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What makes it taste so good?

6 Sep

In earlier posts I have written about how important it is to taste your own coffee and to check your routines.

All to often however I have found how hard it is to objectively review how good (or bad) your own coffee tastes to others.

What makes a certain coffee taste good, and can one judge taste objectively?

In all businesses that deal with the sense of taste there is an understanding that this sense is influenced by a huge variety of things that in the end makes up the end impression of what the product tasted like or how good it was.

I guess we all probably have had that customer walk through the door having been to some African country and reveling about having tasted the best coffee in their life there, and asking if you have coffee from this country. Knowing that this country most likely have exported their best coffee, and that what this customer tasted probably what was swept off the floor after sorting out what to export makes one ask the question: Why where they so overwhelmed? (This blog gives an excellent example with cigars.)

So how can we trust our own taste, and how accurate is our cupping?

One of the things that have been annoying me after having worked both as a barista and a roaster is how baristas (and many of the rest of us) judge a coffee after for instance tasting a few random pulled shots of espresso. The classic scenario is how a shot that tastes great is due to a skilled barista whilst a shot that tastes off often is blamed on the roast or the composition of a blend. This (and an over developed sense of pride in my roasting) provoked me into trying to come up with a few points that made people put more thought into their tasting. I know this is going to start discussions but I deliberately put things on edge to provoke people to think.

To me there are first and foremost two areas where I think we are guilty of taking shortcuts.

First of all: Taste is a very subjective and complex mechanism, but is taken for granted and used as an ultimate judging tool without much thought to what affects our perception.

Second: There are so many variables that can affect the taste of a shot from the beans in the hopper to the nectar in the cup, but how often do you take this into consideration when tasting that shot?


To the first point. There have been conducted considerable research into the science behind the sense of taste. Taste is very individual. We are all equipped with different genetic prerequisites that influence what we perceive. The “supertaster” is a person with a genetic advantage of specially shaped tastebuds on the tounge that gives him or her an edge over us other mortals in tasting. We all know however that as much as 80% of flavour comes from smelling so you would need to be a “supersmeller” as well to benefit from this.

What so if this “supersmeller” and “supertaster” would cup a cup of coffee, would they give us the ultimate answer as to if the coffee is good or bad or what it tastes like? They would also need the experience and knowledge in what a good coffee is supposed to taste like. This in turn is influenced by culture and personal tastes.

What if this “supertaster” an “supersmeller” just ate or is tired after working a long day? What if he or she is tasting in a noicy room or is influenced by the opinion of a group of peers? Could we trust their answer?

This article refers to something called the flavor pyramide where the basic tastes we often refer to is the last of the building blocks of our perception of flavour, the one that is most dependant on the others. Still this is the only level given much thought when we taste our coffees.


Then comes the second point. Pulling the perfect espresso is very hard, and the craft of the barista deserves all the respect it gets and more. Even more difficult is repeating this perfect shot over and over again. There are so many factors that can influence on each extraction that it’s close to impossible to pull two perfectly uniform shots.

An article about blending for Italian espresso in the March/April issue of Roast Magazine pulls out yet another factor that affects inter shot uniformity, namely the relative chance that the exact composition of the blend will be mirrored in the few grams of coffee fitted into the portafilter. They use an example with a blend containing 20% of a Guatemalan coffee. The percentage of this coffee will be (in the puck) between 18 and 22% (spread of +/-10% about a mean composition of 20%) only 48% of the time. The other 52% of the time it will be outside those limits.

If this coffee served a purpose of highlighting the blend in a certain direction (which it most likely would be) the taste of the espresso would vary quite a bit from shot to shot. I’m not sure all of us would be able to tell that well, but it certainly is a factor to be reckoned with.

Also, like is the case with wine, the form factor of the cups will influence the flavour as well as the quality of the water (if the espresso is being tasted in different countries like is the case in the WBC).


So where exactly am I going with this rant? Well, first of all I want to make people think more about all the things that affect our perception when we taste and try to take this into account and look beyond this when cupping their own or other peoples coffees.


There! I’ve said it. Glad to get it off my chest! 


Shop roasting: Roasting with an audience.

