This nose knows coffee

  • Article by: PETER FUNK , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 9, 2012 - 1:45 PM

Patrick Dinkins' daily grind is anything but. The expert taster spends his days immersed in his passion: coffee.

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Patrick Dinkins, the roast master at Cameron's Coffee iin Shakopee, has such a sensitive palate that he can identify where a coffee comes from — down to the bean.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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Patrick Dinkins sips a spoonful of coffee with a loud slurp, then pauses. As he rinses his tasting spoon, he launches into an analysis.

"It's still kind of sweet. There are still some of those caramelly, chocolaty notes in there," he said. "It's got fairly nice body to it. The acidity is really muted."

Most coffee drinkers don't put this much thought into their morning brew. As long as it's hot and plentiful, they're happy.

Not Dinkins.

As a licensed Q Grader, one of only about 240 in the country, he's been trained to evaluate and score the quality of coffee from raw bean to finished product. His palate is sensitive enough to determine where a coffee was grown and how it was roasted, as well as the individual flavor components in each coffee.

"I can tell if there's Centrals in there," Dinkins said about his ability to pinpoint the origin of a bean to Central America. "I can tell if there are Brazils in there. Brazils are very distinct."

Now one of the kings of coffee tasting, Dinkins started out working in the warehouse and making deliveries for a local coffee company.

"I found that working with coffee can be a real challenge -- whether it's sourcing the best green [coffee beans] or figuring out how to roast a particular coffee to get the most of out it -- and I do like a challenge," he said.

In 10 years' time, Dinkins worked his way up, eventually arriving at his current role as roast master and quality lead for Cameron's Coffee in Shakopee.

Dinkins tests every batch to ensure that Cameron's various blends and roasts taste the same nationwide. That means he typically does 10 to 20 tastings a day. Just how much coffee does that add up to?

"A lot," Dinkins said with a smile. He brushes away questions about coffee jitters, but admits that he drinks coffee every day, even outside of work.

"If I don't have it in the morning, it definitely affects me," he said.

Cupping a cuppa

Dinkins spends his days not tasting, but "cupping," that's how a grader evaluates the quality of brewed coffee. For the 46-year-old Winstead man, it involves the collaborative effect of smell and taste.

"When I grind the coffee [beans], or when I smell them, I can definitely pick it up if there's something wrong," he said. "Then when I get to the taste, it's amplified."

And he's meticulous in his process.

He weighs out 9 grams of consistently ground coffee beans, heats the water to 200 degrees, pours the water over the coffee, and lets it steep for four minutes. He then continuously tastes the product as it goes from hot to cold, because the flavor can change as the coffee cools.

"There's a certain amount of science to it, and there is a certain amount of art to it," Dinkins said.

It is pretty easy for Dinkins to tell if something is off.

"Each roast level tastes a little bit different. Each blend tastes a little bit different, so I know in my head what they should taste like," he said. "If there is something wrong, it shows up."

Just one bad bean can send an alarm to his taste buds. In a recent comparison of Brazilian light roast samples, he detected a "grassy," almost fermented note in one batch. He attributed the off taste to a single bean.

Training and passion

Dinkins' certification put him on the same page with some of the world's best coffee graders.

Getting there wasn't easy.

While anyone can enroll in the five-day course through the California-based Coffee Quality Institute, those who pass the rigorous final test to become a Q Grader have years of experience in the business and an expertise in cupping. Even then, a majority of students don't pass on the first try, according to Alexandra Katona-Carroll, program manager.

In one of the most difficult portions of the test, three samples of brewed coffee were set out to cup, two of which were the same. Dinkins had to select the sample that was different. To make it even more challenging, the lab was illuminated with red lights, so students couldn't let the coffee's color inform their decision.

It takes, said Katona-Carroll, "a lot of practice within the industry and a lot of practice with your senses, understanding taste and perception of taste."

Dinkins brings not only perception, but also passion.

"If you were to meet 100 people who are passionate about coffee, Patrick would be the top of the list," Bill Kirkpatrick, owner of Cameron's Coffee, said via e-mail. "Patrick has the training and natural abilities to break apart coffee aroma and tastes. You may taste coffee and think 'This is very good.' Patrick can tell why."

That's why Cameron's takes care to protect one of its most valuable assets: Dinkins' nose.

"We never send him into our flavoring room. ... We don't have him cup flavored coffee, because it would mess up his senses," said Chris Castillon, vice president of operations. "We have to be careful about that. If he has a cold, we have to account for that."

For his part, Dinkins is more than happy to drink coffee all day. He has only one requirement: It has to be good.

"Life's too short to drink bad coffee," he said.

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