A handful of blueberries, a field of aromatic flowers, the crispness of a ripe green apple. Have you tasted these things in your coffee? I’d love to teach you how.
Don’t worry, I was a skeptic about wild coffee flavors too. For years and years, I thought that coffee just tasted like coffee. I thought baristas we’re trying to elevate coffee to a level it didn’t belong. I realized I was wrong when a cup of french press coffee blew my mind with notes of milk chocolate and crisp apple.
The world of coffee flavor is deep and diverse. There’s a lot to experience, but we don’t learn to taste coffee (or anything else) in a way that allows us to explore more rewarding realms of flavor. We have to be open to learning to taste in a new way for our senses to awaken to these flavor realms.
This is a skill that you can carry your entire life once you learn it. It’ll impact your appreciation of not only coffee but any food or beverage you encounter. This truly is a life-enriching skill. It’s not just about the coffee. It’s about consuming with intentionality, appreciation, and respect
Don’t miss out on sensory elements of your coffee that are hidden in plain sight. If you’re taking care to source and brew delicious coffee, you deserve to be able to experience it to the fullest. That’s what this coffee tasting blog series is about: bringing you to the next stage of coffee experiences.
Tasting Doesn’t Come Naturally
They don’t teach you to taste carefully in school. It’s not something you learn at restaurants. It’s rarely even considered a skill. Generally, most of us don’t know how to taste well.
Sure, we get that some cheeses taste different. We know that whole milk feels thicker than skim milk. But if we were to try to go deeper than that, we would be clueless. Thinking critically about the flavors and textures we experience simply isn’t something we learn to do naturally. It takes an intentional effort.
Learning to taste coffee is about waking up your senses. They have the ability to perceive vivid nuance flavors, but they haven’t stretch those muscles in a while. Be patient with yourself and your tongue. Anyone can learn with the right mindset and some patience.
Let’s move toward a practical method of building the tasting skill.
What Does This Remind Me Of?
Tasting is always a matter of context. Sharp cheddar cheese is sharp in relation to mild cheddar cheese. Chicken is lean compared to pork. Stale coffee is dull compared to fresh coffee.
We compare and categorize everything we experience. With a thoughtful question or two, you can learn to do this on deeper level with your coffee. Here’s my favorite:
“What does this remind me of?”
This is how all good tasting begins. Find past flavor and texture experiences that are similar to the coffee in some way. Search through your memory for something familiar and let the questions go deeper.
Does the bitterness remind you of dark chocolate or liquorice? Does the acidity remind you of a green apple or lemon? Is it sweet or dull? Let the questions flow!
Coffee doesn’t have to taste exactly like what you’re imagining. Even if that subtle caramel sweetness lasts for only a second, you’ve found a flavor descriptor to latch onto and appreciate. Well done!
If you taste lime and someone else tastes pineapple, there’s no reason to fret. Our palates are shaped by our experiences (to some degree), so it’s only natural that we taste different things.
As you taste more coffees and your senses awaken, you’ll be able to pick up on more and more flavors, your descriptors will become more specific, and your overall appreciation of delicious, fresh coffee will increase.
The Tasting Process
Tasting works best when you have a clean environment and palate. Drink a glass of water. Move anything that gives off an aroma that could distract you. Clear everything off the table so you can focus without distractions.
Make sure you’re always starting with freshly roasted and freshly ground coffee. If your coffee isn’t at peak freshness (2-3 weeks after being roasted), its flavors are going to be duller and less noticeable overall.
Smell the brewed coffee. Let the aromas flow into your nostrils and allow them to linger; then breathe them out slowly and mindfully. What does the aroma remind you of?
When the coffee cools down a bit, taste it. In the professional world, we like to slurp small sips of coffee. This shoots coffee across our entire palate and allows us to taste the coffee on all parts of the tongue at once. You don’t have to do this. At the very least, savor the coffee before swallowing.
What does the coffee remind you of? From here, we can get more specific:
- What does the flavor remind you of? Is it sweet and fruity? Maybe floral or earthy?
- What does the acidity remind you of? Is it sharp or gentle? Apple-like or lemony?
- What does the body remind you of? Is it creamy, silky, or does it feel thin?
- What does the aftertaste remind you of? Does it linger? Is it a new flavor? Is it sweet?
The Specialty Coffee Association released a brand new Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel in 2016 that provides new and veteran tasters an enlightening look at several realms of coffee flavor.
It’s based on a growing database of chemically identifiable flavors in coffee, which means none of these have been pulled out of thin air by a pretentious barista somewhere. If you find yourself in a tasting rut, this is a great resource for expanding your mind.
Tasting multiple coffees at the same time is a great way to experience the differences in a more noticeable way. I highly suggest brewing two or three cups and trying to pick out the flavor differences between the three. Professional coffee roasters and buyers do this to help them source and roast coffees to perfection.
Even if you’re skeptical of your own palate, say the flavor notes out loud or write them down. Putting them somewhere other than your own mind is a great way to process the experience and learn from it. It helps awaken your senses.
The best advice I can give you is this: taste away. When you eat that next bowl of cereal, pay attention. Your next cup of coffee, your next taco, your next piece of cake - these are all opportunities to grow your skill and awaken your senses.
Tasting is a rewarding skill. It helps us appreciate the simple things in everything we eat and drink and brings us to a new level of intentional living.
Over the next few blogs, we’ll cover some specific areas of tasting so you can get a really close look at coffee acidity, sweetness, flavor, body, and aftertaste. If you read all the way through this series and apply it to your tasting, you’ll be a master taster in no time.
The fresher your coffee, the more flavorful it will be and the easier it will be to discern those flavors. Make sure you're alway starting with freshly roasted, high-quality beans - otherwise your tasting efforts will go to waste.
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