Black gold, Bean Juice, Worm Dirt, Rocket Fuel. C8H10N4O2…
…or just your good old-fashioned brew – whatever your name for it, it’s rare for a day to pass without that rousing smell, taste or sound arriving softly at your sensorium, bringing with it some comforting signs of life. But there are some people who take coffee a step further than even this; people for whom coffee becomes not just a routine, interest or dependency, but a lifestyle in its own right. We’ve profiled one of the most highly sought-after jobs in coffee, to give you an idea of just what it means to be a professional coffee taster. If, like us, you dream of spending your days sipping the finest-tasting Java, or visiting faraway lands in search of the perfect bean blend, take a leaf out of Antonia Tonier’s book.
A day in the life of a coffee taster
12 years ago Andrea Tonier was manning the espresso machines at a hole-in-the-wall artisanal coffee shack in south-east London. To start with this was just a part-time job, bringing in a little extra money as she studied for an engineering degree. But after university Antonia had no desire to leave what she calls the rich and fulfilling work, and started to really focus on learning the coffee, differentiating between the flavours and variations of different blends and origins.
Fast forward to this year and Andrea is head of tasting for a North Eastern coffee roaster. But what exactly does this mean? Andrea’s job is to ensure that all the coffee purchased by her company meets the appropriate standards, and that the beans are defect free. It’s also to ensure that the roasting process is running smoothly: that the coffee is produced exactly as intended. According to Andrea, it isn’t quite like sitting around, sipping a good cuppa. The first taste is of several espressos from the previous day’s production process. A coffee-tasting session takes much the same format as a wine-tasting. The coffee is slurped from a spoon, taken as far back into the throat as possible in order to make full use of the mouth’s taste-buds. After a quick swill around the mouth, one spits the coffee out. As with wine sampling, a coffee taster samples so much coffee every day that they couldn’t possibly stomach it all without facing adverse health issues.
Andrea and her team look for (or rather, taste for) subtle deficiencies in the coffee, or in the roasting process. They also check the origin of each batch, tasting from all over to ensure that the flavour from the bean is consistent with the flavours to be expected from that region. All this can only happen in a strict window – from 9.30am to 11.30am, and from 2.30pm to 4pm; when the body is at its most receptive and relaxed. The remainder of the day is spent logging the day’s processes, and any inconsistencies of note.
So how can you get into it?
According to Andrea, knowing your favourite type of coffee simply isn’t enough. Just take a look at this taste chart from the SCAA. To be able to differentiate between all these subtle flavour differences can take years of practice. Get to your neighbourhood coffee shop and try all the variations that they have. It will always help if you can find someone with experience in taste testing to help, so coffee tasting events are a great way to start. Once you’re confident in your taste-buds, there are a few industry qualifications that will help you along your way. The most widely recognised of these is the Q-grader certificate, where tasters are blind tested on every aspect of a coffees flavour. But be warned – this is no easy task, and it comes with a big price tag. Make sure you know your stuff beforehand, with at least a years’ worth of cupping experience to your name.
Part of Andrea’s job also allows her to travel across the world, meeting with new suppliers to explore new coffee beans to buy in. We asked her to give us the lowdown on three of the most bizarre coffee tastes she’s encountered on her travels, and the answers didn’t disappoint.
‘This one’s definitely up there with the strangest; this Scandinavian creation pours hot coffee over juustoleipä (a cheese curd made ideally from reindeer milk). When done, the cheese forms a little post-coffee snack to be eaten. It was a…. pretty interesting flavour to say the least.”
Cà Phê Trứng
“Otherwise known as egg coffee for those who struggle with the Vietnamese pronunciation, this drink is something like a liquid tiramisu. Egg yolk and sweetened condensed milk are whisked together until fluffy, and added to a rich shot of Vietnamese espresso.”
For those interested in giving this a go, there’s a great Cà Phê Trứng recipe here.
“This is the newest iced coffee trend from America, and it’s already making its way over to Britain. Cold-brew coffee is infused with nitrogen, giving it a creamy texture. The cold-brew method means a lot of the natural sweetness to the coffee is retained, while the added texture and concentrated flavour make this a really cool new drink.”
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