Imagine working in a field that requires you not to smoke or take alcohol because your taste buds are your greatest tools of trade.
That is the life Mr Chuaga Kinuthia has lived for nine years, honing his skills in coffee tasting, a job that does not attract many young Kenyans.
The 34-year-old works at the Dedan Kimathi University of Technology’s (DeKut) Institute of Food Bio-resources Technology as a coffee technologist.
Besides training the students on how to roast, grind and cup coffee at the university, he also trains farmers and cups their coffee, which helps earn more from their produce, depending on the quality of their crop.
Mr Kinuthia believes it is a profession that requires all the five sensory organs functioning well, but most importantly, the tongue.
“I have always had a very strong sense of smell since I started working on a coffee farm with my parents at a very young age and it was not only for coffee, but the distinct smell of perfumes,” he narrates.
Mr Kinuthia spends most of his time in a laboratory overlooking Aberdares and Mt Kenya ranges, tutoring students in coffee technology.
He says although the course is gaining popularity in the local market, coffee tasters in the country are few.
Coffee tasting or cupping is where one gets to understand basic tastes of coffee and quality control, which involves working in a coffee lab to grade and cup the coffee beans.
“Cupping is a method of evaluating the different characteristics of a particular coffee, which allows one to compare one type of coffee with another as you gain an understanding of the origin of each,” Mr Kinuthia says. Coffee is tasted on the basis of individual merits, ranging from the basic form to the finer points, he adds.
After harvesting, coffee berries are classified into seven grades ranging from the premium grades that is AA, AB and PB followed by C, T, E and then Mbuni.
Coffee also helps inform farmers where the premium grades will fetch them good money when they want to sell their coffee.
After receiving coffee samples from a wet mill, Mr Kinuthia says, the first step is to measure the moisture content, which should range from 10 to 12 per cent before milling and then medium roasting the coffee beans.
After roasting, he pours the now dark brown coffee beans from a grinder onto a small bowl. The result is added to boiling water to allow the ground beans to infuse for approximately three minutes and then breaking the crust, which means clearing the infusion of the ground coffee.
Slurping is the next stage, and it entails taking a spoonful of the infusion and inhaling it through the mouth. “Once I inhale the coffee, I have to ensure it hits the roof of my mouth to tickle my tongue and then fall to the back of my mouth to create a vapour that stimulates my sense of smell,” he said.
This is followed by sipping different brews of coffee, which involves using the sections of the tongue that differentiate between sweet, sour, bitter and salty. This helps break down the flavour molecules into smaller particle, so that they can be detected by the taste buds.
He says the importance of having the taste buds in the right sense is because the taste buds are usually destroyed by strong food tastes — pepper and other chemical compounds that one can get into contact with.
“One must avoid foods with very strong flavours, drinks with very high alcohol content or anything that can alter the taste buds,” he cautions
The importance of slurping coffee is to measure its oiliness, sweetness, acidity, flavour and the after-taste.
“This is one of the well-paying jobs because we have very few coffee tasters,” says the professional cupper, who has been certified by the Coffee Directorate of Kenya and the Coffee Quality Institute of America as a “Q grader”.
Graders can work in the many coffee-related firms in the country.