As mentioned in a previous post, out of curiosity I recently ordered a copy of Espresso Italiano Tasting (€18) available from the Istituto Internazionale Assaggiatori Caffè (IIAC), or the International Institute of Coffee Tasters. It’s the closest reference I’ve found to what is about. This 168-page book is available in Spanish & Portuguese, German & French, Russian, and the Italian & English split edition I purchased. Each page is presented side-by-side in both languages, so with my modest Italian language skills I was able to vouch for its decent English translation.

It begins by defining standards for the physical and even mental preparation of the espresso taster. Some of the more interesting quotes in the book? (many of them now industry conventional wisdom) :

  • “The environment in which a sensorial analysis is carried out should have … good natural light … The room temperature should be between 20°C and 25°C and humidity should be between 50% and 70%.”
  • “Espresso should always be drunk from a small cup even though some restaurants serve their coffee in big ones just to be different.” (What’s going on with that one?!)
  • “the sensorial analysis must be executed within one minutes [sic] of the coffee being prepared, and the cup must be warm”
  • “During the sensorial evaluation of coffee, the encounter between the aroma and our olfactive sense is of paramount importance.” (As in wine tasting, the sense of smell is really where any tasting happens.)

The book makes the strong distinction between the two types of aroma: the first being the olfactory sensation perceived by the mucous membranes in the nose (the olfactory mucosa) — and the other being the sensations perceived on the mucous membranes at the back of the throat (the oral mucosa). The latter of which is where the coffee has been cooled to something closer to body temperature, and the molecules released from the lipids in the crema play a large role.

Espresso Italiano Tasting Gratuitous image filler: this morning's home espresso needs some crema tuning

The book presents suggestive information for descriptors when evaluating espresso. One of my favorites being the literal Engish-language term Stinker for the rotten flowers negative odor that can be detected at the back of the throat. (This is apparently caused by micro-organisms that can attack the coffee cherries and beans.) The book also explains two forms of standardized IIAC espresso tasting cards, or trialcards. Yet the majority of it is dedicated to the bean-to-cup Zen of an espresso and how factors influence the eventual flavor along the way.

This book is not definitive nor complete by any means. However, I could not help get the impression of how much the specialty coffee industry in America (or dare I suggest the Third Wave?; this coming from a self-described No Waver) has only scratched the surface in some areas — especially when compared to the layered, rich, and multi-generational history in pursuit of excellent espresso (or coffee) that comes out in a book like this. Surprisingly, the book still leaves a lot open to subjectivity — despite the structure it provides in judging criteria. For example, the trial cards allow tasters to introduce “write-in” candidates for qualitative characteristics that they can then quantitatively score.

The bottom line is that there’s a lot this book can build upon in detail, but it lays a solid foundation and lacks any real peers that I have yet come across. Definitely recommended. It’s part of a larger series published by the Centro Studi e Formazione Assaggiatori, basically a professional organization of tasters. They have four books just on grappa alone (which might explain a little of my unorthodox grappa obsession). They also publish an interesting quarterly magazine, L’assaggio (or The Taste). For example, check out a sample PDF article that features the sensory profiles of coffee beans in the growing regions of Colombia and Costa Rica.