October 3, 2007 / 11:40 AM / 11 years ago

A day in the life of an Italian coffee taster

TURIN (Reuters Life!) - Michele Mastrantuono can tell the difference between about 100 varieties of coffee. After 26 years of tasting coffee for Italy’s leading roaster Lavazza he can guess the origin of practically any cup of coffee.

A bartender serves coffee in Caffe Torino in the northern Italian city of Turin December 14, 2005. After 26 years of tasting coffee for Italy's leading roaster Lavazza, Michele Mastrantuono can tell the difference between about 100 varieties of coffee and he can guess the origin of practically any cup of coffee. REUTERS/Daniele La Monaca

His job is to control the quality of raw green beans which Lavazza buys from 25 countries and help develop new blends of roasted coffee which are then sold in about 80 countries.

“This job is similar to wine or perfume tasting,” Mastrantuono said while seated at his workspace — a white rotating table holding samples of green coffee beans and dozens of coffee cups at Lavazza’s main roasting plant.

Two types of coffee are commercially cultivated and marketed: arabica and robusta. But the variety of flavors is endless because they depend on soil, climate, altitude of the place where coffee is grown and how it is processed.

A working day starts early for Mastrantuono, a leading coffee taster and product development manager, and his three fellow main coffee tasters at Lavazza. The best time for coffee tasting is from 9 to 9:30 a.m. when all the senses work perfectly, but the work continues in the afternoon too.

“We perceive much better when we are hungry. So at least half hour should pass after breakfast and two to three hours after lunch before tasting,” he said.

There are no severe restrictions on what a coffee taster can eat or drink, but it is better to stay away from heavy and spicy food and alcohol while working. Mastrantuono, 48, always opts for a light lunch.

Smoking is not banned but discouraged at work. Taste buds should be kept in perfect working order.

“Smokers have a different threshold of perception. It is OK to have a cigarette in the evening, after work. But it’s no good if you start your day with a couple of smokes,” he said.

Mastrantuono said gender does not matter in his job.

“Some people say that women are more sensitive and more fit for this job. But we have two women and two men in our team and we are doing just fine.”

Lavazza buys 2.2-2.3 million of 60-kilo bags of green coffee and sells about 100,000 tons of roasted coffee a year.

MIXTURE OF ART AND SCIENCE

Sipping a cup of coffee is a pleasure for many. But coffee tasters, or cuppers, have to dissect their sensations, analyze and classify them to rule on a sample’s quality.

It is not an easy task.

Cuppers decipher information coming from olfactory cells and taste buds about coffee’s flavor — its taste and aroma — which are determined by about 1,000 organic and non-organic chemical elements.

And they do it in a rather noisy way.

Sitting at the rotating table, they suck in a spoonful of coffee, with a force and sound of a vacuum cleaner. That sends the coffee as far back as possible to transport coffee vapors to the nasal cavity and boost perception of aroma which also comes from inhaling the smell of coffee.

They keep coffee in the mouth for a while to feel its taste and then they spit it out into a white basin.

Otherwise tasting up to 100 cups of coffee a day would be too much for a cupper’s health.

Mastrantuono said he still enjoys two to three small cups of strong Italian coffee off duty.

After a few tasting cups, cuppers get down to writing. They have to report on quality of the beans by comparing what they have just tasted to profiles already created for coffees of different origins.

Cuppers should train their sensory memory and be creative in describing various subtle differences in aroma or taste necessary to draw a line between good and not-so-good coffee.

“This one has a chocolate flavor. This one is spicy, with a tinge of carnation. But this one is woody, with a carton aftertaste,” Mastrantuono said as he rotated the table to reach for a new cup.

The art and science of tasting is not limited to a restricted group, but a lot depends on the sensitivity of one’s nose and taste buds.

Mastrantuono, who himself started at Lavazza as a technical assistant but quickly joined a quality control team as coffee taster, said people who want to become tasters should first pass a basic test on distinguishing aromas and tastes.

Then they should embark on a long process of learning by practice to become real professionals: “We learn as we live.”

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