sandra holding the cold brew bottle

The Day I Tasted My Future

One of the things I love about the specialty coffee community is that the people in it share a fascination and respect for the product that we get to work with. I’ve never met a dedicated Barista who didn’t have a story about the first coffee they have tasted that made them aware of how multi-faceted this thing we call Java is. Whether it was a washed coffee from Kenya that tasted like blueberry or a natural from Ethiopia with subtle sweetness and yasmine notes, everyone has their memory. 

Following that, people want to learn more, work in a cafe, or open one, participate in Barista competitions and be a part of the industry.

My own love story with Specialty Coffee began in 2013. Flashback…   

“And now all you do is wiggle it a bit aaannnnnd pull straight through the middle! Not bad…!” My instructor really tries. 

I am looking at the mess I just made of what is supposed to be a feathered heart on a cappuccino. With a bit of creative goodwill you could call it the trail of a drunk bird careening over wet concrete. 

I am taking my first course towards becoming a certified Barista at the Berlin School of Coffee. It’s the summer of 2013 and I am thinking about opening a shop. Maybe. But then maybe not, based on this. 

I’m a TV journalist who grew up in a cafe and I can’t love coffee enough. But I’m just not getting the whole Latte Art thing.

On the machine next to me, Olaf, a physical therapist who also wants to change careers, is already working on swans. Nails every design on the first try. Show off. 

In hindsight it seems like such a small thing to worry about when you want to open a coffee shop, but I was a perfectionist and you had to do at least a heart right to get certified. 

By our afternoon session I was sufficiently deflated for the day and happy I had not already done something stupid, like putting in notice at my day job.

The final part of our three day seminar was sensory skills. We would be tasting and evaluating black coffees. 

Our instructor had prepared five different samples while we were out for lunch. “Just taste each one at different temperatures and write down your impressions of taste and texture for this first round,” she said. 

We were split in groups of four, I was on a team with Olaf, the Latte Art whiz. Great. 

First, we were tasting and writing impressions down on our own.

I did notice differences in intensity of the flavors and certain variations, but within the same parent groups, for example grapefruit versus lime, similar, but not quite. I thought these coffees were probably from neighboring regions, but they did have pretty distinct differences in body and sweetness, as well as intensity of acidity (sorry for the nerd talk here :).

After 15 minutes or so we were asked to compare notes within our group. I just went ahead and shared my impressions, I had nothing to lose. Olaf was surprisingly quiet and then he said “I just taste coffee, to be honest.” 

Ha! That was the moment I realized that palates tuned to milk and espresso struggle with the subtle complex flavors of black coffee. Swan or not.

In Olafs defense, it was not a wrong description, but I’m sure neither of us knew about 2-Furfurylthiol at the time, one of the chemical compounds that does give coffee its roasty flavor. 

Finally we all gathered to get our scores for how well we had described the coffees. Sabine, our instructor, asked us each to point out their favorite sample.

We did. 

She smiled and said: “I tricked you. These five coffees are one and the same. But I prepared them five different ways while you were out for lunch.”

12 minds blown.

I fell in love with brewing chemistry then and there.

To be able to create magic like that with a change of brewing device, temperature, technique, brew time and grind size, among other things, and then to be able to highlight a coffee’s character in such different ways was the most fascinating and beautiful thing to me. 

I had known before how many years a coffee tree grows before the first harvest, and that it produces only two pounds of beans per year. But that the way Specialty Coffee was grown and processed allowed for such an amazing result in the cup I had not fully realized up until that moment. 

This right there was the only way that coffee should be treated, I thought. With respect for everything that nature has given us and all the people that produced it. 

So, I did quit my job after all (obviously) and I opened the shop with my own slow bar concept. We brewed coffee to order using up to eight different devices and guests got to watch, ask questions and learn.

As a trainer I always made sure that my people took pride in their profession, even if it was a side gig. As Baristas we never want to be the last link in that long chain from seed to cup, only to then mess it up. 

When people ask me today what brought me to specialty coffee, this is the story I tell and when someone asks which origin I like best, I tell them it depends on the brewing device and technique, but that my own first memorable coffee was from Papua New Guinea.

Caramel and fall spice, thick and syrupy, made on a french press at a cafe in Berlin on a cozy, rainy day. Nothing added. 

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