It’s 9 a.m. and you’ve just sat down at your desk for the day. To your dismay, there’s a pile of paperwork with your name on it and way too many unread emails in your inbox. Voice messages on your phone? You shudder at the thought. Nonetheless, you scrape the remaining crust from your eyes and reach for that life-giving brew, wrap your hands around your mug, and take that first sip.
Ah, there it is. As you drink, the liquid warms your insides and shoots a jolt of caffeine to your fuzzy brain. Now, you’re ready to face the day. So you mumble to yourself a smooth and confident, I got this.
Does this morning scenario sound familiar to you (or am I just describing my own typical day)? If the answer is yes, then you’re probably a fellow coffee addict.
But don’t worry. Despite the warnings that health professionals give about caffeine dependence, coffee is more than just morning sustenance, motivation, and energy. It’s a way of life. Ask any master taster or, as I like to think of them, coffee sommeliers.
So if coffee is so important, why do we treat it as fast food every morning? Is it because a whopping 80-90% of adults in the U.S. incorporate caffeine in their daily lives? Is it because coffee acts as an addictive substance, leaving people unable to start their day without it? Some people may even experience withdrawal if they don’t get it within 12-24 hours.
Consequently, our fast-paced lives don’t leave us much room to treat coffee, unlike the drug that it is. Because of this, coffee dependence (and caffeine addiction in general) can be purely psychological.
So do like Chief Taster Marja Touri and approach your coffee time in the morning like an art rather than a necessity. Touri is from Paulig, an international group that taste tests coffee and other food products for quality before distribution. Interestingly, this group has been around since 1876.
The process through which coffee sommeliers like Touri analyze the quality of a good old cup of joe is called cupping (that’s right, we keep things straightforward in the coffee world). However, cupping is anything but simple. When a taster pours hot water over freshly ground beans, steeps it, lets it cool, and then sips from the cup, they’re thinking about more than just the flavor. Aroma, body (is it thick or thin?) acidity, cleanness, and finish are all being judged as well.
A lot of things can make or break a cup of coffee right down to the grinding, roasting, and brewing equipment. But the coffee’s quality is really determined at the cusp of its lifespan, from cultivation. From Costa Rica and Guatemala to Kenya and Ethiopia, the flavor of the final product differs because of climate, altitude, and soil. Guatemalan coffee is strong, straightforward, and tropical. Kenyan brews, by contrast, hit you hard; they’re more acidic with notes of the blackcurrant that grows in the soil. Meanwhile, Ethiopia cultivates a cup that is floral, delicate, and less bold.
Coffee is a ritual, and many people around the world have made it a lifestyle. Across the globe, there are 18 specialty coffee associations in the U.S., Japan, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and Korea. This doesn’t even touch the different associations that focus on consumption and distribution. Within the global Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) exists a hierarchy of coffee experts.
For example, there are two levels under SCA’s Roasters Guild Certification, which welcomes you into the community of expert roasters in the Coffee Roasters Guild (CRG). This guild was officially announced in 2018 and combined the Roasters Guild of Europe with the Roasters Guild. Together, the guilds conceived an organization that is described on their website as promoting “a diverse coffee roasting community through the development and promotion of the roasting profession.”
Here, coffee is a community, and everyone is invited.
You, too, can get on the road to being a master taste like Marja Touri when your Certified Taster Certificate makes you a certified cupper in the taste-analyzing process. With the Barista Guild of America (BGA), you can get your coffee-making skills on an elite level that goes beyond the Starbucks green apron.
Okay, so you really love coffee but don’t see it giving you a career. Now what?
You can start by recognizing that your favorite coffee shops like Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts have a monopoly on the fast coffee game, but not coffee as an indulgent art that is meant to be savored and analyzed. You don’t need to be a chief taster to welcome quality coffee into your routine. Beginners like me can start by simply analyzing the immediate ways the drink affects you: aroma, taste, aftertaste (finish). Is it smokey like a Nicaraguan blend? Or sweet and delicate like a standard French roast?
Instead of always reaching for that grande cold brew or a coconut milk latte, spice it up with some cross-cultural recipes. For instance, Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê sua dá) is a slow-drip method made with sweetened condensed milk and a special coffee filter called a phin. Korean dalgona coffee -one of 2020’s lockdown food trends- is made from whipped espresso powder, sugar, and cold water (no pressing, dripping, or filtering involved).
The typical Italian espresso Romana is served with a lemon peel to enhance the flavor. And Malaysian Ipoh white coffee is crafted from lightly roasted beans in palm oil and a dash of condensed milk for sweet, less-intensive indulgence. The best part about all of this? These recipes are easy and require ingredients probably lying in your pantry right now.
All you have to do is expand your coffee repertoire, and you’ll be up your sommelier game in no time. Starbucks? Coffee Roasters Guild? They don’t have anything on you because truly indulging in coffee is all about personalization, experimentation, and most of all, motivation. This one’s for you, caffeine.
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