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The Master’s Way

Canada’s champion coffee taster

December 7, 2010
By Treena Hein


For Patrick Russell, the origins of a great cup of coffee are no mystery.

For Patrick Russell, the origins of a great cup of coffee are no mystery.


“A great cup of coffee starts with fresh beans of the highest quality, stored properly and ground just before brewing,” he says.

Russell should know. The Second Cup resident coffee expert just won the Canadian Cup Tasters Championship, held at the Canadian Coffee and Tea Show in Toronto in September. Previously always held at the Specialty Coffee Association of America Exposition, the 2010 event was the first time the annual battle occurred on Canadian soil.


The competition pitted four participants at a time tasting eight groups of three coffee samples. In each triangular grouping, two cups are identical and one is different. Competitors try to identify the different cup in the shortest time possible. In the final round, all four finalists battle it out, and whoever makes the highest number of correct selections wins, and in the event of a tie, the winner is the person who finishes in the fastest time. Russell was correct six out of eight times, in 5 minutes, 45 seconds.

Russell’s long road to coffee tasting victory began when he entered the specialty coffee industry 14 years ago. “I started as a barista and then a manager in a Second Cup café,” he says. “I then was promoted to various positions including leading Second Cup’s Franchise Partner training program.” For the last 10 years, Russell trained as a coffee cupper before recently being named to the newly created position of Coffee Expert. In this role, Russell serves as official company coffee taster, working alongside the roaster to taste coffees 112 times before they are released.

Striving for the perfect cup
To enjoy great coffee, Russell offers the following tips. “Buy high quality, whole bean coffee, and only as much as you’ll drink in a week,” he says. “Store beans in an airtight opaque container at room temperature.” Grind them just before brewing, using fresh filtered, water. “Make sure your brewing equipment is spotlessly clean,” he adds. “Use two tablespoons of ground coffee for every six ounces of water. Drink it immediately after brewing, or transfer the coffee to a thermal carafe.”

When asked about common coffee-making mistakes, Russell can name plenty. “Storing coffee in the freezer or fridge are the two worst places I can think of,” he says, “because coffee stales more quickly in the presence of the light, moisture (and in the case of the freezer, temperature) in these locations.” No-no number two is using dirty brewing equipment.

Lastly, avoid tap water, especially hot tap water. “The better the water, the better the coffee,” Russell says. “Even cold tap water run through a supermarket filter will result in better-tasting coffee than that made with plain tap water.” Hot tap water is to be avoided in brewing coffee as it may contain high metal content and will have a reduced oxygen level, all of which affects taste.

Russell thinks becoming a coffee-tasting expert is a simple matter of loving coffee and being curious. “The best way to start is to explore different flavours and take the time to look for the coffee’s inherent flavour characteristics,” he says. “To gain ‘expert’ status, you need to continuously taste coffees, of all qualities, roasts, flavours and origins. Read the label to find out what the experts say about how the coffee is supposed to taste. Then it’s as simple as, sniff, slurp, swish and repeat.”

Here are the detailed instructions. “First check the aroma of the coffee, by inhaling deeply through the nose over the top of the coffee,” Russell says. “Check the intensity of the aroma, whether or not you find it appealing, and then think about the different smells, and what flavours they remind you of. Your sense of smell determines over 90 per cent of what you’ll taste … so aroma is critical to tasting.”

The next step is “to slurp the coffee over your tongue and try to isolate where on your tongue you sense the different characteristics of the coffee. Swish the coffee over your tongue to examine the body; a heavier bodied coffee will be thicker and feel fuller in the mouth, while lighter bodied coffees will feel thinner and less filling.”

In terms of how the coffee industry has changed over the years, Russell notices that consumers have become more discerning and more educated about what makes a great cup.

“They are demanding higher quality coffees and as a result are driving a system-wide move to quality across all segments of the industry,” he notes. Russell also observes that in the last five years, consumer demand has grown for socially and environmentally sustainable coffees.

Having beat out 15 others in the Canadian Cup Tasters Championship, Russell will represent Canada at the 2011 World Championships. He expects next year’s challenge to be just as tough. “In the finals, I was most surprised by how difficult it was to discern the differences,” he says, “Some of the coffees we cupped were the same bean, roast, and dose of coffee, with the only difference being brew time. To win the World’s, I’ll just have to keep cupping and do my best.”

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