Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tasting Six Presses

I wanted to brew six different presses this week, and taste them blind and side-by-side. In the event, I attempted to brew five and failed miserably.  The six methods I wanted to investigate will be familiar to regular readers of the blog:
The idea was to set up a double-blind tasting, in which both I (the brewer) and my tasting colleagues would not know which cupping bowl contained which coffee.  I even brought multiple coffees and dreamed of repeating the experiment to evaluate the results from multiple origins.

We brewed at Street Bean Espresso, which is a fine tasting venue and which I frequent for it's Trapicitos French Press.  I learned a great deal about how to conduct a future experiment properly, and I think we all had fun, but I did not discover much about the differences between these press variants.

A few reflections:
  1. An experiment involving 5-6 simultaneous presses needs 3 baristas in order to avoid over-brewing several presses.  More on that below.
  2. Voting for coffees can be fun, but only if chits are water-proof.  Paper is flimsy.  Also, voting for 1st to 3rd is a lot less confusing than voting 1st to 5th, since people lose track.
  3. Finally, treat the data with a healthy dose of skepticism.  Here's how the votes turned out:

At first glance, the shake seems a runaway winner, with the double catcher and single catcher more or less tying for second.  The pull is the clear loser.  Closer inspection, though, reveals a number of problems.

  • The graph is displayed in the order the coffee was brewed, left-to-right.  Due to the pulling and pressing and shaking of the left three coffees, the last two presses were over-brewed.  In this context, it's worth noting that we tasted a lot of bitter acrid oils in the French press pull.
  • Not all coffees reached the table at the same temperature.  Due to temperature exchange during shaking, the French press shake coffee arrived substantially cooler than the other four coffees.   Coffees tend to open up and taste sweeter at cooler temps, and temps also influence palate sensitivity.  Finally, first impressions matter.  We all thought the shake was super-sweet and juicy right off the bat.  Did we give the other coffees an equal chance?  Probably not.

Is tasting a quixotic quest?  I don't think so.  I do think we need to develop a set of best practices for vertical tastings similar to the SCAA standards for coffee cuppings.

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