Updated: Feb 26, 2019
I believe specialty coffee is superior partly for the beautiful natural flavours missing in dark roasts and low grade coffees. But how can we most appreciate these flavours? Tasting coffee (or anything for that matter) and then describing what you taste is a skill. With that in mind, here are some tips for improving said skills.
To start, leave that milk in the fridge and the sugar in its jar. We want to be able to taste the coffee without these masking the coffee’s natural flavours. Specialty coffee deserves to be taken black. This will allow you to pick up subtle flavours that you might otherwise miss. Finding that hint of blueberry is an absolute joy.
Take your time
Secondly, take your time. When your head is racing or your mind is on other things it is very easy to not concentrate on the coffee. At Taylor Street Baristas (if you’re in London or New York, check them out), we would close our eyes, breath heavily and relax before starting our sensory training. I personally found this helped me focus, allowing me to concentrate on tasting.
Furthermore, you’re unlikely to find flavours immediately. It may take a few sips for your taste buds to adjust to allow you to recognise flavours. Also, as coffee cools new aromas and flavours appear as the compounds break down. This is why taking your time is important, the flavours found in coffee really are a journey.
Isolate your senses
It can help to isolate taste and aroma in identifying the characteristics of a coffee. I like to concentrate on acidity, sweetness, body and aftertaste separately before going back and thinking about the entire experience (balance). If the coffee doesn’t balance well it might be because it is too bitter.
Another way to identify the tastes is to feel them first, without the flavour giving aromas. Pinch your nose and swirl the coffee in your mouth, concentrating on the sensations in your mouth. Our coffee compounds article on taste, aroma and flavour covers where the mouth senses taste. Then release your nose and enjoy the rush of flavour that comes with this action. This is a great time to try pick out flavours.
Acidity and Bitterness
It is sometimes difficult to distinguish between acidity and bitterness. Taste maps are not particularly helpful or correct and so learning the sensations through tasting other foods is beneficial. The best way to learn here is by comparison. Think about the sour sensation you experience when eating citrus fruit, berries, unsweetened yoghurt or vinegar. Here you have your sour. For bitterness, think about the taste of tonic water, dark chocolate or medicine.
If you then want to communicate what you can taste, it is important to do it in a way people understand. Below is an example of isolating tastes and comparing them to flavours many others have experienced.
“I remember enjoying a superb coffee from Gatuyaini, Kenya. The first sip had the bright citrus acidity of pink grapefruit followed by a delicate pineapple sweetness. This then developed into an intense and juicy cranberry flavour. A lovely clean cup.”
Having something to compare with when tasting coffee makes it much easier. This can come in a number of forms. A simple one is to drink 2 or more coffees side by side. Even better, have a friend there with you and talk freely about flavours. It’s surprising how difficult it is to name a flavour you recognise when there is no one to share it with.
Another method is to have a coffee flavour wheel in front of you. Look at all the flavours whilst swirling coffee in your mouth. Once you think you have identified it, you can try tasting that particular foodstuff for further comparison e.g. apple, almonds, raisins, orange juice. Jasmine flower can be tasted in some coffees. The first time I did I then brewed jasmine tea and compared the flavours directly.
You can also try testing your detection of the different tastes. This comparative tasting exercise is great for identifying your skills to distinguish sweet, sour and bitter.
Ultimately, have confidence in your tongue. When tasting coffee, don’t be afraid to tell others your experience. With over 700 soluble flavour-giving compounds and the fact that everyone’s taste buds are different, it’s difficult to be wrong. After several months of concentrating on the flavours and communicating them, you’ll naturally realise how far your sensory skills have improved.
Tasting is a skill – like any skill, it takes a long time to master.
Drink black coffee, no sugar!
Take your time and concentrate.
Isolate your senses.
Make comparisons – everything becomes easier to identify.
Trust your tongue – if you can taste leather, say it.