Tasting coffee with expert Dan Cox
“Coffee is so much more complicated than wine. Wine is simple; you open it up, and it is finished. Coffee is not. It is not a finished product.” So Dan Cox tells me the first time I meet him, looking relaxed behind a curved desk at his Burlington firm, Coffee Enterprises .
As a wine devotee and tea drinker, I bristle slightly. I’ve spent countless hours mulling over the aromas, acidity, sweetness, minerality and finishes of hundreds of wines — so I politely write down Cox’s words but don’t quite believe them. Coffee … really?
“Wine has aromatics that last longer,” he continues. “Coffee has aromatics that are very fleeting.”
Cox has lived, breathed and sipped coffee almost every day for more than three decades, first as one of the original employees of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters , and then at Coffee Enterprises. His current company doesn’t actually sell beans, but offers its expertise to those who do. I’ve come to its sunny quarters at the end of Lakeside Avenue to ask Cox about the lifetime achievement award bestowed on him this summer by the Specialty Coffee Association of America.
“I felt humbled,” Cox says of the award. Within a few minutes, though, it’s clear he would much rather talk about coffee than himself.
“How do you taste? How do we articulate taste? It’s a separate language,” he muses, explaining the ethos behind this morning’s planned event in the office: a tasting and class for restaurant owners and chefs.
We head into the “sensory room.” Above its entrance is a sign reading, “Sniff. Slurp. Spit.” The room’s broad windows overlooking Lake Champlain make it feel as though we’re on a boat. Atop two round tables are five place settings: four white bowls set in semicircles around a fifth white bowl and a tumbler of water. A metal spittoon stands on the floor by each place.
The settings are for the class, but no one has yet arrived. Unfazed, Cox and his crew — including Spencer Turer, head of coffee operations; and David Morrill, senior sensory specialist — decide to taste anyway. We don military-green chef coats as Cox outlines the parameters: We’ll taste coffees from four different regions — Brazil, Colombia, Indonesia and Costa Rica. We’ll smell each, dip in our spoons and slurp, then spit them out quickly and not ruminate on our sensory impressions.
We’ll also be quiet the entire time. “The hardest part of tasting coffee is calming the mind and staying focused,” Cox says, his gray eyes beaming from a deeply tanned face. Focus seems to come easily to Cox, a discipline perhaps acquired from his time as an army captain years earlier.
The four of us lower our heads to smell the coffee before us. Then comes the sound of sharp slurps, followed by quick spits into the urns between our legs. This procedure moves quickly, and I scramble to keep up. As I’m unaccustomed to sampling coffee, my notes read something like this: No. 1 — bitter. No. 2 — less sharp, bright, almost sweet. No. 3 — citrus. No. 4 — robust and smoky.
Within five minutes, everyone but me has finished, and we share our impressions: “light, sharp and papery” for one coffee to “very aggressive” for another. Someone says No. 3 tastes of raisins and molasses and is smooth, while another taster declares the same brew mellow, mild and citrusy. No. 4, according to yet another taster, is “neutral, nutty, sweet, mild, with toasted nuts and spice.”
I’m humbled that this group can come up with so many descriptors for coffee within such a short time span. The specialists at Coffee Enterprises do tastings like this three to six times each day, sampling single-origin beans or new blends from clients looking for quality control or product development.
Back in his office, Cox ticks off a kaleidoscope of influences on the beverage most drinkers take for granted: place of origin and harvest time, packaging type, brewing temperature, hardness or softness of the water. At Coffee Enterprises, says Cox, “We strip everything out of the [municipal] water, and we rebuild it, distilled to a consistent pH.”
Coffee Enterprises is exacting in controlling such variables because 40 percent of its business involves ensuring consistency and quality across product lines. A few major coffee companies, such as Dunkin’ Donuts, send blends to Coffee Enterprises weekly for quality testing; others might seek help sourcing coffee or creating a blend. Each tasting costs $500, which perhaps explains the serious, almost reverential feel of the sensory room.
Because the retail markup on coffee is no small beans, Cox is perplexed that more consumers don’t pay attention to its nuances, or return cups that are not up to snuff. “You’re paying $2 for something that a restaurant paid 15 cents for. You have the right to say, ‘This was not brewed properly,’” he says. “But know enough to do it professionally and not be a jerk.”
