How to Taste Coffee Like an Expert
When choosing a coffee bean, we tend to look for familiar flavor notes or new ones if we’re looking to try something different. But, how do you know when you’re tasting the right notes? If you’re actually picking up any caramel or citrus or molasses on your first sip?
Coffee tasting, though intimidating, can help us appreciate our morning cup or afternoon pick-me-up all the more. Suddenly an essential part of our day becomes a ritual - one that forces us to focus on the experience of coffee tasting.
To help walk you through the first steps of tasting coffee like an expert, we’ve compiled a guide on what to look out for the next time you enjoy a cup of coffee.
How do we taste coffee? (how our body experiences flavor)
When we first read on a package that a food product tastes like chocolate or raspberry, we can all conjure up some abstract idea. We tap into our memory and think “that’s a taste I like/dislike.” However, if we relied exclusively on memory to describe notes we love, we’d find ourselves struggling to find the right words.
It’s not until we take our first bite or sip that we can all agree on what’s nice or not. This depends on our taste buds as the first part of coffee (or any!) tasting process happens at the tongue. It’s in our nasal cavity, or olfactory bulb, that we eventually detect and distinguish one flavor from another. But, how do we describe tastes? A few pointers from how expert tasters do it might clue us in.
What is the coffee tasting process? (expert tasters)
Besides having the vocabulary to describe coffee, expert tasters also try a whole range of coffees before they reach consumers. The way they achieve this is by cupping, an industry standard method wherein a fixed amount of coffee is brewed in the simplest way for four minutes. To provide an example, about 12 grams of coffee are measured out into a cup, then 200 ml of boiled water are added.
Grounds will float and leave behind a foamy residue which is then stirred and skimmed after four minutes so that all the remaining coffee grounds sink. Once the water cools down, tasters can get to work, gathering a small amount to taste with a spoon. They then slurp from this spoon to aerate the coffee which facilitates the overall tasting process.
How to taste and assess coffee at home
There are several things tasters look for, but there are six main tasting traits worth noting: flavor, acidity, aroma, sweetness, body and aftertaste. Once tasters detect these traits, they use a score sheet to determine the main properties of a specific brew.
One handy tool any good coffee taster needs is the flavor wheel, which contains different terms and descriptors to help you pinpoint more specific terms that relate to your tasting experience.
The wheel starts with more generic terms (like sweet or floral), progressing to more complex words as you make your way around and out.
The best way to get to practice on enhancing your coffee knowledge and vocabulary is to simply try at home. Go to your favorite coffee shop and ask for two very distinct coffees. We recommend buying coffee beans for you to grind at home as this ensures a cleaner, fresher taste. Once you’re ready to try out your new coffees, it’s time to brew. You’ll need a French press for this as it’s a straightforward brewing method and - in a sense - mimics the industry standard ‘cupping’ method. So, if you don’t have a French press, consider this a sign - it’s time to invest in one!
Bear in mind that the ideal grind size for this extraction method is coarse. Consistent grind size is essential to your coffee’s extraction; otherwise, you risk compromising taste if you use coffee grinds of the wrong size. To ensure you get an even grind during this tasting process, we recommend an electric burr grinder, like the Mahlkönig X54 Allround Home Grinder.
Once you’ve brewed your coffees, take slow sips from both and jot down what comes to mind upon first tasting each cup. Don’t worry too much about getting into the specifics - generic terms are incredibly useful as you try to gain more experience and discern different notes. And, you’ve got your trusty flavor wheel to guide you if you’re stuck on any word.
Ask yourself throughout the process: “What do the textures of both coffees tell me? Does one feel bitter and heavy or light and creamy?” It’s important to focus first on the sensation and from there you can work your way to more precise terms to describe your coffee tasting experience.
After comparing your notes on both coffees, take a look at the labels on your coffee bags. How close did you get to picking up on the right notes?
The coffee tasting process can seem a bit daunting at first but it’s all a matter of trial and error. And, who doesn’t want an excuse to try more and more coffees? By the end, you’ll be a confident taster and learn a thing or two about your favorite drink along the way.