Wednesday, April 12, 2006


taint that simple

long-time readers are familiar with my discussions about the scaa flavor wheel and also my much-used coffee-tasting glossary.

we specialty coffee lovers don't know it -- because we never see them in the high-quality coffee we drink -- but there are such things as taints and flavor faults in coffee. often they stick out like a wrong note in an otherwise nice melody, but sometimes they are bad enough to ruin the coffee completely.

usually only professional cuppers and roasters encounter coffee samples that contain these taints. it's a rare occasion indeed when we consumers would run into one; home roasters may see them if they buy green from a less-than-specialty source.

of course taints have their own wheel, and here it is: the scaa taint wheel. most of these taints are rather abstruse, as i said, but i did today want to take a moment to paraphrase from the lingle cupping handbook and mix in my own experiences to describe some of those that are (relatively) common:

  • acrid - the tar-like taste of 45-min old coffee sitting on that hotplate. everyone knows it and no one likes it.
  • baggy - coffee badly stored in burlap or grass bags start to taste like, well, mildewed burlap or dirty canvas. the fats in the coffee absorb the scent. also used for under-roasted coffee that's poorly stored.
  • baked - the taste of coffee that's roasted too slowly or at too low a temperature. usually described as "bready" or "biscuity" tasting.
    (you can often smell it in the coffee. brewed or cupped coffee shouldn't ever smell like grandma's biscuits baking. it's a pleasant enough odor, but indicates bad coffee.)
  • black - coffee beans that instead of being a nice jade or blue-green are actually black, as if they had been roasted. blacks are the defect standard used on the nybot exchange; x many defects equal a black bean. blacks can be caused by pickers including dead coffee cherries that fell off the tree in their baskets, or by insect damage. sometimes you see half-black or partial black beans too.
  • broken - just what it implies: snapped, broken, or badly chipped beans. sometimes the center of the beans fall out and the remaining empty portion is called a shell or elephant ear. it's not just a cosmetic problem as bacteria or mold can invade broken beans.
  • burnt - just that, ashy, carbony, yuck. the taste of coffee roasted too long.
    (i won't name names here. do i have to?)
  • dirty - the term used for coffee that reveals flavor taints, faults, and defects; the opposite of "clean." often heard in the term "dirty cup."
    (some cuppers will accept a slight amount of dirty in certain origins - for example, many cuppers won't object to a hint of earthiness in an indonesian as long as it isn't overwhelming to the other flavors and doesn't make you squinch your eyes when tasting. a tiny sense of "forest floor" is probably ok; a strong, muddy taste is all bad.)
  • earthy - just that, the taste of soil, dirt, or clay in the coffee. in many origins, the coffee is literally dried on the ground, meaning that the fats in the coffee can pick up flavors from the earth on which it sits.
  • flat - dull, stale, paper-y, cardboard-y taste. no appetizing aroma. in fact, an un-appetizing coffee aroma.
    (fresh-roasted, fresh-brewed coffee just smells delicious. if you brew coffee and it doesn't smell delicious and appetizing, bingo. flat, which means stale.)
  • floater/quakery - a raw unpleasant taste somewhat like green peanuts. it comes from poor picking practices, from mixing unripe coffee beans in with the ripe ones. these unripe beans doesn't roast well; they also float in water, thus the name.
  • fermented - an unpleasant fruity, almost alcohol, quality caused by the damp cherry staying in contact with the beans too long.
    (i think this smells like if you were to take very ripe, squishy apricots, put them in a plastic bag, and leave them to sit in the hot sun all day. open the bag the next morning and the smell and results ain't purty.)
  • foreign objects - just what it says. stuff that doesn't belong in the coffee: sticks, stones, insect parts(!), metal bits, chunks of concrete, hunks of rubber; materials like these can get into poorly handled coffee or coffee that's been dried on the ground or on village rooftops. you get the idea. foreign objects are so common in coffee many roasters actually have "de-stoning" machines to help get rid of 'em. the problem is that some of these foreign objects can impart a taste to the coffee even after they've been sorted out.
