For many of us, coffee is a crucial part of the working week.
We say we couldn’t function without it. If coffee weren’t readily available as fuel for our early mornings, late night study sessions and Sunday hangovers, we’d be lost. Yet, how well do you know your favorite coffee? Which flavors are strongest? Are there any notes you can only pick up in its aroma?
It might surprise you to know coffee tasting is a culinary art form just like red wine or malt whiskey tasting.
With a little patience and high quality beans, you can discover a world of unexpected flavors in your next cup of joe. Don’t believe me? Let me teach you the techniques so you can try it for yourself.
Welcome to the World of Coffee Tasting
Learning how to taste coffee doesn’t take a great deal of skill.
It’s not an overly complex process. What some people struggle with is slowing down.
Like wine tasting, coffee tasting only works if you take time to really savor the experience. We’re all so used to drinking stimulants to keep us awake as we rush from responsibility to responsibility that we’ve forgotten how to just…enjoy coffee.
Slowing down, focusing on the experience and applying simple tasting techniques will heighten your senses.
It will enable you to detect intoxicating flavors you never thought possible in coffee such as apple, blueberry, pineapple and lemon. What’s more, it will open your mind to the power of simple, mindful experiences such as slowing down to appreciate the flavors of a drink or meal.
Developing a Sense of Taste
The majority of people don’t fully taste their beverages.
While drinking and tasting may feel like the same thing, they’re not. If you’ve ever been to a wine tasting class, you could have a head start on some of my basic tips.
If you haven’t, don’t worry. It’s just about honing in on finer details to uncover secrets behind big, bold flavors.
Movements and methods designed for tasting can seem unusual at first. It may take significantly longer to finish a cup of coffee than it does normally. Try to embrace this – you don’t need to do it every day – and give your taste buds plenty of time to turn the natural chemicals in your coffee into identifiable flavors.
One of the easiest ways to taste coffee is by using comparative descriptors because it’s something we do instinctively anyway.
For instance, bitter notes become ‘dark chocolate,’ tangy flavors are ‘lemon zest,’ or sugary smoothness is experienced as ‘caramel.’ On the Coffee Taster Wheel, these flavors are known by elemental identifiers such as mellow, piquant, acidy, winey or alliaceous.
Crucially though, all of these words represent flavor processes occurring in the mouth. They’re all valid.
A good question to ask when trying coffee tasting for the first time is ‘what does this remind me of?’
Yes, it’s acidic but is it acidic like a lemon or a tangy green apple? It’s bitter but bitterness like chocolate or licorice? Let words and associations flow freely. You might want to keep a notepad to hand and jot down words and phrases.
One last thing before we get started with some practical steps.
If coffee tasting with other people, don’t expect to experience the exact same flavors. You might, but it’s not a requirement. Everybody experiences things differently.
Your personal opinions are what matter for your experience.
Practical Steps for Perfect Coffee Tasting
Coffee tasting comes easiest when there are few distractions around. Find a clean and tidy table or countertop. Put away any objects with a very strong smell such as scented candles or plates of food. Similarly, if you think you might be influenced by food packets just move them out of your eye line.
Clean Your Palate
Drink a glass of water before starting. As far as the coffee itself goes, it should always be freshly ground or freshly roasted. Coffee which isn’t at peak freshness is duller with a muted flavor profile. It won’t just be harder to taste, the quality will be somewhat impaired. It’s suitable for regular drinking, of course, but not ideal for this.
Take a Big Whiff
Before you dive in for a sip, lean in and get a big waft of the coffee’s unique aromas. Smells are an integral part of coffee tasting. Breathe it in deep and allow the aromas to linger and roll around your nostrils. Ask yourself, what do these aromas remind you of? If you’ve got a notepad nearby, feel free to write your observations down.
Sip, Sup Or Slurp
There’s no right or wrong way to physically taste coffee. You can do it like the professional tasters and slowly slurp. You can sip. You can sup. It’s up to you. Try to avoid vigorously gulping. The key is to take in small amounts of coffee and allow them to fill your mouth, wash over your tongue and slowly build in intensity.
Again, ask yourself ‘what does this remind me of?’ You can use the following questions as creative triggers. Feel free to add questions of your own.
- Is it sweet or fruity?
- Is it floral/flowery or earthy/pungent?
- Is it sharp/acrid or mild/gentle?
- Is it creamy, smooth or silky?
- Is it rich and full or thin and watery?
- If acidy, what does it remind you of?
- If citrusy, what citrus fruit does it remind you of?
- Is there an aftertaste? What does this remind you of?
- Are there any flavors that seem new to you? How would you describe them?
Using the Coffee Taster Flavor Wheel
In 2016, the Speciality Coffee Association created a Coffee Taster Flavor Wheel to help experienced and amateur coffee tasters improve their tasting vocabulary.
It also teaches tasters about complementary and conflicting flavors (in a similar way to standard color wheels). It contains all of the coffee flavors that have been chemically identified by professionals so far.
It’s a great resource and worth taking a look at even if you’re only coffee tasting for entertainment and don’t plan to take it up as a hobby.
All the flavors on the Coffee Taster Flavor Wheel are there because they’ve been scientifically determined. This isn’t a wishy-washy chart put together by part-time baristas.
So, if you’re serious about learning, it’s the best place to start.
One other thing you can do to hone your skills is try tasting multiple cups of coffee in a tasting session.
Choose three high quality coffee varieties and try to describe all the differences between the three. This is something professional coffee roasters do when they’re creating new blends.
Take a sip of water and swill it around in your mouth to reset your palate before performing each new taste.