Coffee Enterprises is actually the parent company of three others: Coffee Extracts & Ingredients, Coffee Analysts and Coffee Ed, all based in the same offices. The last educates those who make and drink coffee — especially those who work in kitchens. “You’re doing this chemical experiment that’s timed. Every minute after you brew it, its quality is deteriorating,” Cox says of coffee. The best restaurants, he adds, will throw away whatever remains in a pot after 20 minutes.
Cox can deftly switch from describing the particulars of single-origin coffee from Kenya’s Kirinyaga Valley, to the tribal divisions among growers in Papua New Guinea, to the vagaries of municipal water. To hear him narrate coffee’s backstory is to step into a strange and unfamiliar land.
In 1981, it was unfamiliar to Cox, too. That was the year he joined the then-new Green Mountain Coffee Roasters, working the counter in the company’s original Waitsfield café. “I didn’t know anything about coffee,” he recalls. “I drank it out of a Styrofoam cup.”
He marveled to see customers buy their groceries at Mehuron’s Market across the street, and then come into GMCR to pick up a $5 bag of coffee. “I thought, Jeez, there’s something going on,” Cox says. “This could be the beginning of a movement.”
His palate soon became attuned — especially to Sumatran coffee. “It was heavy, earthy and nobody knew what the hell it was,” Cox says. “I had fun exposing friends to it.”
As the company blossomed, Cox rose rapidly through the ranks — from sales guy with early wholesale accounts to sales manager to head of sales to, eventually, vice president. “There was no coffee in Vermont at the time,” he says, noting that he and his colleagues considered canned coffee “the enemy.”
Cox’s rise within GMCR mirrored that of the nationally exploding interest in specialty coffee, which helped propel Starbucks to wild success. Cox was one of the earliest members of the Specialty Coffee Association of America and became that group’s president in 1985 when it had 60 members. Now it has 3000.
In 1992, Cox says, a “basic philosophical difference” compelled him to leave GMCR. Within a few months, he had founded Coffee Enterprises. One of his first clients, Bruegger’s Bagels, hired Cox and co. to judge the consistency of brews in all its cafés.
Coffee Enterprises’ biggest business, though, involved creating coffee extracts that Cox sold to the dairy industry. When he won the Ben & Jerry’s extracts account, it was a major coup and a huge boost to the company. (Cox is still a pal of B&J’s cofounder Ben Cohen.) Coffee Extracts & Ingredients now accounts for half of all Coffee Enterprises’ revenue, and its products are in “stuff you can’t believe,” says Cox, from grab-and-go beverages to suntan lotion to cereal.
Quality control makes up another 40 percent of the business; another sliver comes from Coffee Enterprises’ work consulting and testifying in legal cases, such as those in which a consumer claims to have been burned by scorching joe.
As his business grew, Cox wanted to give back. With friend and OB/GYN Francis Fote, he founded Grounds for Health, a nonprofit that funds cervical-cancer screening and treatment for women in coffee-growing areas. Women make up a growing proportion of pickers, says Cox, so he modestly calls the organization “self serving.” Grounds for Health has screened 16,000 women since 1996, operating in four global coffee-growing regions.
While he’s pleased with his successes, Cox says he’s happiest being with his family — wife Casey Blanchard, an artist, and college-age daughter Julia — and watching his nine employees grow from novice tasters to highly skilled sensory specialists.”
As we talk, a gong sounds, signaling another tasting. We shuffle into the sensory room for a regular client’s weekly quality-control assessment. Atop a high marble table are cold and hot pairs of coffees — control brews alongside this week’s blend. Fast-paced shuffling, slurping and spitting ensue, followed by the tasters rapidly comparing scores that assess differences between the benchmark brew and the newest batch. “We also look for oxygen content, do package analysis and a full set of inspections,” says Turer.
As at the first tasting, I feel lost, but a little less so. Buzzing with caffeine from possibly the best cup of coffee I’ve ever had — a citrusy Kenyan brew — I concede that coffee may be as complex as wine. I don’t think I’ll ever sip it absentmindedly again.
Coffee Enterprises, 32 Lakeside Avenue, Burlington, 865-4480. coffeeenterprises.com