  • grassy - when the coffee smells like mushy alfalfa sprouts. this has two causes: either the beans were picked waaay too unripe or they were washed in nasty, rotting-smelling, algae-laden water. either way, all bad.
  • green - back we are to the unripe coffee. also sometimes used for under-roasted, unripe coffees. the coffee smells kinda like a raw cabbage leaf, imvho.
  • hidy - just that, coffee smells like a new pair of shoes, leather-y.
  • moldy - just that. and i don't mean in a nice blue-cheese kinda way; i mean in a disgusting, stomach-turning way.
  • musty - just that. think grandma's damp, musty, dusty attic.
  • past-crop - as green coffee sits around in the warehouse, oxygen attacks it over time. it loses organic matter and begins to taste the way old plywood smells.
    (oddly enough, this can sometimes happen in a good way if the coffee is well-stored, thus the cachet of "aged" sumatras among some coffee lovers. however, the term past crop means it didn't go well, and has aged badly. past crop coffees often go through a "straw-y" stage, then move onto "woody" before reaching the past crop grave.)
  • rancid - coffee beans are high in fats, and these can go bad, like any other oil. it's an instantly repulsive smell, like cheap, bad frying oil.
  • rio-y - an iodine-like smell or taste. it's caused by a bacteria that attacks the coffee, and used to be prevalent in coffees that shipped from brazil, thus the name rio.
  • rubbery - a clear sign of robusta, or at least, bad robusta. the coffee will display a smell like hot rubber that runs right down the tongue.
  • sourish - sour, astringent taste that makes the sides of your cheeks pucker up and dries out your mouth in a bad way. due to poor coffee processing.
  • stale - flat, paper-y, cardboard-y. everyone knows it and no one likes it.
  • stewed - the nasty flavor of reheated coffee.
    (never reheat coffee. never. stewed is coffee that tastes like it's been reheated in the microwave. another flavor everyone knows and no one likes.)
  • stinker - a unpleasant smell like raw potato. it smells to me exactly like when you're peeling potatoes and didn't quite wash them enough. potato-y and a little hint of soil.
  • strawy - just that. think halloween hay-ride. the coffee's on its way to woody, for sure.
  • tipped - coffee roasted too quickly at too high a heat results in burned edges and a raw interior. when brewed, it will also display that bready taste of under-roasted or under-developed coffee. look at the beans under a magnifying glass. the burnt edges and sides will be easily seen.
    (this is perhaps the most common taint specialty coffee lovers will encounter nowadays, as otherwise well-meaning but poorly-trained people who fancy themselves "roastmasters" after a single 2-day insta-roast seminar are apt to get themselves in trouble.)
  • twisty - often said of yemens, but can be applied to any coffee that reveals several taints or defects in a single cup throughout the stages of the tasting. multi-bad! however in some coffees, where certain combinations are considered acceptable in slight amounts - like the earthy & mossy in a sumatra, or the clay-roof & hint of straw basket in a yemen - a romantic cupper might argue these "historic" twists bring character to a coffee
  • wild - each cup or sample shows different individual defects. tastings usually involves flights of coffee, with several of each coffee to check for consistency; inconsistency from cup to cup is considered bad wild. if the coffee's going to be bad, you want each sample cup to be bad in the same way; to be a different bad each cup is ultra-bad!
  • woody - just that. i usually say plywood. the coffee's headed toward past crop.
    (in some rare cases, a touch of this can be ok, as in the above aged sumatras. sometimes you can see this in a spicy yemen, in which case the coffee has a sort of sandalwood feeling. i think a touch of this could be ok on rare occasion, but generally it's all bad and a cause to reject the coffee.)

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posted by fortune | 6:26 AM | top | link to this | email this: | links to this post | | 6 comments

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