The Art of Coffee Tasting

What's the difference between an 85- and a 90-point cup of coffee? Inside the morning ritual of "the missionary," a Vancouver coffee taster.


What’s the difference between an 85- and a 90-point cup of coffee? Inside the morning ritual of “the missionary,” a Vancouver coffee taster.

His colleagues in the world of coffee refer to him as “the missionary.” “It’s apropos,” says Aaron De Lazzer, Ethical Bean Coffee Co.’s director of coffee. “You’re sharing an enthusiasm for the gospel of coffee.” The official coffee taster for the Vancouver-based roaster, which supplies coffee shops and grocery stores from Toronto to Nanaimo, uses the word “zeal” to describe his passion, and acknowledges that his devotion to coffee often pushes the limits of good sense. 

I visit De Lazzer at Ethical Bean’s east Vancouver roastery early one morning in late August. “Your timing is impeccable,” he says as he gives me a guided tour and explains the testing process. “I’m just about to cup the first coffee of the day.” Cupping is the process by which tasters pass judgment on a coffee. With lab-like precision, he measures the coffee grains to one-tenth of a gram, ensures that the water is precisely 200 degrees Fahrenheit when he pours, then leaves the unfiltered cup to steep for exactly three minutes.

When those 180 seconds are up, De Lazzer abruptly announces that it’s time to “break the crust” – which, he explains, means pushing the floating grains to the bottom of the cup. I can’t help reflecting on the parallel with breaking bread, the time-honoured ritual of social communion. For this missionary, the break involves dipping the spoon, bottom side first, into the cup to push down the grains. The aroma released as the crust breaks give De Lazzer his first impression of the coffee.

The next stage is to taste the cup. He spoons the coffee and sips it in noisy, drawn-out slurps. “Slurping is meant to cool the beverage,” he says, “vaporize it, if you will, so the volatile aspects of the coffee are released.” He records his observations on the coffee-stained pages pinned to his clipboard.

De Lazzer is looking for problems with the coffee: a taint or an off flavour. He pegs this cup of dark roast at 86 points out of a possible 100. What he looks for is a coffee that scores between 85 and 90. In terms of making a buy, this cup has shown promise, but it’s on the borderline. 

“I think that professionals can be extreme to the point of irrelevance,” he admits. “Ultimately, I’m applying a number to something that doesn’t lend itself well to numbering. That’s why I like cupping with lay people. You can say things like, ‘That’s just lovely.’”