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Back to Coffee School

Consumer education is an often overlooked and frequently underutilized feature of the specialty coffee industry. Many cafes and roasters provide and participate in a variety of tastings, courses, events and online tools designed to help consumers increase their awareness and appreciation of coffee and their skill in preparing it. Of course, these opportunities aren’t entirely altruistic endeavors. In some cases, these courses and events cost money and at the very least coffee purveyors are stealthily building long-term brand loyalty while selling a few bags of coffee in the short term. I’m not cynical about this arrangement, however, since there is plenty in it for the consumer as well. My only gripe might be that sometimes these learning opportunities are difficult to find and/or daunting to the coffee uninitiated.

Below, and in the next couple of articles, I hope to provide some insight into and information about existing opportunities for coffee personal improvement and motivate you to get out there and enroll. Also, if you have courses or other opportunities you’d like to add to the list, please add your comments below.

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Increasing Your Coffee Appreciation

First up, are classes, not surprisingly, centered on tasting coffee. One of the hotter trends of the moment are public cuppings, or the act of slurping a coffee solution from a spoon. The New York Times covered easterly cuppings a while back. You can also find cuppings occurring regularly at Bay Area Ritual and Four Barrel as well as up Portland at Stumptown, and likely others, no doubt.

While cupping sessions may be a great way to taste a roasters’ many coffees, cupping catches a lot of flack as a consumer education tool since most consumers don’t cup their coffee at home. It can appear pretentious or simply be off-putting for the average consumer. Still, it’s worth noting that cupping is how coffee buyers and judges evaluate coffee professionally. It is both the way coffee industry folk approach and familiarize themselves with coffees and has some real merits as a method for identifying flavors and aromas. I personally like to cup coffee when I taste it at home, but I also recognize that by introducing a new technique you often distract people from the most important aspect of such endeavors – tasting.

Other tasting opportunities rely instead on more straightforwardly brewed coffee, typically via a method that’s either easy for consumers to replicate and/or one that’s familiar to them. Such an opportunity allows consumers to taste different coffees of the same type or coffees of different types, or tasting courses may serve as a method for familiarizing consumers with different brew methods. A session might include the same coffee brewed different ways or brewed in forms less familiar to the participant, such as you might find in an espresso appreciation course.

Any way you slice it, the intent of such tasting opportunities is to introduce a consumer to a coffee or range of coffees. Along the way, a student learns some of the vocabulary often used to evaluate coffee – body, aroma, sweetness, acidity, mouthfeel, aftertaste and flavor – enabling him or her to more readily identify what he or she likes or doesn’t like in coffee. Sometimes a course will help someone expand his or her interests in a coffee not previously appreciated, but he or she will most certainly walk away appreciating and understanding coffee, in general, all the more.

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Improving Your Coffee Brewing Skills

A second type of course is geared towards helping consumers produce quality coffee at home. Most courses will start with the basic elements of brewing good coffee: cold, filtered water; fresh-roasted, high quality beans; and a good quality, burr grinder. Only then will they move on to an array of brew methods capable of producing good coffee and a warning list of those to avoid. Because there’s so much to learn, courses on espresso are typically longer and more involved. You might also sign up for courses on particular techniques like milk steaming and latte art.

Culinary center that it is, I’ve found the Bay Area oddly to be lacking in brewing courses. I can’t tell if people here already know too much or merely think they do, but but certainly these types of courses are more plentiful in other parts of the country. I’ve attended some of Intelligentsia’s Public Trainings at their Silverlake store and New York Lab and not yet connected with Counter Culture Coffee’s Labs or the courses offered by Joe the Art of Coffee. All three providers also offer tasting sessions.

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Attending a Coffee Event

Coffee events, like Barista Competitions, Coffee Fest and the SCAA Exposition, and events with coffee such as last year’s Slow Food Nation, provide ample opportunity to mingle with coffee professionals, take courses, observe top baristas in action, and, of course, taste coffee. The real merit of such events is that the critical mass of collective coffee interest and professionalism focused in one place combined with the opportunity to try coffee with so many roasters. The big drawback, of course, are the crowds and the inability to get much personal attention.

Given that these events are relatively high profile, and that I’ve listed the major ones in the previous paragraph, you probably don’t need too much assistance in finding them. However, lower profile events occur somewhat more frequently in some places more than others. The only one with a name I’m familiar with is the New York Coffee Society that meets occasionally. If there’s news to be found, you’ll most likely find it here. But other cities have occasional, less formal meetings-ups and gatherings more typically planned on the boards of coffee websites like CoffeeGeek and Home Barista.

Online Tools

Finally, I can’t really depart without saying a word or two about online resources. There’s a glut of brewing videos, web pages, discussion boards and blogs devoted to the details of home brewing and which provide ample descriptions of coffee flavors. Many of them are quite good and most at least point you in the right direction, but I don’t have enough room here to provide my recommendations. I’ll save those for another post. More importantly, though, its worth pointing out that as wonderful and amazing as many of these web resources are, few allow you to easily interact with another person who will give you uninterrupted assistance, guidance and advice, and none that I know of, including this blog, allow you to actually taste the coffee.

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