Identity & Sense Memory: Creating Better Cuppings, Part 2
We’re All Gonna Cup Together
A licensed Q-grader and accomplished coffee professional, Khanh has taught sensory training for years. She is approachable and easy to talk to, but pulls no punches. Even when acknowledging tasting’s subjectivity - a topic that frequently trails off in shrugs - Khanh speaks from a highly structured framework. She always puts a point on it.
“Everyone’s sensory experience is going to be different. Everyone’s palate is different,” Khanh explains. “There’s a level of flavor notes that I have in my sensory recall that others might not have. You can either guide people if you want to, or just allow them to absorb it. But when we cup, we’re going to talk through what everyone’s experiences are from hot to cold. ”
When it comes to identifying and using tasting notes to describe coffee, many coffee pros refer to the SCA Flavor Wheel for guidance. But are those the only flavors that exist in coffee? Are those the only words we can use to describe what we taste?
We pick up cues from the Flavor Wheel, but we also remember language used on coffee bags and websites, snippets heard around the workplace, notes from professionals at other coffee companies. We piece these sources together with our own sense memories including foundational ones - the foods we ate as kids, the flavors we could recognize anywhere because we’ve had them a hundred times. This dynamic integration of disparate parts creates a unique, constantly evolving bank of sense memories for each person.
“Maybe culturally having grown up with different foods, being Asian, I’ll taste different notes and have different references,” says Khanh. “I tasted a friend’s 94 point cupping which to me tasted like black bean garlic sauce. A lot of that comes with your background and your experiences.”
I personally grew up eating Japanese food, and in my early coffee years I used tasting notes from Japanese cooking. But certain perceptions were prioritized as more valid at the cupping table. Eventually the white man running cuppings at my company told me, “You taste weird things in coffee.”
I didn’t taste weird things, we just grew up differently. But his white, middle class American experience was regarded as “normal”, while other experiences were “weird.” And he was in charge. So I changed how I discussed flavor. This didn’t make my tasting experience more correct. It just meant I was learning to talk about coffee like a white American.
But when someone is shut down because they didn’t grow up exclusively on Flavor Wheel fruits, we miss out on opportunities to learn about each other - and about tasting, and about coffee.
Farmer’s Market Fruit
“Understand that our sense memories tell the story of our lives,” says Cydni Patterson, barista at Caffe Driade in Chapel Hill, NC. “I come from a background where we always had good food, we always had fruits and vegetables,” Cydni continues. “But I have family members that grew up in food deserts, and their taste perspective is very different.”
Race, gender and class homogeneity within coffee often rob professionals of the chance to empathize and connect with people who hold different identities.
“A lot of coffee is the good ol’ boys club,” says Cydni. “We’re predisposed to find our social niche because there’s safety in finding people who are like-minded. But I don’t think enough people take a step back and think - ‘Why does everyone who is like-minded look like me? Why am I only comfortable around tall cis white guys with tattoos, that are in a band?’”
When you hold a marginalized identity, a million tiny things add up to create a sense of not belonging. “It’s wild the outsider syndrome that we internalize as people who are historically othered,” says Cydni.
Says Kiana Cruz, Roaster at Progeny Coffee, “At cuppings I’m always being advised, unsolicited, to go to the farmer’s market each weekend and buy one of every fruit to expand my palate.” (Kiana, by the way, is a skilled roaster with a honed palate and years of experience, who has been recognized by Matchbook Coffee Project. There’s really no great reason for her to receive much unsolicited advice when she attends cuppings.) The “farmer’s market” advice holds near mythical status as the palate development tip of our century. Unfortunately, many folks just can’t make it a part of their reality. It’s hard to visit farmer’s markets every weekend if you live in a food desert and don’t have a car; if you work all the time and can’t budget extra hours for recreational fruit buying; or if you’re just too broke to spend your grocery money on kumquats.
Farmer’s market fruits are not the be-all end-all of coffee tasting notes, nor do they wholly define a well-rounded palate. The guy who told me my Japanese tasting notes were weird? Big farmer’s market fan. But clearly there were still gaps. And what good is knowing the difference between plumcot and pluot if you’re talking with someone who’s never had either? Palate development should support clear language for communicating effectively about flavor. If it doesn’t support that, it’s just a party trick.
Eat Food, Drink Coffee
Khanh recently co-hosted a beginner cupping class with Raechel Hurd and Randi Hensley of SheBrews ATX. The class, geared toward coffee professionals of all backgrounds, attracted many beginners who came in self-conscious. “They didn’t know where others fell on the experience meter, so it started off more quiet,” says Khanh.
Khanh and her co-hosts started off by using the SCA flavor wheel to highlight the sensory experiences that the room shared in common. They brought in food to share - citrus, nuts, fruit juices, and other familiar flavors pulled from the SCA Sensory Lexicon. The enjoyment and sharing of food was built into a palate exercise. “It got us talking about how we already taste things. As we rolled along, people started to speak up and enjoy themselves more.”
