It’s been almost a year since I attended the first session of Barefoot Coffee Roaster’s “Foundations of Taste” series at their flagship store in Santa Clara. It was an enjoyable enough experience for me on a Saturday, but because Barefoot is just far enough away to not hover too high on my radar. A recent look at Barefoot’s educational calendar, however, reveals that this pilot series I participated in seems to have become the launching point for a veritable institution of coffee learning. Barefoot currently offers weekly home brewing courses, slightly less frequent espresso and steaming courses, introductory and more involved tasting sessions every other week and semi-regular “meet the producers” events where folks can interact with the farmers and mill owners that help supply Barefoot its coffee. It’s also worth noting that in true Barefoot, power-to-the-people-style, all these events are free.
The course I attended started out by walking attendees through four components that comprise what we refer to as coffee’s flavor: aroma, mouthfeel/body, acidity and overall taste. But it wasn’t just talk. To give us the opportunity to test our mettle as tasters, our fearless leader, Steves, set out six dishes containing: oregano (velvety, sharp, peppery, horseradish nasily), green bell peppers (juicy, sweet, crisp, lime, rough, cellular, salivating), comice pear (berry sweet, crisp, drying yet juicy, mellow morning), grapefruit (fleshy, tart, sour, smooth, bumpy, slightly bitter), creme fresh (light, rich, sour, creamy, etherial, fluffy), and cinnamon (grainy, sharp, spicy, middle tongue, drying). Our job was to wander about the table, tasting each one, making notes (mine in parentheses) and then collectively commenting on and discussing what we tasted, with Steves, meanwhile, adding our cloud of notes to a white board.
I worried that this exercise might feel contrived, or worse, pretentious, but I found it surprisingly freeing to simply go with my first impulses and not overthink the flavors I was experiencing, and not to have to focus my tasting on coffee. It was also fascinating to see the reactions of others in the class. I was surprised by how sophisticated and accurate the adjectives selected were and fascinated by the few that were particularly insightful.
Of course, it’s worth noting that this course’s outlined components of flavor don’t comprise the full extent of tasting terms used by coffee professionals. Then again, the course only promises to provide attendees with a toolkit for tasting that should aid, but not overwhelm the eager-to-learn, but new-to-coffee person. At the same time, I found the curriculum to offer plenty of practical experience, engaging dialogue, and genuine new knowledge about flavor components to make the session a worthwhile experience for even more seasoned coffee tasters. It probably helps that participants all frequented Barefoot enough to have learned about the course; their coffee IQ is likely higher than the norm.
Next we moved on to actual coffee, repeating the exercise – tasting, then sharing notes on a white board. We didn’t cup the coffees. Steve french-pressed our three samples and we sipped them from demitasses. My notes for the three were as follows:
- Sumatra Sidikalan Tabu-Jamu Lintong (ooo, eee, ooo, ah, ah…): Earthy, minty, herbal, bark, burnt caramel, herbal.
- Kenya Mchannu Estate Peaberry: Chocolate, lime, raspberry, bright and juicy, currant, dark chocolate sweet.
- Guatemala Finca Vista Hermosa Reserve: dry, light, smoky, pine, tobacco, sharp, twiggy, lime, clean, crisp, vegetal.
Again, it was surprising to me just how much everyone really came into alignment with their tasting notes while still pulling out the occasional odd ball notion that kept everyone thinking.
There were only two drawbacks I could see to the course. The first was the slightly too large crowd, which was not surprising given that the course was free. It was also ever so slightly long and poorly timed. At over two hours, right at lunch time, the caffeine, concentration, crowds and lack of food took their toll, leaving me feeling drained by the end. My guess is that the rhythm of the current courses has improved over time. Just be sure you show up on a full stomach.