We have seven cafetières, a filter mug, a ROK espresso press and a mocha pot. If we want coffee, we have several ways of making it. Because all of these methods result in a certain amount of mess, we recently also got a Nespresso machine, with a milk heater on the side. I’m trying to learn to drink coffee without milk but find the coffee that C. likes too strong. I need to find something lighter, something with less bitterness and instead the mellow notes that I like so much from the scent of coffee. I got a rather timely invitation to a coffee tasting session arranged by Nespresso, just weeks before they open their first Edinburgh boutique. Maybe they could help?
Learning to Drink Coffee – a Personal Journey
When I grew up, coffee was coffee. Not to other people, they had their preferences, but to me. I couldn’t tell the difference between instant and boiling coffee. It was all just bitter, brown stuff. I practised drinking it, much like I had practised drinking tea, adding milk and sugar until it was to my taste. It took a lot of sugar to start with. My coffee tasted a lot like coffee car sweets.
Then I went to France and had café crème. I honestly don’t know if it was the coffee or the fact that I was in Paris that made it taste so good (or perhaps it was the croissant I was dipping that made the difference), but I began to really like coffee. I returned home, found an instant specifically made for using with hot milk, and was happy.
Then I moved to Edinburgh and my coffee life became a lot more complicated. The Nespresso Connoisseur Club tasting at The Edinburgh New Town Cookery School helped me understand what I like.
Using your Nose and Mouth
Coffee is just as complex as wine, or whisky: there are over 900 aromatics in coffee. The complexity makes it fun but can also make it confusing. If you don’t know what kind of coffee you like, finding something that fits your palate can be difficult.
The flavour in coffee depends on the type of bean, where it has grown, how it is roasted and, of course, how it is brewed. Really good tasters can tell a coffee’s terroir, just like really good wine tasters can. Of the five main flavours, coffee are big on bitter and sour (or acidic, which sounds a lot nicer). To practice the flavours, we started by tasting water. One was plain, the other five were flavoured to taste sweet, salty, savoury, bitter and sour. It was interesting to see people’s reactions to the flavours: I like sour things, but not everyone did. The savoury caused quite a lot of wrinkled noses.
The longer coffee is roasted, the more nutty, treacle flavours come out, as the sugars in the beans caramelise. A shorter roast gives a more acidic coffee with hints of lemon and berries. The sensory wheel came in handy to see where flavours tend to sit in relation to each other. We also had a number of bottles with scent. I rather fell in love with the straw. Scent is very evocative and it took me back to the hay barns of my childhood. I also had a very good lesson in how your ability to taste and smell changes over time. Before I’d had four cups of coffee, two glasses of wine and a rather delicious chilli chocolate truffle, hazelnut smelled like nuts. Afterwards, it smelled like coriander. I’d exhausted my olfactory system.
The Perfect Coffee
There’s a clue in the name: Nespresso focuses on espresso. The machines come with long and short settings, but even a long Nespresso is a short coffee. The beans are ground to be just right, the machine heats the water to the right temperature, a safe 92 degrees that will extract the flavour without burning or changing the flavour elements, and pushed through the capsule. The result comes pouring out.
The crema, the espresso foam, holds a lot of the oils from the beans and is rich in flavour. The crema is tight and light if the beans are fresh.
I was interested to find out that most coffee is roasted for just minutes. 15 minutes is a long roast. The roasting time and temperature varies depending on what the roaster wants to get out of the bean. To get an interesting and consistent character, Nespresso blends beans of different varieties and roasts. Each flavour is distinct, as we found when we started the tasting proper.
Tasting coffee, or cupping, is a straightforward process:
- Smell the coffee.
- Use a spoon to pick up a little bit of the crema and taste it.
- Use the spoon to turn move the crema so you can smell the coffee underneath.
- Take some coffee in the spoon, and slurp it up. (This bit is tricky. With the right angle and speed, slurping the coffee aerates it and sprays it over your palate so you can really taste it. Remember not to inhale!)
We tried three coffees, matched with chocolate:
- Rosabaya – a mid-range coffee blended from Columbian beans. I got lemon, tar and astringency on the nose. Drunk with a salter caramel truffle, it was richer and sweeter. I’d enjoy this with almond milk which balances the acidity somewhat.
- Ristretto – a stronger, darker coffee blended from Columbian, Indonesian and Brazilian beans. Not a hit with me because its very bitter but a firm favourite with the hardier coffee fans around the table. An amaretto raisin tried to bring out its nutty notes but didn’t quite convince me although I enjoyed that there was something about the coffee that made me think of violets.
- Kazaar – a very special coffee made from slow-roasted robusta and more quick-roasted arabica, this is strong but a more mellow bitterness that makes me think of treacle and dark chocolate. A dark chilli truffle counteracted the bitterness perfectly. Although I’m not big on strong coffee, I enjoyed this. It’d be a very nice post-dinner espresso.
Kazaar has an intensity rating of 12. Normally, I like 4s, 6s if I’m feeling reckless. Clearly, it’s all about the balance of bitterness and acidity. I’m looking forward to trying more varieties to find the right one for me. This season, there are three limited edition coffees flavoured with natural flavourings: ciocattino, caramelito and vanilio. The chocolate and caramel varieties sound particularly interesting to me.
A Nespresso boutique opens on Multrees Walk at the beginning of December. Until then, you can get the capsules and machines online, or at, among other places, John Lewis.
7 Queen Street
Edinburgh, EH2 1JE
Tel: 0131 226 4314