“The idea that coffee does not go with food - that’s how it’s told to us in this area of the industry,” says Cydni. “Like you cleanse your palate, and then you have coffee. But who’s really doing that? The things that we talk about aren’t really reflective of everyone’s food journey or their life journey.”
By conceptually removing coffee from other food and beverage, our industry has made it even harder for professionals to communicate about flavor. Our customers don’t just sip coffee and then spit it out. They enjoy it! They drink it with food. They taste it. We all have unique sensory experiences, but we all eat, we all drink, and we all taste. Leaning into we already know can make coffee tasting a more approachable journey.
Should we always taste coffee and food together? Probably not. But we probably should also chill out about it. Food and drink go together and it’s ok to pair them, to think of them synergistically, to appreciate how different foods change the perceived flavor of a coffee.
“If we look at Ethiopian and Eritrean coffee ceremonies,” says Cydni, “It’s like - we do coffee and we eat snacks. I just went with a friend on a coffee tour slash taco tour.”
Home Depot And Hookah Water
Communicating about flavor is important, but learning to listen and understand others is also crucial. Experienced tasters remember what it was like to first start learning, and can use empathy and kind questions to better understand newer tasters.
Chelsea Thoumsin, now Coffee Buyer at Counter Culture Coffee, previously trained baristas. “I tried to take away the codified seriousness of the environment because I believe people absorb more information when the atmosphere is casual and at-ease. This meant simple things such as playing fun music, offering snacks and breaks, and just being myself so others hopefully felt safe to do so, themselves.”
Says Kevin Leal, founder of Battlecat Barista Training, “At Joe Coffee, I was trained by a guy named Owen who made it super comfortable for me to learn. I tasted a coffee and wrote down it tastes like home depot. At first nobody understood what that meant but they made it so comfortable that I was able to talk about it more until we arrived at like - it’s stale and woody.”
“So I try to create the same feeling,” says Kevin of his own trainings. “I make it comfortable for them as best I can so that they can evoke the palate they’re used to. I work with a lot of restaurants, and the best way I know is to train them using language I learned from chefs.”
When working with new cuppers, Cydni listens carefully to their observations and makes charitable assumptions.
“When I was at one of my first coffee jobs,” she remembers, “I said that a coffee kinda tasted like hookah water.” Today, Cydni would describe the coffee differently. “Now I would probably say the coffee had notes of tobacco, but with fruit, and a dilute or watered down quality. But I said hookah water, and everyone just looked at me. Don’t act like you don’t know what hookah is!”
Cydni’s hookah water observation was valid. It was detailed, it was concrete, and it spoke clearly to her tasting experience. Yet she wasn’t taken seriously because of her word choice. It’s an experience shared by countless others in coffee.
“Even though I've been in a leadership role for awhile now, I'll never forget the feelings of inadequacy and uncertainty when I first began in coffee,” says Erika Vonie, Director of Coffee at Trade and 2017 Coffee Masters Champion. “It helps remind me every single time I lead a cupping/ sensory experience, to include everyone's voices. I love looping everyone’s answers back to their own flavor dictionaries, and reiterate that we all have unique references to flavor that makes the experience incredibly personal.”
Now an experienced cupper, Cydni hones her communication skills so she can talk about flavor in different ways with folks from all backgrounds. “With new cuppers, I always bring up how it’s a journey. You’re increasing your vocabulary, but also you’re putting a name to something that already exists. We’re been tasting our entire lives, and you’re just putting a name to the taste. Whether you put a name to the taste or not - you’re still tasting it.”
Give Everyone A Chance
At Chromatic Coffee in San Jose, CA, Hiu Yan (Sharon) Fung hosts cuppings every Thursday. A Cafe Assistant Manager, Production Team Member, and Roaster, Sharon stays busy but always finds time to talk with guests about flavor.
“To make sure everyone feels included,” says Sharon, “I like to meet them at their level of coffee knowledge to help guide their experience. I try to make sure no one talks about what they are tasting until everyone has gone through the table at least once. After that I encourage the new comers to speak first, and assure them that there is no right or wrong answer. Everyone’s palate is different and everyone has a different background.”
Recently, Sharon’s colleague Alina Nguyen hosted a palate training with their cafe team. During the discussion, says Sharon, “She brought up a very good point that the SCA flavor wheel is very Eurocentric.”
Living in the South Bay Area, Sharon and Alina are used to a large community of Asian people. “We will find these notes in coffees that remind us of the foods and fruits that we ate in our childhood,” says Sharon, “But when we try and explain it to a table full of white people they rarely understand what we are referencing.”
Sharon and Alina see this as an opportunity to connect with guests and build knowledge and understanding. They enjoy taking their time to explain the food they’re referencing, and to share where guests can get it if they’d like to try.
Rather than limiting vocabulary to the SCA flavor wheel, says Sharon, “We encourage people to try these things and give everyone a chance to describe coffees the way that makes sense to them.”
By Umeko Motoyoshi, July 2019