18 Feb

Last week our roaster malfunctioned (again!), and I had to go out of the shop to roast. Solberg & Hansen were nice enough to let us use their UG22 Probat roaster. Thank you S&H! They are a medium scale roaster and naturally don’t roast their coffee in a coffeebar as we do. The whole experience taught me a lot about several things. 

First of all that it’s easy to get used to roasting with logs and several temperature probes. The UG22 had only one analogue thermometer at the exhaust, whilst our roaster has two digital thermometers (one bean pile thermometer and one exhaust). At S&H I had to rely a whole lot more on sight and smell and the knowledge of the development of the beans I’ve managed to pick up so far. I’m not going to pretend that it all went like a breeze, but I was surprised over how well it turned out.

This leads me on to the next thing I learned while roasting at S&H: It’s easier to roast without people constantly disturbing you to ask what you are doing. This seems pretty obvious, but after roasting in the shop for a while I have gotten used to it. Looking back now however I realize that one has to be a lot more focused when roasting with an audience. I’ve lost count over how many times I’ve had to tell customers that I’m NOT grinding beans, nor brewing coffee in that giant metal thing, I’m actually roasting coffee. There is no doubt that the roaster draws attention to itself and I feel that for every person realizing what I’m actually doing there is one more person enjoying their cup of coffee just a little bit more. So I’ve found my place as not only a roaster but also a teacher of basic coffee knowledge. I dear to claim that shop roasters are the frontline soldiers of specialty coffee. (Anyone disagree with this?) 

Photo taken by Chris Kolbu (and used without permission… Sorry Chris.)

Are you making coffe on autopilot?

13 Oct

Let’s face it. There is no shortage on opinions on the internet about how to make the best coffee. And quite a few has, in their own mind, come up with the perfect routine.

In this post I’m not after finding my own perfect way, nor am I particularly experimental, but what sparked me to write this was a first hand experience on how a seemingly perfect routine can be deceiving. As the parameters surrounding the brewing process changes, such as new coffees, different roasts and so on, this will affect the brewing.

We realized that we hadn’t checked for a while about what brew time and grinder setting was optimal for the current freshness of our coffee when making french press coffee. We’ve also been switching back and forth between two different grinders (same make but different models) but keeping the same grinder setting. We then decided that we had to check if what we were doing were correct.

To make a long story short: We kept the grinder setting, but varied the brew time.

We brewed several french presses at once, but let them brew for different lengths (4, 4.5, 5 and 5.5 minutes) and cupped the coffees blind. We used a Kenyan coffee (Eeagads Estate) with a very distinct blackcurrant flavour.

We ended up deciding to let the coffee brew for 5 minutes as opposed to the 4 minute brew we have been using up until now. Originally we had decided that 4 minutes of brewtime were perfect for this coffee, but since then some parameters have changed without us adjusting our routine accordingly.

This discovery led me to think of how many other coffee bars and roasters must be doing the same thing without realizing that things maybe should change.

Have you tested your own routine recently? Be it roasting a certain coffee to a certain colorette or agtron degree or brewing an espresso on one temperature setting with the coffee coming in almost certainly being roasted to slightly different degrees.

Personally I feel comfortable that we check our own routine and coffees regularly but this was still an eye opener. We roast our own coffee and know when we need to adjust the brew temeperature slightly to accommodate slight variations in the roast degree. But what about coffee bars that don’t roast their own coffee. Do they test to see if their new batch of coffee needs an adjustment of their routines?

Is it perhaps time to see if you’re making the most out of your coffee or if you’re just making coffee on autopilot?

Just a thought.

The story so far…

29 Jul

Me opening a bag of green beans from the farm Santa Alina in Brazil. (Photo taken by Chris Kolbu and ripped without permition from his flickr page. I wont tell if you don't...)
The last few weeks has been an intense experience. After saying yes to start roasting for Tim and quitting my career as a director I’ve been reading, reading and then reading some more about coffee and roasting. This has only been interrupted by actual roasting and being trained both as a barista and a roaster.

So far it’s been a hell of a ride, but I’m up for it. There is still miles and miles to go and I don’t actually expect to stop learnig or improving my skills in this trade. Since changing my working career completely I have not looked back and not once regretted my decision. I recommend this experience to anyone posed with the same life altering dilemma; to quit your present job and start over in another field of work that you are deeply interested in.

