Coffee: A Tasting Guide

Whether it’s about finding your perfect cup of coffee, or scoring some extra hipster points with your friends, coffee tasting can be a hugely enjoyable experience. While coffee tasting is a largely subjective experience, there are some easy techniques to better describe what you’re tasting. Here I will attempt to expose some of the sensations you’re having and show you ways to describe the flavours and aromas you’re experiencing like a professional.

Most of us will start to experience a coffee through our eyes and our nose, long before we experience it through our sense of taste. So it only makes sense to start with the way the coffee looks.

Appearance

A coffees appearance can be broken down into three areas.

Colour: Coffee ranges from the deepest darkest black all the way through earthy mud tones to some of the reddest autumnal browns. These colours help to give an impression of the roast of the bean, the darker the colour, the darker the roast.

Body: Does the coffee look dense and heavy or light and watery? This gives us an impression of the texture or mouthfeel of the coffee.

Water Quality: The quality of the water used for the extraction is important. Here any lack of filtration will be evident, as the impurities form a kind of crust on the top of the coffee. All the best baristas and coffee shops use filtered water to make their coffee, in order to do justice to the great beans they are using.

One of the most enjoyable experiences with coffee is the aroma, that fragrant perfume of freshly roasted beans (even before you add the water). To the knowledgeable nose these give clues as to the provenance of the coffee. Even if you can’t tell where the coffee is from you’ll be enjoying the rich complex aromatics drifting off of the brewed coffee beans.

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Aroma

Thankfully tasters of years gone by have helped to develop aroma charts to give you clues and indications as to what you might be smelling and how to classify them. A good aroma chart can be found by using an internet search for coffee taster’s wheel. Alternatively you can head to the SCAA’s (specialty coffee association of america) website to view their taster’s wheel. This will help you to pick out associated aromas for

The roast: The aromas wafting off of the brewed coffee tend to give a good indication of the roast. Darker roasts will exhibit similarities to dark woods, dark chocolate, tobacco and general earthy notes. Lighter roasts tend to give off fruity and floral aromas.

The aroma characters: The aromas you’re experiencing can be wild and varied. Coffees can exhibit the aromatic qualities of anything from strawberry jam to orange blossom, from roasted almonds to lemon peel and anything and everything in between. It has even been known for coffees to be described as smelling like forest floors or even more intangibly like Christmas mornings.

Here is the bit you’ve been eagerly anticipating, the most important part of the tasting process, tasting the coffee. Here is where the difficult but enjoyable bit begins.

Taste

Thankfully tasters of years gone by have helped to develop tasting charts to give you clues and indications as to flavours you might be tasting and how to classify them. A good tasting chart can be found by using an internet search for coffee taster’s wheel, as above. This will help you to denote

Roast: If you haven’t already guessed the roast, it should be clear now. This is the distinct bitterness not to be confused with acidity. Dark roasts will be reminiscent of dark chocolate, roasted nuts and tar. In a light roast the roast flavours may barely be present at all. Darker roasts tend to be paired with nutty and caramel notes, whereas lighter roasts tend to be more floral and acidic.

The place it lands in the mouth: You’ll notice that the roast and acidity land in specific places in the mouth, it can be useful to note where these sensations are experienced.

Beginning/Middle/Finish: Due to chemical reactions occurring in the cup, the coffee changes and develops throughout the cup. You’ll begin to notice that dominant flavours change over time and you’ll be able to distinguish differences between, how it tastes at first sip and the lingering flavours it leaves on the palate.

Acidity: Highly acidic coffees are often referred to as bright coffees, these are usually lightly roasted washed coffees. Acidic coffees tend to be fruity and can be like biting into a grapefruit. Try and note what kind of acidity you’re experiencing.

Flavour Characters: Here is where your flavour wheel comes in handy. Flavours come in 1of5 categories sweet, sour, bitter, salt and umami. These can be anything from fruits to nuts or even vegetable flavours. Try to pick out the distinct flavours along with some of the subtler notes and try to pick out the finish. Does your coffee taste like chocolately red berries or is it nutty and caramelly. Here’s a chance to get creative, describing the flavours you’re picking up.

Sweetness: Coffees often have a sweet layer, especially varietals like bourbon. This sweetness tends to underpin a darker roast and be good for balancing highly acidic coffees. Look here for sweet nutty caramels or for vibrant fruity honeys.

Length: Flavours have differing lengths like notes in a symphony, some are short and sharp and others extend for an age. One will leave you enjoying every minute, the other will have you gulping down coffee trying to hold on to that wonderful but fleeting flavour. Some short coffees are said to be clean at the finish, where the coffee is refreshing but does not linger on the palate.

Balance: The best coffees aren’t roasted to hell with little to no flavour, nor are they overly acidic and spikey. The best coffees have have roasts, acidity and sweetness that complement each other like a group of longtime friends.

Body/Mouthfeel: As well as the taste experience, you’ll be receiving a more tactile experience in terms of mouthfeel. This has a lot to do with how the coffee feels in your mouth and its texture. The texture of a coffee can change its experience radically. You’ll have heard a lot about body in relation to wine and the experience is similar here. Rich full bodies will feel heavy and luxurious in the mouth, light bodies will be more reminiscent of loose teas. Some coffees are known to have creamy or oily mouthfeels, due to the oils in the coffee beans being released, these tend to be comparable to different textures of milk, like skimmed or full fat. There are some coffees with more unusual mouthfeels, these tend to be natural process coffees, where the mouthfeel takes up wine or alcoholic punch like qualities. Taken to their extreme these coffees can be fizzy, effervescent or sherbert like. This tends to be as a result of fermentation lengths in the processing of the beans.

Roasters Notes: Most roasters include tasting notes with their coffees, either on the bag or you can usually head to their websites and check out the coffee in their online store. Once you’ve finished tasting the coffee, go see what the roasters have to say and see if their notes match yours. This can help to improve your tasting skills and also helps to catch anything you might have missed. Roasters taste lots of coffees and they’re passionate about it too, so they’re pretty on the money when it comes to flavour profiles.

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So, now you know how to approach a coffee, how to taste it and how to explain what you’re experiencing to others. Grab yourself a notepad and a pen and start writing down your descriptions of the coffees you’re tasting. Take your friends too and show them how knowledgeable you are about coffee. coffee.

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