to learn about culture and traditions of Christmas in the Philippines. I wondered what morning traffic would entail, as I don’t normally travel during rush hour and I’m still learning the impact that Christmas has on traffic (hint: it only makes it worse).

The coffee addict that I am, I knew I’d need some before or during my trek across town. My main hurtle: the MRT. The Metro Rail Transit doesn’t allow food or beverages, so even if I made my coffee in the morning to take with me, and successfully stored it in a tightly-sealed mug in my backpack, it may no longer be the desired temperature as I drink it on my walk from the train to the jeepney.

You see where this is going.

So this morning, through the fog of my sleepy brain and as the pollution dances in the early morning sunlight, I approach my home coffee station with the freezer door open. Grabbing a small pitcher and filling it with ice, I turn on the kettle and measure the beans.

(Cue rabbit trail: These beans are delicious. When Carrie came to visit a couple of weeks ago, she brought them from her friend, Cedric, who roasts them in his garage. Not only does he roast them in his garage, but he sells his beans and roasts them to order. You order, he roasts, he ships them. You pay him for something like that too, that’s how it works. He also posts on his Instagram roasts he do that are for her personal stash, just to make you jealous.)

I wet the filter, pouring the heated water into the Aeropress to warm it. I swirl the ice in the metal pitcher to cool it. It’s a strange yet wonderful contrast of temperatures, much like the difference between the December temperatures I’m used to and the ones I’m experiencing now (hint: I’m making iced coffee in December).

I grind the beans, their sacrifice for my energy and delight. The fresh grinds then cascade into the warmed Aeropress, awaiting their fate of a warm bath before the icy cool down. (I hear that’s good for muscles too.) The magic of this recipe variation is this – split the weight of the 270 grams of water between the warm water and the ice. My one hand holds the condensation covered pitcher, my other hand grasps the steamed plastic syringe. I wait the appropriate time. I push the plunger slowly, releasing the aroma and the warm elixir.

The recipe is from Heart Roasters. Earlier this year, we sat at the bar (in front of the roaster!), on a coffee stop while passing through Portland. I sat beside my husband who is a better differentiator of tastes than I. (When I taste “fruit,” he tastes “granny smith apple.”) He clutched his cup filled with what he declared to be a chocolate orange. Smooth mocha and an espresso that blossomed into notes of citrus. He missed the coffee before he finished it.

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Roaster at Heart Roasters. Porland, Oregon

I trust a recipe created by these crafters of deliciousness.

The icy variation is a simple one from EDSA. Next time you walk up the stairs to the coffee bar, after sitting on the bus or standing on the train in the hot afternoon, order an iced coffee at the counter. Stand there and watch the process. See Eli assume her perch and craft your beverage.

I took my coffee to go. It accompanied me across the city along with the tray of brownies I made for the Christmas party. I stored the travel mug carefully in my backpack as I inserted myself onto a packed train car, and its removal added a spring to my step as I walked to the jeeney terminal. I sipped it on the ride to the palengke, where I would get down and finish my travel by foot. I cherished each sip of the cool, refreshing flavor, bursting with honey-apricot nectar. (Though It took me the length of the jeep ride to recognize the apricot.)

Arriving well-caffeinated and in good cheer, the warm-weather Christmas celebration will bring with it new traditions and delights – like making iced coffee for Christmas traffic adventures.


* No photos were taken during the actual events mentioned in this post. I can explain. In the morning, I was just too tired. And while traveling, I didn’t want to stand out any more than I already did. I mean, picture this: a foreigner with a backpack, a grocery bag filled with brownies, and a travel mug. Okay, so I was self-conscious and I also didn’t have a free hand.