The espresso bar/roastery/school is doing good and business is improving by the day. So many people have come by thanking us for opening such a place, and they keep coming back. I wont take credit for this as it is solely Tim that thought out every last detail of the place, but we try to help him make it the place he imagined.

My roasting skills are gradually improving and the machine and I are getting along better every day. The roaster is a 15kg Probat from the 60’s or 70’s refurbished by IMS. Even though it still have some small hickups she produces batch after batch of great coffee. The airflow is a bit too high, and the (gas)flowmeter isn’t working, but these are just cosmetic details and hasn’t stopped us from roasting coffee for three different baristas competing in the WBC. Hopefully we might have helped them all in some small way to win the trophy.

I wish them all good luck and will be looking out for the results of the competition. Tim himself is of course in Tokyo to take part in the proceedings and you can read his comments on his blog which I have listed in the blogroll at the bottom of the page. The webpage for our business is up albeit only in Norwegian and with just parts of the information available, but soon it will be there in all it’s glory and also in English for you all to read. That page is also listed in the link section at the bottom of the page.

Thats it for now, and to all competing down in Tokyo: Good luck!

A first couple of tastings

5 May

58720955hdk3mqvabottomless2.jpgBefore trying out Tims blend I was told it was best with little or no milk. I decided to blatantly disregard these suggestions and try it myself.

The first thing I did was compare it to my current favorite blend the Crescendo blend roasted by the roasters at Kaffa and purchased at the great coffebar Java in Oslo. I knew beforehand that the Crescendo blend had a nice fruityness to it owed largely to the bean from Adido, Yirgacheffe which is dry processed. After a few sips I recognised it’s distinct flavour. Tims blend was distinctly different. It has more apparent acidity and a lighter cleaner taste.

I don’t by any means claim to be an experienced and seasoned cupper, but I kow what I like and recognise it when I taste it. I still enjoy the Crescendo blend, but as a straight espresso (ristretto) I feel Tims blend definately holds it’s ground and then some.

I’ve been told that the dry processing that the Adido owes it’s fruityness is also it’s potential flaw. It’s quality is unpredictable and to seasoned cuppers often can taste of rotten fruit.

The next morning I decided to try Tims blend in my morning cappucino in spite of the recommendations. I found that, while still tasting great, the acidity didn’t play that well with the milk.

After this I’ve tried it a couple of times both with and without milk, and much prefer it with little (Macchiato) or no milk.

I’m looking forward to trying out this espresso blend to see what it feels like under the alas all to different moods/temperatures of my ECM Giotto. I really should get it a PID. I’m also looking forward to trying out it’s different components by themselves to take the blend apart so to speak.

Thats it for now folks.

By the way the excellent picture of the naked portafilter extraction was taken by Teme, and is not of either one of the above mentioned blends.

Opening words

3 May

750088_791417171.jpgAhem… (clearing my throat). Well I guess I’d like to start with wishing you all welcome to this blog. I thought I’d better get started with a new one now that I’ve started working professionally with coffee. Up until last week I was a film director, but come June I’ll be roasting coffee in former world barista and -cupping champion Tim Wendelboes new coffee shop and roastery.

A major change in vocation perhaps but still working with one of my two big interests in life. I guess film will be my hobby from now on switching places with coffee.

As things progress and my skills improves I’ll post my thoughts and comments on coffee here. I guess it’s mainly for my own venting, but if anyone should find it interesting then all the better.

Today I’ll start out trying out Tims espresso blend. I can’t wait to experiment with it to find out it’s different aromas and tastes. The blend consists of: Fazenda Santa Alina from Brazil, La Esperanza from Colombia, La Montanita from El Salvador, Eeagads Estate from Kenya and Bukonya Estate from Rwanda.

According to Tim it’s best when pulled at 92,6 (more acidity) or 93,6˚C (more sweetness). I wont be able to control so finely on my ECM Giotto as I don’t have any PID, but I’ll give it a go anyhow. This blend is at it’s best served with little or no milk. Together Tim and I are going to put together a blend which will work better in drinks with more milk like a Cappucino or a latte.

I’ll jot down some notes while tasting and post my thoughts later.

So thats all for now.