Four samples of coffee alongside a laptop computer

Has the pandemic put a slight cramp in the development of your sensory skills? The new normal has a solution for that: virtual coffee tastings where you can try coffees along with world-class tasters from the safety of your own home. Leave behind the stress of cupping spoon germs, and feel free to bring along your digital friends.

Subscription-only New York roaster Driftaway Coffee just launched a virtual coffee tasting experience, bringing a personal and interactive touch to the company's already popular coffee sample kits. Though the roasting company has always been virtual, it found a need to pivot even as online coffee companies like theirs saw business booming during lockdown.

“We've always been e-commerce only, no shops, no wholesale,” says Driftaway co-founder Suyog Mody, who launched Driftaway with life partner Anu Menon in 2013. “Back in March and April when things were crazy in New York, we were wondering if we should even stay open. And then we realized that we can and probably should, because more and more customers will need good coffee at home.” Mody says that the idea of facilitating virtual tastings was piloted in 2017, but interest wasn't there. Today, alongside former World Brewers Cup Champion James McCarthy, who joined Driftaway as its Coffee Educator this year, the concept has come back to life at just the right time.

Virtual Tasting Box

Before now, any new Driftaway subscriber was sent a kit with the roaster's four different blend profiles—Fruity, Classic, Bold, and Balanced. Through tasting on their own, they would decide which kind of coffees they'd like to get more of. But now, eager learners can get a little personal palate practice, too, with the guidance of McCarthy.

McCarthy is guiding a series of tastings for up to five people at a time, providing either one-on-one sessions or hosting a more social interaction with the coffee friends or family that 2020 has kept you distant from.

Private Virtual Tasting

“It's a continual kind of building, the connection between taste and smell and that language center of your brain,” says McCarthy about learning to develop a palate—and the vocabulary that comes along with it. And though it's not the same as the in-person education sessions he's led in the past, he says there are benefits to the smaller online group setting, too.

“It's really neat that I'm getting to talk about coffee with people who are not coffee professionals, but people who are kind of maybe just getting into coffee—they're my favorite kind of people to teach about coffee,” says McCarthy. “I'm able to come to them where they are, and ask a lot of questions about their individual coffee routine,” he says.

In addition to the private classes, McCarthy will also be hosting occasional Instagram Live guided tastings for Driftaway subscribers to guide them through their sample kits, and encourage deeper interactions with their tasting experiences as they explore what flavor profiles they like best. Often, says McCarthy, people are surprised at what they end up liking.

“The biggest surprise has been that people chose a different coffee [during the tastings] than the one they chose for their subscription,” says McCarthy. “I think it has been really revelatory for people. We can all kind of get into taste habits where we say ‘yeah, I like Fruity, that's my jam,' and then they find some stuff about the Balanced one that they really enjoy. That has been really neat.”

Virtual tasting sessions with McCarthy are priced at $100 per person, with $35 for each additional screen up to five guests. The sessions are an hour, and the cost includes the sample tasting kit—and grind size sample—that each participant will be using. The goal, Mody says, “is 100% to taste and connect with your family over coffee and learn more about how coffees can taste relative to each other.” But if some people decide to become longtime customers because they have such a great coffee journey with McCarthy? That's okay with Mody, too.

Liz Clayton is Associate Editor at Sprudge Media Network.

Photos courtesy Driftaway Coffee.