I thought I’d share my favorite top ten tips for putting on a great coffee tasting at Starbucks.

I have been to many coffee tastings – many more than get blogged about on this website.  I don’t work for Starbucks, and obviously I’m not a coffee master, but based on my experiences, here are my top 10 tips for a great coffee tasting experience:

1.  Try food with the coffee before you do a public tasting:

This is really quite important.  I’ve been to coffee tastings where food was paired with coffees, and it was clear to me that the partners did not try the food out first before holding a large public event.  I recall one time I was talking about coffee tastings with a Starbucks partner at Olive Way, and he made this comment to me (not verbatim), “Melody, when I do a coffee tasting, I want the flavors of the food to really enhance the experience of the coffee, and it shouldn’t be just ‘here’s a great coffee’ and ‘here’s a great food.’  The food should bring out some flavors in the coffee.’”  That’s exactly right.

Occasionally, if a partner hasn’t tried the pairing before doing the event, he or she may discover that the pairing really does not work.  I once went to a coffee tasting where a partner paired a food with an extremely strong curry flavor, with a Blue Java coffee.  The curry was over-powering to the coffee: Curry and Indonesian Blue Java don’t really go together.

2.  Smell the coffee.  Open up the bag, and let everyone smell the beans:

I was recently at a coffee event where a partner had about 6 people present, and passed around an unopened bag of a new Reserve coffee.  He made the comment that it smells like vanilla and floral notes.  We never actually smelled the beans.  Actually, at the time, I didn’t think much about that.  Several days after this coffee tasting, I dropped by my neighborhood Starbucks (at 7th and Pike), and a partner who knows me well said, “Melody, you’ve got to smell this new coffee we just got in! It’s like vanilla and flowers!”  And suddenly it hit me that it would have been a very nice touch to have passed around an open bag of coffee; not a closed, new bag.

Furthermore, it is worthwhile to look at the beans and explore how it is roasted.  Does it look oily and shiny?  Is it a little lighter?  While these things might seem mundane to you, for your customers who don’t know much about coffee, this is part of the learning process.

3.  Do not rush through the standardized four steps of a tasting.  Know these four steps backwards and forwards:

The four steps of a Starbucks coffee tasting are (1) smell (2) slurp (3) locate and (4) describe.  Over and over again, I’ve watched partners rush through the four steps with a coffee tasting.  Frankly, as the partner is standing there talking about the coffee and the steps, the coffee has a little bit of a chance to cool off too!  It’s very nice to not burn yourself!  And many people will have more than one slurp.  In my experience, many partners blur steps 3 and 4 together.  They rush through the slurp, and don’t explain that there is a purpose in spraying the coffee all over the palate.  And many partners jump right to, “What do you taste?” and have almost no conversation thinking about locating where you’re experiencing these flavors on your tongue.  Don’t rush this, and go through each step individually.  And don’t worry about a short awkward silence.  Give your audience a little time to come up with a description.

4.  Speak loudly, clearly, and slowly:

Since in a coffee tasting you’re speaking to a group, you may need to up the volume of your voice a bit.  And a typical Starbucks is a bit noisy anyways, so the partner has to compete with that too.  As a customer, I’ve been to a few tastings where it was hard to hear the partners.

5.  Be knowledgeable about your coffee:

Be able to speak to what’s special about how this coffee is processed, where it is grown, and how that affects its flavors.  Once in a while, I see partners boasting that the blonde coffees are very ‘high caffeine,’ more so than any other coffee.  It is true that the blonde roasting process results in each bean retaining a little more caffeine than its dark roast counterpart; however, the difference is negligible.

6.  Avoid, where possible, a coffee tasting that involves just one single coffee:

It is a best practice to always taste and compare.  Learn the distinct differences between an African coffee and a Latin American coffee.  Sometimes when there is not much time, you’ll just want to prepare a single French press of coffee.  But it is really important for the palate’s education to experience the flavors of a couple of different coffees.  For example, it’s incredibly interesting to do something like compare a Reserve coffee – such as Sumatra Tapanuli – next to a core coffee, such as the core Sumatra.  Granted, as I mentioned, this is not written in stone, but the value of comparison cannot be understated.  Of course, making a quick French press of one coffee, and exploring the flavors of that coffee is better than nothing at all.

