Perhaps you have already heard someone who, after sipping a cup of coffee, begins to describe the taste of the drink with great wisdom. And maybe you found his words difficult to understand because they interpret the most complex characteristic of coffee: its flavor.
However, even if it is quite complicated for those who approach this technique for the first time, there are some basic rules that can be learned without too much difficulty.
First of all, there are two essential prerequisites for learning to taste coffee: having your taste buds well trained and being curious. Also, it’s important to feel comfortable when it comes to coffee. All of this takes time and continuous practice.
Before serving their first cup of coffee to a customer, professional bartenders spend a lot of time carefully analyzing the flavor of different types of coffee. Tasting something by focusing on its flavor is a simple practice that brings a lot of joy, but it’s also a skill that usually takes a long time to develop.
The aromas of coffee
- 1 The aromas of coffee
- 1.1 Coffee Tasting Method – A Step-By-Step Guide
- 1.1.1 1. Tasting as a reflective practice
- 1.1.2 2. Taste it slowly
- 1.1.3 3. Ask yourself questions
- 1.1.4 4. Write down the answers
- 1.1.5 5. Tasting methods
- 1.1.6 6. Assess the body (or thickness)
- 1.1.7 7. Evaluate the acidity
- 1.1.8 8. Indulge in taste
- 1.1.9 9. Sweetness: if you really can't live without it
- 1.1.10 10. The Final Verdict
- 1.1.11 11. In Great Harmony
- 1.1.12 12. Don't stop at the surface
- 1.1.13 13. Ask for what you like the most
- 1.1 Coffee Tasting Method – A Step-By-Step Guide
There are more than 800 aromatic compounds in coffee! Their concentration and their nature determine the aromas that will emerge from the coffee and therefore to a large extent its personality.
The aromas are organized by aromatic families: we are talking about dominant fruity, sweet, spicy, woody, floral, vegetal, animal, or milky tastes that are discovered during the tasting.
To identify them more easily, these families and aromas have been grouped together to form the aroma wheel (also used for wine, tea, etc.).
Here is the wheel of coffee aromas developed by the Specialty Coffee Association of America, one of the references in the field. It helps to put a name to the aromas encountered during a coffee tasting.
Coffee Tasting Method – A Step-By-Step Guide
Espresso is the technique best able to reveal all the nuances and aromatic complexity of coffee. This is the one adopted by amateurs and connoisseurs. Afterward, if in the morning you prefer a long filter of coffee, that is also understandable! Stronger in caffeine, it will be less strong in taste, which can be appreciable to start the day. I always say: “the best coffee is the one you like”.
1. Tasting as a reflective practice
So what is the first step to cultivating this practice? If you want to aim for perfection, choose a quiet, distraction-free setting because the best way to start tasting is to simply slow down and pay attention to what’s in front of you. In our case, focus on the cup of coffee in front of you and forget about emails, chats, and, in general, any source of distraction that is usually around you. During the tasting, the protagonists are just the two of you: you and your coffee.
2. Taste it slowly
Once you’ve found the right spot and everything around you is enveloped in maximum peace and quiet, start sipping your coffee. It should be done slowly, allowing your taste buds to perceive as many nuances as possible. With time and practice, you will find that these characteristic notes will become more and more until you can grasp every detail.
3. Ask yourself questions
After tasting a few sips, start asking yourself these questions: What does it taste like? Why do I like it? What do I rather dislike?
There is no right or wrong answer to these questions. It’s a way to learn some useful concepts and build your tasting vocabulary more and more, helping you formulate a more precise answer every time.
This applies to both hot drinks and cold coffee.
4. Write down the answers
Once done, write down your answers immediately. The purpose of this practice is twofold. On the one hand, it is an incentive to notice always different aspects, thus developing your sensory spectrum. On the other hand, you learn a method to keep track of it.
5. Tasting methods
It is a common practice to divide the tasting experience into five categories: body, acidity, flavor, and final verdict and sweetness.
When you start enjoying a coffee, experts suggest choosing one of these five categories and paying close attention to how a coffee expresses itself through it. Below, you’ll find a brief description of each taste aspect, along with some simple exercises you can try at home to deepen your understanding.
6. Assess the body (or thickness)
This category serves to make us think about the weight and the sensation generated by the coffee on the tongue. If you drink beer, you might notice a difference between the heavier consistency of a stout and the lighter consistency of a pilsner.
Even if you enjoy drinking other types of beverages, such as milk, you can inspire yourself to understand the concept of the body closely. Try sipping whole milk, semi-skimmed milk, and completely fat-free milk, and notice how the body changes in your mouth. Depending on the type, you will have the feeling of tasting a more or less light and more or less consistent drink.
