Maestro of java keeps it tongue-in-cheek

Gennaro Pelliccia
PHOTO: Gennaro Pelliccia

In 2009, Gennaro Pelliccia's tongue was insured for 10 million pounds - a quarter of what David Beckham's legs were reportedly worth.

It isn't insured anymore, but the point of it back then was to show how the art of tasting coffee was about as intricate a skill as that of, say, a master perfumer or a wine taster. As the Master of Coffee at the UK chain Costa Coffee, Mr Pelliccia's job is just that: to distinguish the nuances in coffee flavours and ensure the quality of the blends created at the chain's main roasting plant in London.

Together with his team, one of his main jobs is to sample infusions of the Costa blends and ensure their quality is consistent before allowing them to be distributed to stores all over the world.

"It's not as easy as it sounds," says the 39-year-old who grew up in Naples,Italy, and has been working with Costa for 23 years. He first started as a barista at the Gatwick airport outlet while he was studying in university in 1991, and gradually worked his way up to be where he is today.

"With a natural product that varies seasonally and year after year, we have to switch and change some components because things like harvest, rainfall, sunlight and soil affect the coffee, much like grapes do for wines," he explains.

Earlier this week, Mr Pelliccia was in Singapore to hold masterclasses with Costa's baristas and more than 60 consumers to teach them the right techniques involved in making a cup of coffee. For the enthusiast, he says the most important thing about making coffee is to understand the "flavour spectrum" of the coffee being used, so that you can gauge the right amount of water to use when brewing. "If you use too much water for too little coffee, the coffee will release all the undesirable notes," he adds.


Also, don't over-roast your beans because "coffee has a very wide spectrum of flavours and you can taste them if you roast them correctly," he says. "But no matter how good the coffee, if you burn it, it will taste the same - burnt. But people actually do it because while you lose the desirable notes, you lose some of the negative ones. If the coffee is mediocre, you roast it dark and nobody will notice - it will just taste burnt."

Mr Pelliccia believes that anyone can cultivate their tongue to be as discerning as his own. However, it requires practice, "so I'm constantly training, working and practising - I can't stop because if I do, I'll be taken over," he adds.

Of course, Mr Pelliccia has strict rules to follow before each tasting session - no spicy food, get enough rest, no strong perfumes and even the time of day needs to be taken into consideration. For example, he cannot do a tasting after a heavy lunch lest his tastebuds become too saturated with flavours from his food, and his body is too sluggish from digesting them. And he follows these rules to the letter.

"There're lots of things I have to do to make sure my ability to taste is constant. Because the most important thing at my job is consistency. Both in my tasting and the product. I need to make sure that no matter where you are, and whatever drink you buy, you'll get the same thing all over the world."

And if you follow his advice, your own coffee will be consistently good as well.