7.  Be creative.

It is totally valuable to try a coffee tasting that focuses on comparing coffee differences by brew methods, or compares a Via Ready Brew coffee with its whole bean counterpart.  For example, I was at a Starbucks in Park Ridge, Illinois where the coffee tasting compared Pike Place Roast prepared by several different brew methods.  I really don’t like Pike Place Roast, which made the experience a little less enjoyable for me; however, having said that, I give that partner huge kudos for trying a unique coffee tasting, and exploring something extremely important:  how brew method affects flavor.  Another extremely creative coffee tasting example was the “Butter” coffee tasting with Anniversary Blend that I wrote about last year.

8.  End the coffee tasting by inviting the customer to buy a bag of coffee:

Ultimately what you want to do is sell coffee.  There’s no doubt about that.  If you’ve got six customers who have just spent up to twenty or thirty minutes paying attention to your coffee event, don’t miss that opportunity to ask if they want to take a bag home with them.  It seems like some partners are little uncomfortable ending with a strong closing.  But your coffee event is helping to develop and grow your store’s whole bean customers, and so don’t just end with a ‘Thanks for coming. Good Bye’ without suggesting to your customers that they can take a pound (or half-pound if it is a Reserve offering) home with them.

9.  Absolutely know the Starbucks rewards as they relate to buying a pound of coffee or a half-pound of Reserve coffee:

You’ve just suggested to your customer that they should buy coffee.  The customer has said, ‘yes.’  This is great.  This person is going to help your store’s whole bean sales. ASK if they have a registered Starbucks card.  Take the initiative – you will look like the superstar.  There is nothing more disappointing than going through a great coffee event, and then getting to the register with my Seattle City Starbucks Card and bag of beans, having a partner say, ‘You have to use your Gold card‘ or ‘You only get a brewed coffee.’  Getting told wrong information about buying whole bean and paying with a registered Starbucks card, while at a Starbucks coffee event, is just frustrating.  There is no requirement that you use the Gold card to get any perk (you can earn stars with any registered card) and a Starbucks.com/card profile only has to be at the “Green” level to get a free tall beverage.

If you think about it, any customer who has just sat through thirty minutes of your event has already shown some motivation to be a loyal whole bean buyer.  Likely, they’ve got a registered card.  If not, plug the card.  Starbucks boasts over 3 million ACTIVE registered card holders.  Starbucks defines “active” as having had one swipe in the past 12 months on the Starbucks.com/card profile.  Since it only takes five swipes to get to “Green” level, it is likely that the overwhelming majority of those over 3 million customers are indeed “Green.”

The register will automatically deduct the price of a tall beverage when the customer pays for one pound of coffee (or half-pound of Reserve) using a card at the Green level or higher.  There is NO requirement that the customer be at the Gold level.  (I realize I said that twice, but I constantly see partners confused about this – even in Seattle.)  If there are well over 3 million active Starbucks card holders; that is a lot of people who are  likely at the Green level or higher.

10.  For your own personal coffee education, explore many roasters:

Despite that this blog is entirely about Starbucks, I’ve always said that you can’t really know a lot about coffee if you only drink one roaster’s coffee.  Try lots of coffee.  Experience lots of coffees.  For a premium coffee roasted at the lighter end of the spectrum, Velton Ross produces amazing coffees.  Intelligentsia also has a variety of superb, premium single-origin coffees.  Here in Seattle, I admit that I like dropping by Diva Espresso now and then, too – more great coffee.

I recently started a Coffee Tasting category, so click here to find some past coffee events highlighted on this site.

So those are my top ten tips to think about if you are holding a coffee event at Starbucks.

It is your turn now:  What would you add to the list?

(Image of coffee cups courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.)