Whether you’re working from home for the time being, on self-quarantine, or just have some free time, we figured that this might be a good opportunity for everyone to work on their barista skills. So we’re going to be posting a daily experiment for everyone to do along with us so that we can all learn and progress together to make the best of a bad situation. Many of these articles are going to be aimed towards beginner and intermediate coffee nerds, though I’ll be doing my best to make sure that everyone will be able to get something out of them. Some will be about training your palate, others your barista skills, and others still are written to help you to learn more about coffee in general. Today's post is going to be about a technique I use frequently called triangle testing.
What is Triangle Testing?
Sometimes called a determination test, a triangle test is designed to figure out if there is a difference between two products. The premise is that you have three cups in front of you, two filled with one product and the third filled with a separate one. If you can accurately and repeatedly identify the outlier, then it’s a sure bet that there is a significant difference between the two samples. In the beverage industry, these tests are used to vet new recipes or processes. If a company finds a cheaper ingredient and wants to use it to replace an existing ingredient, then they’d use a triangle test to determine if it’s an acceptable substitute. I’ve used them in the past to test different recipes for flavoring syrups, quality check roasts, and yes, to train baristas.
So Why Should I Care?
Tasting coffee without any context can sometimes be an overwhelming process. There’s a lot of nuance that you may not have trained yourself to notice. By using a triangle test, we are able to focus not on what we’re tasting, but rather on what we’re not tasting. That may sound like a pretty small semantic difference, but it narrows down our field of focus. It forces us to be more mindful of what we’re tasting, and lets us practice singling out the little facets that comprise the overall flavor of the coffee.
Alright, enough of the pitch. What do I need?
To begin with, you’re going to need at least two different coffees. You can make it easy on yourself by grabbing a light and a dark roast, or you can make it a little bit harder on yourself by grabbing two similar roasts of different origins or blends. Either way, I promise you’ll get something out of the experience. Consider supporting your local roasters or coffee shops! In our home state of New York, coffee shops and restaurants have been ordered to restrict their sales to take-out only. Others still have been forced to close their doors due to lack of business. As you might imagine, this has been devastating to our coffee community at large, with no clear finish line in sight. They can use all the help that they can get right now.
Next, we’re going to want to have a notebook to keep track of what we’re doing and when we’re doing it. I like to use a small Moleskine notebook so that it can easily fit in my back pocket. Stay tuned for an upcoming post about how to get the most out of a tasting notebook. For now, the important thing is to just have a place to record what we’re doing. Not only does it help us to have something to reference later, it’s also helpful to force us to put what we’re tasting into words on paper.
Today, I’m going to be using some cupping bowls that I like to keep on hand. These are my favorite cupping bowls but anything will do! Don’t have any dedicated cupping bowls? No problem! You can use three small ramekins, or brew two different French presses and pour them into three cups. It’s a flexible process.
We’ve got our coffee, we’ve got a way to brew it, now we just need a grinder to get it into a form that we can work with. Today is all about flexibility, so feel free to use your espresso grinder, your hand grinder, or your old drip coffee grinder. If you don’t have a grinder, then feel free to e-mail Mackenzie at email@example.com, we also a live chat feature on our website that wiull connect you to one of our salespeople and they'd be happy to help!
It would kind of defeat the purpose of doing this test if you can just read a post-it note on the side of your cupping bowl to figure out which sample is which. When I'm doing this test by myself, I use three coasters and three small identical pieces of paper to help me keep track without giving it away immediately.
I’ve got all the stuff I need, and I’m ready to taste some coffee. Lay it on me.
For our purposes today, I’ll be walking us through a simplified cupping program. If you’re cupping with other people, consider using the SCA’s modified cupping procedure
We’re going to start out by grinding the three samples into our cupping bowls. With my cupping bowl, I use 10 grams of coffee. Write down which is which on the small pieces of paper, put those papers face down on the coasters, then put the cupping bowls on top of both. Break out your best con artist impression and play a little three card monty with your cupping bowls. Move the bowl, paper, and coaster, all at the same time. Mix up the order, being as random as we can. No cheating! We want to loose track of which bowl holds which sample. Now, start that water heating. I like to use 200 degF water. If you’re using a standard water kettle, that ought to be about 30 seconds off of a boil. Then, making sure to evenly wet all of the coffee, fill up the cupping bowl to the rim. We’re aiming to wet our coffee at a ratio of about 55g/L. It’s important to be consistent from test to test so that we can recreate this experiment down the line with all of the same conditions. Now sit back and wait about four minutes. At this point, we’re going to use a cupping spoon or a large soup spoon to “break the crust”. Basically, we’re just going to put our nose near the cup and using a spoon, we’re then going to press it through the accumulated coffee at the top of the cup. Write down your first impressions of the smell of each of the cups. Using the spoon, scoop up and discard any of the coffee left at the top. With that gone, it’s time to start tasting. We’re going to scoop up the coffee with a spoon and slurp. I hereby give you permission to be obnoxious. If anyone complains, you tell them that Sam told you that slurping loudly lets you taste better. It lets us aerate the coffee, allowing it to coat your entire palate and even to let small particles get up into your nose. As we all know, smell contributes greatly to the overall flavor we experience. Before we swallow that coffee, we’re going to want to chew it around in our mouth a little bit first. Just to make doubly sure we’re letting the coffee coat our entire palate. Now write down your first observations. What jumps out at you first? Is there a bitter punch when you first drink it? A cutting acidity in your throat as you swallow? With that done, taste the second sample. Write down one flavor that’s the same, and one that’s different (if you can find one). Now do the same to the third sample. We’re looking to put these flavors into our own words. No need to get fancy and say that you’re getting notes of malic acid, lingonberry, or sparkling rose. If it reminds you of your grandmother’s pot roast, then write that down. After you feel like you’ve gotten a good feel for all of the different flavors contained in those samples, then go ahead and check the paper under the bowl. If you guessed correctly, great! If not, then that’s also still totally fine. The important thing is that we’re tasting comparatively and training ourselves to taste be more mindful.
Where do I go from here?
We can play around with more than just the kind of coffee we’re using. Want to get a more intuitive feel for how brew ratio affects the taste? Then use the same coffee and grind size for all three coffees, but just play around with how much of the coffee you’re using. Interested in how the grind size affects the flavor? Well you can test that too. The possibilities are almost endless! Whatever you do though, remember to record it. We want to be able to look back on what we’ve done. If you repeat the same test a few months later, you may be surprised to see just how much more you notice!
If you have any questions or comments about anything I’ve written, or just any burning questions you’d like answered about coffee, please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll try to answer all of your questions individually, and if I get enough people asking the same question, I can compile them into a big FAQ format next week. Until then, taste good coffee and stay well!