French Presses and Prejudices

On my first day at the corporate coffee company I worked at for over a decade, the manager and assistant manager who hired me sat me down for orientation. Along with new-hire paperwork and orientation materials, they handed me a little book that resembled a passport. They each had one as well. Theirs had stickers and notes in them, but mine, being new, was blank. A barista brought over a glass carafe full of coffee, a few cups, and some pastry samples. The assistant manager, a serious coffee aficionado, asked me, “Have you ever done a coffee tasting with French-pressed coffee before?” “I like my coffee with cream and sugar,” I replied. “That is not what I asked you,” he said. “Have you ever done a coffee tasting with French-pressed coffee before,” he asked again. “I have not.”

The assistant manager explained that the French press was the best way to taste all that a particular coffee had to offer because it extracted more coffee solids and oils from the ground up beans than drip coffee or espresso. In the French-press method, coffee was measured precisely, ground coarsely, put into the carafe, and filtered hot water was poured evenly over the coffee grounds. The coffee was then left to sit and steep for four minutes before a filtered plunger was used to press the grounds down to the bottom of the carafe, leaving only the coffee liquid to be poured out into the cup. The resultant coffee was rich and aromatic, meant to be sipped and savored, not masked with cream or sugar.

Each of us was given a cup, a pastry to taste with it, and a ‘coffee passport’ to take notes in. We were not just drinking coffee. We were experiencing a coffee tasting. First, we held the coffee up to our noses and wafted the steam toward our faces as we inhaled the aroma of the coffee. Then we slurped the coffee, making sure that it coated all of the parts of our mouths. By slurping the coffee, instead of simply drinking it, we were simultaneously tasting it and breathing in the scent. This process allowed us to not only pick up the flavor of the coffee, but its distinct aroma, and mouthfeel as well. We then each described the coffee in our own words, noting where it hit our tastebuds, whether it was earthy, acidic, or floral, and if it had any subtle notes of chocolate, fruit, or nuttiness. Finally, we tasted the pastry to determine whether it enhanced or detracted from the flavor of the coffee. All of this was noted in our passport.

This was the most sophisticated experience I had ever had in my young life and, even though I was out of my depth, I loved it. If I was missing all of this simply by putting cream and sugar in my coffee because it is what I thought I liked, what else was I missing simply by doing things my way instead of being open to new experiences? I am still learning this lesson every day.

 Robert Van Valkenburgh is co-founder of Kogen Dojo where he teaches Taikyoku Budo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

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