The other morning, as I brewed myself a cup of Dogwood Coffee, I was surprised by the description on the beans’ package: so this coffee was going to taste like…baked blueberries? Wha? I’ve tasted coffees that I thought were smoky or bright or vegetal, even, but this was a new one. But there it was, right from the first sip: blueberry, distinctly juicy and blue (the “baked” I’m not so sure…). And so I decided to check in with Stephanie Ratanas, Dogwood’s Director of Coffee, to learn more about the art of tasting and describing coffee.
Explain how you go about the coffee description process, from tasting to text.
Most of the initial flavor descriptors we come up with come from the cupping table. Cupping is a formalized process of tasting that professional use to evaluate coffees. It involves a lot of sniffing, slurping and spitting. When we get a new coffee in, I also like to brew it a couple different ways (usually Chemex or with the Clever Coffee Dripper, which we use at the cafe) to get an idea of how the customer is going to taste the coffee. The description on the bags are actually stamps, so when we get a coffee I get a new rubber stamp plate of the text and each bag is stamped by hand. (This allows for us to avoid waste, have really rad letterpressed labels, and change coffee descriptions as we see fit.) I do all the writing for the coffees, the bags, the website, the offerings sheet, etc. It’s part of my job to know as much as possible about these farms, producers, and flavors.
Are there ever divergent opinions about what flavors are present? Say someone in the tasting group absolutely does not taste any blueberry in the coffee…
For the most part for these general bag descriptions, no. While taste is a very subjective thing, there is quite a bit of objectivity to it on the professional level. Sometimes we don’t describe things in the same way, like if there’s strawberry someone might say “that’s like a really ripe sweet strawberry” and someone else might say “that tastes like a strawberry Jolly Rancher.” For the most part, the people that cup regularly (generally Eddie, the roaster, and myself and sometimes Jon, our director of quality control) are pretty calibrated. We can agree on many aspects of a coffee, and we’ve tasted enough coffees to make accurate points about the ones we offer.
What about the other information, such as details about the coffee farmer, the terrain, growing/processing methods?
I like to highlight the producers and the farms the coffees come from, because I think people are only so influenced by the flavor descriptors (at least the way we describe it). It’s difficult to put something that’s a personal experience and sensation into words.
Do you have a couple of favorite descriptive phrases that you’ve used on Dogwood coffee packages that you would share?
I’m not sure if I have any favorite coffee descriptions really. Sometimes I like to use words like “POW!”, “ZING” and “SHAZAAM!” to describe really bright acidity. Haha. I amuse myself once in a while.
I hear you have a creative writing background—how has that influenced your coffee work?
As I said, it’s difficult to put something into words that’s such a personal experience, like taste. Not to be cheesy, but I kind of think about it like writing about music. I was a writer for an alternative weekly in Chicago for a few years, and I wrote about lots of things but I never wanted to write about music, because I felt like I would never be able to really describe something like that to another person. The way that music can affect you, hit certain areas in your brain and your emotions, is a personal thing. I sort of think about writing about coffee in the same way. So, when trying to describe coffee, I try to hit key flavor points that will draw people’s interest, but keep it sort of vague since they won’t really know how they feel about the coffee until they taste it themselves. I think teaching people about the growing and processing and roasting of coffee is going to help them understand what they like, and what to explore, rather than the couple of flavor descriptors on the bag.
Dogwood Coffee Bar
3001 Hennepin Ave. South, Mpls.
Monday-Friday 7 a.m.-9 p.m.
Saturday 8 a.m.-9 p.m.
Sunday 9 a.m.-6 p.m.