Drinking versus Tasting

We consume a lot of stuff in America—from coffee to computers to cars. We may not be in the era of the moonwalk anymore, but I don’t think that this consumptive, materialistic mentality has left us yet. France produces more wine than any other country in the world, and has the second-largest vineyard area (Spain beats it there). In Germany, beer has its own festival (the well-known Oktoberfest). In China, tea is considered one of the seven necessities to life (the others being firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, and vinegar). I suppose if we worship any drink here in America, it’s coffee. We consume it in such volume that there are, literally, places in the country where a Starbucks is situated across the street from a Starbucks. (Just ask Lewis Black.) But that’s just what it is—consumption. According to the International Coffee Organization, in 2009, Americans consumed just over 9 pounds of coffee per capita. We might not have anything on Scandinavia, but that’s still a lot of coffee. Yet, most of us still think that a dark roast has more caffeine than a medium roast. Many worship Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks as if they were gods, while ignoring the local cafés that bring us truly great drinks, for just a little added expense.

Luckily, the independent cafés are doing well enough to stick around, and even to open new ones—and I, for one, am grateful. As my bio on this site mentions, I wasn’t always a coffee drinker. It all started one Christmas day, when my uncle wanted me to play Texas Hold ‘Em and I wanted to go to bed. So, I had a cup of Maxwell House—and, for the first time in my life, I didn’t hate it. It took a while from there until I got away from the Folger’s/Dunkin’ Donuts stuff myself and graduated onto grinding my own beans from Trader Joe’s.

What I didn’t realize at first, or even appreciate fully when I first started grinding fresh beans, was the true complexity of flavors available in coffee. If you read the labels on bags of Counter Culture or Stumptown beans, it quickly becomes apparent that people who are serious about their coffee talk about it very similarly to how wine aficionados talk about their favorite merlot or shiraz. You start seeing mentions of floral aromatics, chocolate and butterscotch, cherry jam and toasted nuts. Who knew you could find all of that in a cup o’ Joe?

I’m not a great taster—in fact, I’m terrible at it. On a good day, I’ll be able to pick out something obvious in a wine, like blackberry or nuttiness, but most of the time the best I can do is say, “Hey, I really like this one!” I will never be a sommelier. But I also refuse to believe that tasting is an innate talent, not an acquirable skill. We do a lot of drinking in this country, but not necessarily a lot of tasting. So, this holiday season, take a step back, take a deep breath (literally—so much of tasting is in the nose), and take a sip—of coffee, or wine, or beer, or tea. Don’t just drink it; try to figure out what’s in there. You might be surprised by what you find. And even if you can’t discern any particular flavor, you may at least begin to recognize the complexity of the tastes in your mouth. You may never look at your morning coffee the same way again.

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