Columbia Street Roastery hosts free monthly coffee tastings

Photo by Greg Gancarz | Palate training session participants learn to “break the crust” of freshly-brewed coffee grounds at Columbia Street Roastery in Champaign.

Photo by Greg Gancarz |
Palate training session participants learn to “break the crust” of freshly-brewed coffee grounds at Columbia Street Roastery in Champaign.

Greg Gancarz


Local family-owned coffee retailer and roaster Columbia Street Roastery has recently incorporated several free classes for the community on coffee cupping and palate training.

These classes were started in the hope of “[educating] people about coffee and [helping] them realize not all coffee is the same,” said John Herriott, a managing family member and who runs the company’s Chicagoland operations.

Two classes are currently being offered: a monthly cupping session and a monthly palate training event. A brewing class will also be available to the community in October. It will cover how to brew coffee using a variety of methods such as the French press, pour overs and the AeroPress according to Herriott.

Currently, the cupping class is scheduled for every third Saturday each month. The palate training session is scheduled the second Saturday of each month. Both events begin at 10 a.m.

“The cupping session is more of an intro to the world of coffee,” Herriott said. “We walk through the steps it takes for coffee to get from the farm level all the way to us. From processing, to milling, to shipping and how all those little steps effect the flavor of the cup of coffee. After that we cup coffees from around the world to allow people to hopefully try coffees they [have] never had before.”

By contrast, Herriott says the palate training sessions go a step above.

“It’s focused just on tasting coffee,” he said. “The discussions are about the different smells and flavors people are picking up in the coffee. We use the food to help better identify what people think they are tasting and smelling.”

Participants in the palate training sessions sample various food items with ingredients ranging from chocolate chips to blackberries and even green beans, in addition to the coffees. The selected coffees used for the session vary in flavor as much as their origins and are imported from every major coffee-producing region in the world.

Beans range from regions as well-known as a classic Colombian to more exotic Sumatran beans.

Participants of the palate training session are first encouraged to attempt to identify broad flavors and traits of each different coffee, before delving into more precise descriptions and flavor notes.  Herriott and co-roaster Erik Stanek had coffee tasters attempt to pinpoint specific flavor components like strawberry or lemon, rather than simply sweet or sour.

“There are no wrong answers,” Stanek said.

For Stanek, the recent Sumatran coffee the Roastery received resembled tropical fruit juice, “but it’s a little different for everyone,” he says.

“The biggest obstacle people have is identifying what they are tasting in the coffee,” Herriott said. “Many times, people will say, ‘It tastes like something but I can’t put my finger on it.’ The class is set up to help people identify the different flavor notes by having actual food items there to taste and smell to help identify what they think they are tasting in the coffee. It makes coffee more interesting and fun.”

Stanek says there are many factors that affect a coffee’s flavor and made a point to note the complexities. Wines for example, have around 300 possible flavors detected in various blends. Coffees have over 600.

“Coffee is a little more complex in our eyes than wine is,” Stanek said.

Stanek says the greatest factors that affect a coffee’s flavor profile are conditions associated with the farm, like the soil, climate, and elevation.

“The higher elevation you get, the more dense coffees become because the plant has to deal less with heat and pest issues,” Stanek said. “Because you’re higher on the mountain it’s cooler, which allows that bean to mature more properly and have higher density of sugars, which then creates a more complex coffee…That all plays a role in what that coffee tastes like.”

Processing is also a major factor in flavor according to Stanek. One factor is how and if the beans are washed and dried, which affects sugars present on the bean—which affect flavor.

Stanek says buying coffee fresh is a must when it comes to preserving all of the “delicious, delicate” flavors that the Roastery strives to emphasize.

“Store bought coffee is going to be roasted, at minimum, a month ago if it’s just the big brands. It could be even longer. We’re the only place that roasts coffee locally. Additionally, we just think that we roast good coffee. We like to think that we know what we’re doing. We’ve been around for over 20 years so we have a lot of experience when it comes to roasting coffee,” says Stanek.

“There really isn’t anything wrong with getting your coffee from the super market,” Herriott said. “But if you care about quality and freshness then you should go to the source. We roast coffee daily so you know the coffee is fresh and not stale. Plus, we will be able to help guide you to one you will like and hopefully a new coffee to try.”

The roastery’s coffees are chosen based off more than just what the proprietors think tastes good or what is selling. Both Herriott and Stanek have personally travelled to multiple source farms to get to know farmers.

“One of the big things we want to do is to make sure we know who we are buying from,” Herriott said. “It has taken me to places like Colombia, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Nicaragua. Coffee has taken me places I normally would not even think of going, which is pretty cool. I get to see a side of the world most people don’t.”

The Herriotts have been active business operators in the Champaign-Urbana area for almost 70 years. They try to make a positive impact in the community through things like their work with Misericordia in Chicago.

“They are an organization that works with adults with developmental disabilities. We have a coffee program with Misericordia where we hire their residents to package our wholesale orders for our Chicagoland accounts,” says Herriott.

But for residents closer to the Champaign area, Columbia Street Roastery is just a good place for coffee.

“It’s really cool. It’s like they’ve got a coffee for every taste out there. I think whatever mood you’re in, or whatever you’re in the mood for, they’ve got a coffee that will be what you’re looking for,” says James, a local Parkland student who attended the palate training event.

Overall, Herriott says it’s great to come to the events to build upon a passion if nothing else.

“It’s always fun to try new things and expand your horizons,” Herriott said. “Everyone geeks out on something, video games, sports, wines, whatever…If you like coffee even a little bit, it’s fun to geek out with us and gain an appreciation for everything that goes into making it.”