How to Drink Coffee Well: Advice from an Expert

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Kevin West is loudly slurping coffee with a small, ladle-like spoon. Sitting in a white lab, donning a white lab coat, he quickly stirs his cup with a few strokes before gathering a sip from the center of the whirlpool. West is "cupping," the traditional art — or is it a science? — of tasting coffee, whether it be for pleasure or business. For West, it's usually business. The process — swish, scoop, slurp, spit — is effortlessly routine, and one he repeats up to 300 times a day as director of coffee operations for the Canadian franchise Tim Hortons.

I joined him for a cupping ahead of National Coffee Day on Sept. 29. "You can spit or drink," he directs me as I grab a spoon. "The tradition of cupping is to spit." The first cup is a Brazilian coffee, which, as West describes it, has a neutral or mild taste. He stirs and slurps, making a noise like a high-powered vacuum, while I mimic him with my own weaker sound, like I'm daintily sucking down soup. "The key is to draw in as much oxygen as you can," he says. "You want to make that loud slurping noise. It's similar to the swishing you have with wine tasting."

Tim Hortons serves up more than 2 billion cups of coffee a year, and West oversees the quality of each sip. Just by looking, he is able to identify not only the country a particular bean comes from but also the region and even at what altitude the bean was grown. His family started in the coffee industry in 1978. "I've been in coffee for 32 years," he tells me in between stirs. He's 34.

Now we're sipping a medium-bodied Colombian brew with a lemony citrus taste and West is appraising my newly adopted taste techniques. This one tingles on the base of my tongue, a bitter sensation. "If it tingles with pleasant tingles, that means it was grown at a high altitude," he tells me. (I'm not yet able to discern pleasant tingles from the unpleasant, but I nod.) West sniffs a cup, a Guatemalan coffee, testing the notes of its aroma for defects. "When we describe coffee as being nutty or chocolatey or spicy, it's actually just an aroma sensation that you're getting," he says. "If you took a food product and plugged your nose and then tasted it, it would be very neutral. You wouldn't taste anything. If you opened [your nose] up again and tasted it, the full flavor would come out."

West's job is to ensure quality and uniformity in taste in the coffee produced at five Tim Hortons roasting plants, which is not easy when anything from climatic conditions, soil fertility, altitude and even how the beans are dried leave lasting effects on the taste of the coffee. It's all in the bean, which puts West on the eternal hunt for the perfect specimen. "The ideal bean is different for every country. With a Guatemalan bean," he says, "what I always look for is a bluish-green color."

We're making our way from cup to cup, and I'm sniffing and sipping and trying to "listen" to my taste buds. I don't have a favorite coffee, so today I'm in the market for one. I perk up at the description of my next cup, a Kenyan blend, which West tells me is the red wine of coffee. Full-bodied, fruity and a bit sweet, the taste is smooth and even a bit sour. "Feel it on the sides of your tongue?" he asks me. "That's the sign of a high-quality coffee. That's exactly what you're looking for." Indeed.

A few cups later and my first traditional cupping is over. It's hard to tell if I'll retain my newly found java aptness, but for the moment, my coffee chops seem to be at an all-time high. West chats about his day-to-day duties at Tim Hortons, the importance of consistency and the years he's had to finesse his tasting expertise — some 25,000 cups a year multiplied by almost 30 years of experience. I have one question left: "How on earth can you still stand the taste of coffee?" West smiles and calls himself a "one cup a day" kind of guy. But he admits he has a strong fondness for tea.