Illustration by Alabaster
Barista Training Camp, Weekly Series, Part 6: Understanding Sensory
BY ASHLEY RODRIGUEZ
SPECIAL TO BARISTA MAGAZINE
There’s this moment during the Barista movie where Charlie Habegger is standing in a grocery store staring an aisle full of jams. It’s sort of unclear what he’s looking for, and I think that’s precisely why he’s there ”because he himself isn’t sure what he’s searching for. It feels like he’s on a mission to find new flavor combinations, fruits he’s never heard of, or maybe something he’s overlooked that he just needs a visual cue to remember. Oh, raspberry! That’s the ingredient I’ve been missing! How could I have not seen that?!
When I think about my espresso, I keep coming back to this moment in the movie. I feel like this moment perfectly encapsulates all my anxieties I have about how I’m going to describe my espresso.
I’m not a supertaster or someone who feels confident describing flavor. When I drink coffee, I think much more about sensations or comparisons to other coffees. This coffee tastes sweeter than most Colombians. The acidity on that coffee is very engaging and lively. It’s hard for me to say that a coffee tastes like a specific fruit or candy or other food I’ve had, so having to give flavor descriptors for my coffee is going to be difficult. But it’s something I have to do to score points in this competition.
As we discussed in my last article, competitors are required to give flavor descriptors of their espresso, and have the option to give notes on its tactile feel and taste balance. Let’s break down these categories one by one:
FLAVOR DESCRIPTORS: For as ambiguous and subjective as flavor can be, the judges are instructed to judge your espresso in a very objective and rigid way. Looking at other competitors’ scoresheets, I can see that the judges are basically waiting for you to give descriptors, which they then write down, then check off if they tasted them or not. And the judges will ask you to be specific, and will mark you down if that flavor isn’t present in the cup. Did you say white grape but the judges tasted red grape? You’ll lose points. If you say citrus and the judges are able to pinpoint a more specific citrus fruit, like pomelo or Meyer lemon, you’ll lose points.
Again, I’m someone who has a lot of trouble articulating specific flavor notes, so I have to keep this in mind throughout my espresso decision-making process. What’s the best way to approach this? Taste with your friends. Taste with your coworkers. Don’t be secretive with your espresso. I try pulling it at a number of different extractions and see if certain flavors always present themselves. When I think I taste something, I try to buy the thing I taste and try them side by side. When I get a sample roasted, I try to give some of the espresso to others and see what they get from it. Obviously, this isn’t a perfect system and I’ve gotten some wildly different notes from my friends, but some common flavors have come up a few times: strawberry aromatics, cocoa powder, and a sweet basil finish.
When a competitor discusses their flavor descriptors, you’ll notice a few things: Often competitors will give their notes to the judges before they drink their espresso, and they will often give their notes in threes. The last three barista champions also gave their judges some sort of visual reference, either a list of their descriptors or maybe a drawing of the fruits they hope the judges will taste (from highly polished booklets provided by Pete Licata to low-fi chalkboards with bulleted tasting notes made by Laila Willbur). I think this formula persists for a few reasons. Primarily, you don’t want the judges to come up with any impressions of their own. You want the judges to expect the espresso to taste the way you say it tastes and not have any impressions of their own as they drink it while you finally come around to giving them flavor descriptors. I’m not saying that if you say a note the judges will definitely taste it, but the power of suggestion isn’t imaginary. Judges want to be happy and they want to believe you, so they’ll buy into what you’re telling them and I imagine make an effort to taste what you’re telling them to taste.
TACTILE: OK, we know how it tastes, but how does it feel? While you’re required to give super specific notes on its flavor, you’re not required to give notes on an espresso’s tactile feel, which is strange since it’s worth more towards your overall score than the flavor descriptors are. If you look at the rules, competitors can give notes, and those notes should tie in somewhat to how this coffee was prepared and the type of espresso the competitor uses. Unless your coffee is incredibly straightforward and easy, GIVE NOTES. Especially if you’re using coffees from specific regions noted for different tactile experiences (Ahem! All you guys using Ethiopian coffees!).
As I noted before, I’m using a single varietal coffee for competition, and one of the things I think this does to the coffee is make the flavors clean and focused. I think that sensation contributes a lot to the coffee overall. I do intend on making that correlation between flavor and tactile sensations during competition ”the flavor clarity is high because the body is crisp and smooth, and it engages your palate like sparkling apple juice. If you’re having trouble with these notes, do the same thing you’d do with the flavor descriptors. Share with others, and drink a bunch of different things. Skim milk feels different than whole milk. Apple juice swooshes around your tongue differently than orange juice.
TASTE BALANCE: This is the category that makes me feel that anxiety I get when I think of Charlie in front of the grocery-store jams. It’s the lowest scoring category in this round, and it’s also the one with the least information in the rules. So I’m gonna have to make some guesses here.
Again, looking to the scoresheets, the judges are looking for three things: sweetness, acidity, and bitterness. Easy enough. But in what capacities they’re looking for these three things is unclear. I think, generally, we as baristas do strive for balance between these three things, but not all espresso will achieve all three components in equal amounts. The judges are instructed that equal expression of these three components does not equal harmony, but the rules don’t really state what harmony means or how the judges are meant to evaluate that. My guess is that the judges are looking for these three factors to not compete with one another. All should be present, but neither should steal the show or overwhelm their palates. If I had to push this hypothesis, I would guess that this measure was put in to make sure competitors don’t over or underextract their shots. Which makes sense because the judges don’t really have a place to judge whether or not the espresso they’re being presented with is actually made and prepared well ”if I serve a watery and sour shot, and know it tastes watery and sour, I could technically get some points for flavor and tactile feel by describing it as just that ”but do I really deserve to win if I can’t pull shots properly?
So how would I prepare for this section? I’d over and under extract my shots. As a trainer, one of the ways I try to impart a sense of balance in preparing and tasting espresso is to push espresso to its outer limits. See what sensations it harkens when you over and under extract, and how quickly pushing your espresso out of its dial-in parameters gets you to an unharmonious place. Does it take 5 seconds off your dial in to over extract, or 2 seconds? Do sour notes immediately overwhelm the espresso if its pulled one second short? It’s important to understand and know your coffee at its best, but it’s also important to know when and how your coffee will be at its worst. I think that’s the lesson to take from the taste balance section of the scoresheet.
In thinking about sensory scores, I primarily focused on espresso, but these are all thoughts and experiments that can be applied to the other two rounds of service. If anything, they will be helpful to developing a full understanding of your espresso, and the challenge will just be to find the words to articulate that understanding. We’re getting so close to the actual competition, and as I continue to write this series, I’m getting both more amped and more nervous. And next week we’re gonna talk about the round that makes me feel the Charlie jam aisle nerves the most ”the signature drink. Gulp.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ashley Rodriguez thought that she’d take a break from teaching middle school science and putz around in a coffee shop for a few months. She ended up digging it way more than teaching (and was vaguely better at it). After spending 5 years making coffee in New York, she now works for Sightglass Coffee in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter at @ashcommonnam and be sure to use the #roadtoqualifiers hashtag when talking about this series online.