7. Evaluate the acidity
The concept of acidity is much closer to common experience and stimulates many already known mental associations, although for most people not all of them are positive. However, with coffee, it goes far beyond the usual practice.
We speak precisely of a complex acidity, or “luminosity”, which represents a distinctive sign of some of the most sought-after coffees. You can practice thinking about the range of acidities by comparing your positive perceptions of certain types of food. Try comparing, for example, grapefruit with lemon and lime. Natural yogurt also contains acidic components, causing a strong characteristic sensation on your tongue.
8. Indulge in taste
This is where you can let your imagination run wild. The main thing is to create a sort of “personal library” to be used each time to make taste references. Try the different types of wines. Taste chocolate, milk, and dark chocolate and, with regard to the latter, catalog your different perceptions according to the percentage of cocoa contained.
Explore new flavors, savoring fruits and vegetables you may not have tried before. Attend local farmers’ markets. Treat yourself to new recipes that will delight parents and friends, and in addition, will open up new taste horizons.
And, of course, jot it all down in your journal. Take notes on the memories that certain foods and smells evoke for you. If a flavor reminds you of the icing on a birthday cake you had as a kid, or your grandpa’s smoky biker vest, you’re doing just fine.
9. Sweetness: if you really can't live without it
We already know that at this time the coffee purists will raise a chorus of protests. What? Sweeten the coffee? Never! Any self-respecting connoisseur must taste it bitter: how else can you feel all those subtle nuances that we have described so far.
However, there’s no denying that even sweetened, quality coffee still has its own reason. The important thing is to add the same amount of sweetener each time, whether you’re making it with your home coffee maker, using specialty machines like the French press, or enjoying it at the bar. How many do you put in? One or two spoons? Tablespoons or teaspoons? Never change.
In terms of sweeteners too, you have a particularly wide range of flavors, which goes far beyond the usual cane sugar. Molasses, honey, maple syrup… try tasting them in sequence and think about what makes them different. They are all sweet but in their own way.
10. The Final Verdict
The last category is about everything that happens after your sip of coffee is “finished”. What taste or sensation is left in your mouth? What is your last impression? There are coffees that end on a well-defined and lingering note, while others dissipate very quickly.
Practice thinking about the sensations of a square of dark chocolate and a square of milk chocolate in your mouth. Which one do you prefer? Why? Again, don’t forget to write it down.
11. In Great Harmony
Each of these five categories is present in every cup, and within each category, you can also rate how present and enjoyable they are. Not all sweetness is pleasant and not all sourness is unpleasant. Ask yourself if a characteristic you have perceived is positive or negative and to what extent it represents an important component of tasting for you.
12. Don't stop at the surface
As you hone your perceptive abilities, you are driven to go further and further. For example, you can get into the deepest notes of taste, analyzing other aspects such as quality and intensity.
In this regard, it can be useful to read the opinions of expert tasters in various blogs. From their observations, you will be able to draw interesting ideas to refine your techniques, always discovering new techniques that you can keep for yourself and use in a very personal way.
13. Ask for what you like the most
The most interesting aspect of these five categories is that they can be applied to any type of food that you taste. Honey. Olive oil. Strawberries. Grilled chicken. It’s about understanding what you perceive with each snack and then describing it in words.
Next time you go to the cafe, don’t just order a coffee. Talk to the bartender and try to tell him what you like to perceive in this drink. If that helps, get out your notebook and look for ideas. Under your instructions, the bartender will be able to offer you the coffee you like.
It holds about 60-70% of the coffee market. Originally from the mountains of Yemen and Ethiopia, this variety is cultivated all over the world. As crops are often found high up on steep slopes, farmers often have to resort to manual harvesting. This feature is a guarantee of superior quality.
It has a very complex taste with multiple aromatic connotations.
It is considered less strong than Arabica and has a lower level of bitterness and acidity. Although it originated in Ethiopia, Vietnam has far surpassed it in becoming the largest exporter in the world. Compared to Arabica, it is much easier to grow due to its disease resistance and higher yield. It is often cultivated even at lower altitudes, allowing mechanical harvesting.
It has a higher caffeine content than Arabica and has a mild aromatic overtone with distinct chocolate notes.
Originally from Liberia along the Atlantic coast, it is now grown mainly in the Philippines in a sub-variety known as ‘barako’. Due to its limited supply, it is considered a rare commodity. It has a “woody”, full-bodied, and extremely dense flavor.
Enjoy your coffee like a pro
There you go, you know how to taste a coffee like a pro. Remember that every coffee is different and therefore every tasting will be too. The sensory experience is endless!
Want to discover our coffee training?
If you are interested in the sensory analysis of a coffee, I invite you to visit the Coffee School page to discover the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) certifications, during which you will learn how to taste a coffee and become a real Barista.
Let yourself be caught up in the game of coffee tasting and tell us in the comments how you feel!
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