Meet the Woman Who Dictates the Taste of Coffee

Tracy May Adair

Tracy May Adair holds the grand title of master coffee cupper for Folgers. Jenny Gold, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jenny Gold, NPR

How to Taste Test Folgers Coffee

The Folgers tasters are testing for at least six characteristics in the coffee beans:

  • Body: How does the coffee feel in your mouth? Body is the heaviness or weight of the coffee. It's more of a feeling or sensation than an actual flavor. Imagine the difference between skim milk and whole milk.
  • Acidity: What kind of acid notes does the coffee have? There are two important aspects of acidity: the intensity and the type. When testing intensity, tasters probe the sharpness and tanginess of the coffee. When testing type, they consider such questions as whether the acidity is pleasant (like citrus) or sour (like vinegar).
  • Aroma: How does the coffee smell? What flavors does it bring to mind? Common aromas include chocolate, toast-like, floral, vanilla and spicy.
  • Flavor sensations: How does the coffee taste in your mouth? Do the flavors come through clearly and crisply? Flavor is closely related to aroma, because, as Tracy May Adair explains, tasting is like smelling with your mouth. Common flavors include fruit, chocolate/cocoa and spicy, clove-like tastes.
  • Sweetness: Sweetness is not strictly dictated by sugar. Tasters look for flavor notes with hints of caramel or syrup.
  • Unwanted Characteristics: The list of unwanted flavors is almost infinite. Common undesirable characteristics include: an overly fruity or rotten flavor; a chemical flavor with metallic, medicinal or moldy notes; unpleasantly sharp or harsh flavors; or flavor notes that evoke the burlap bags in which coffee beans are packed.

Jenny Gold

Coffee beans presented on the sampling table

Tasters' Choice: Coffee beans and brewed samples are placed around a table for evaluation. Jenny Gold, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jenny Gold, NPR

Your morning cup of coffee probably tastes just the way you expect it to. Consistency is a valued characteristic for all coffee brands. It's one way that companies keep their customers loyal.

Folgers has 10 different tasters who make sure that every cup of coffee tastes exactly the same, but each of those tasters experiences coffee in a personalized way. That could create a lack of coffee consistency, which would be a major problem for Folgers.

That's where Tracy May Adair comes in.

Adair holds the grand title of "master coffee cupper." All of the coffee produced by Folgers is based on her master palette. This is a big responsibility: Americans drink 85 million cups of Folgers a day. Adair has trained and calibrated the palettes of the company's nine other tasters so that they experience coffee just like she does.

After all, Adair can't possibly taste every shipment of coffee beans herself. She might catch a cold or burn her mouth, and Adair admits that her palette has a few weaknesses. So to ensure consistency, the next best thing is to have other people who taste coffee like she does. Each of the tasters samples 60 to 400 cups a day.

The process of prepping the beans for sampling has to be almost perfect.

Tasters must prepare the beans exactly the same way each time they sample, so that the only variable is the quality of the beans themselves. The beans are sized, roasted, ground and brewed in 180- to 190-degree water.

Adair works in a tasting lab in Cincinnati, where she supervises fellow tasters Jody Gaynor and Jim Felner (the seven other tasters she oversees work out of a lab in New Orleans). The tasters set the coffee beans and brewed samples around a table, where they evaluate the color of the beans, as well as the taste of the brewed coffee.

The coffee-tasting experience is an exact science. The tasters dip silver bisque spoons into the coffee. Adair's spoon is engraved with her name. They bring the spoons to their lips and slurp the coffee into their mouths. The goal is to create a mist of coffee inside their mouths, as if it were perfume.

"Most of your sense of taste is your sense of smell, anyways," Adair says, "so all you're really doing when you're tasting is smelling from the inside of your nose."

The tasting sounds are so loud, they carry all the way down the hall — a strange chorus of slurps and trills. "Someone here described slurping as the same as the act of sucking one strand of spaghetti into your mouth," Adair says. "If you ever did that as a kid, then you know what slurping is."

All of the tasters have their own distinct slurps. Adair says hers is "usually described as a high-pitched, Brazilian-style slurp. It is true that I hear much more of the high-pitched, louder slurping when I'm in Brazil."

Felner's slurp is shorter and medium-bodied.

Gaynor says that her slurp changes depending on the type of coffee she tastes.

Adair has been slurping coffee for 13 years, and she has been the master for nine years.

"It's pretty much what your mother tells you not to do at the dinner table: Don't slurp, don't spit, don't drool. Sometimes we dribble a little, it can be messy," she says. "It's not very ladylike, that's true."

She makes no apologies for that.

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