How to Taste Coffee
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The Basic Steps to Tasting Coffee at Home
Like wine tasting, successful coffee tasting requires a combination of basic knowledge, willingness to experiment, and openness to unique flavors. Fortunately, even an amateur coffee taster can gain expert status from the comfort of their home. Doing so usually begins with a solid foundation of coffee knowledge.
Understanding the how, what, and why of coffee is essential to developing a refined coffee palate. This is perhaps best demonstrated in the knowledge of the brew. Brewing coffee can be surprisingly technical, and debates abound regarding the best way to elicit peak flavor from the beans.
Brewing coffee at home removes the security of a trained barista; you must prepare your coffee appropriately or risk obscuring the more subtle and unique flavors. Opinions regarding the best brewing method will vary from person to person. It can sometimes be challenging to be sure you are getting the most out of your beans.
The first and most crucial step to tasting coffee at home is to sort out your brew. A steady and consistent brew provides the consistency needed for expert-level coffee tasting. Check out brewing guides that can guide you through a brewing method of your choice. Once you have mastered your brew, you will be ready to begin a tasting adventure.
In contrast to the technical procedures and know-how required for brewing coffee, selecting a coffee bean feels much more like an art than a science. Most understanding regarding the flavors and expressions of a coffee bean roast comes through experience, making it difficult to select your coffee at the start of your tasting journey.
If you’re new to serious coffee tasting, you may be unsure what coffee beans to get. Check out a coffee buying guide to bring yourself up to speed on some of the basics. The ultimate goal is to discover your unique tastes and preferences, so trying anything is worthwhile! For some, the easiest thing to do is select a reputable coffee supplier and strike out in a random direction.
After trying a few different coffees from different origins, you will develop preferences for specific flavor combinations. You don’t need to try coffees at random until you find what you like. By identifying and understanding the flavors and feel of each coffee you sample, you can begin to develop a specific profile to guide your next coffee tasting selection.
What to Taste for or Evaluate
While most people think of a coffee’s flavor when thinking of coffee tasting, there are a number of other features that contribute to the unique profile of a cup of coffee. Exploring a cup of coffee requires more than just your sense of taste; it is a more immersive experience requiring broader use of the senses than most people are used to when tasting food or drink.
Color and Clarity
Remember, when tasting coffee to evaluate its unique flavor profile, you should be trying the coffee unaccompanied. No cream, sugar, or other additives until you are familiar with your coffee’s taste. The color of your coffee will range from light to dark. Darker-colored coffers can indicate richer, longer brews that bring out more of the beans’ deep flavor. Lighter coffees are subtler and generally not as potent.
Clarity is worth learning because it can be a somewhat confusing term. In one sense, it means exactly what it sounds like: a lack of murkiness, particles, and impurities in the coffee. However, many people use the term “clarity” to refer to the flavors of the coffee. Flavor clarity describes how clear a specific flavor comes through compared to the coffee’s other flavors.
A coffee’s aroma is a (hopefully pleasant) preview of fresh-brewed coffee. A coffee’s aroma is closely related to its taste. It is worthwhile to take some time to identify specific features of a coffee’s scent. Breathe in the aroma deeply and gently, letting the odor of the coffee mingle through your nose and mouth.
You may recognize nutty notes or caramel-like features from cooked sugars in the roasting process. Faint, complex, chocolate-like odors are common in many coffees as well. Take the time to note the flavors you detect in the aroma, then compare these flavors to what you find on your initial tasting. The aroma often has clues to the coffee’s more subtle flavors!
The term “mouthfeel” has become very common. In short, the mouthfeel is exactly what it sounds like: how a coffee feels in the mouth. In practice, distinguishing a coffee’s mouthfeel requires the same careful analysis as the flavor or aroma. For coffee, mouthfeel generally describes the richness of the final brew. Is the coffee heavy on the tongue? Does it feel watery, or does it have substance?
Mouthfeel is synonymous with the “body” of a coffee. It is more about the physical features and less about the taste. Keep in mind that mouthfeel primarily describes the density of the coffee (if your coffee’s mouthfeel is “chunky,” you may need to reevaluate your brewing process).
Acidity, while not a flavor in its own right, begins to move away from the physical properties of the coffee into the realm of more complex tastes. Many people are familiar with acidity in coffee as a negative thing. In fact, without some acidity, coffee tastes dull, bland, and flat. An excess of acidity will generally result in a bitter, sour coffee that is unpleasant on the palate.
A coffee’s acidity is a great starting point on the path to examining the coffee’s flavor profile. Acidity is easy for a novice taster to detect and is a good indicator of the overall quality of the roast and brew. One of the first things new tasters learn to reliably detect is the balance of acidity in coffee. After trying coffees of various acidities, it will be easy to see how the acid content affects the overall flavor profile of the coffee.
As you become more familiar with the physical features and basic elements of your coffee, you will naturally begin to gain an understanding of the more complex and subtle flavors present in your coffee. To accelerate that process, you can consider using a coffee taster’s flavor wheel to help you better understand the flavors in your coffee.
Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel
The coffee wheel works by moving from the center out. Begin by getting your freshly brewed coffee in hand and preparing your tasting environment. Your environment should be free from distractions and contain the tools you need for your tastings, such as a coffee flavor wheel and your coffee journal.
Slowly taste your coffee, allowing time for you to taste and experience the unique flavor profile. As you’re tasting, examine the inner circle of the coffee wheel. The inner circle includes broad flavor categories that are the easiest to identify.
Do you detect any flavors in your coffee that match what you can find on the coffee wheel? Let’s say that you’re drinking a roast that features the addition of blueberries for a subtle fruity flavor. As you sip your coffee, you will likely notice the fruity flavor right away. As you continue to sample, you may notice that the fruity flavor is tart and similar to the berries you’ve tried.
“Fruity” is a category on the innermost circle of the coffee flavor wheel, and “berry” is one level higher than fruity. Beyond this, the options include a variety of specific berry flavors, including blueberry. It was simple to move from the broad flavor (berry) to the specific flavor (blueberry) following the coffee wheel.
The coffee wheel is most useful for unfamiliar flavors. Many coffee tasters, including novices, could identify a blueberry flavor in a coffee. Blueberry is a common flavor, and many people can easily detect how the addition of blueberries changes the taste profile of whatever they are added to.
Examining a less-common base flavor reveals the utility of the coffee wheel. For example, “Roasted” is a base flavor located on the innermost circle of the coffee wheel. The concept of “Roasted” is a little more difficult to grasp for most than something a bit more common, such as “Fruity.”
If you identify an unknown roast-like flavor in your coffee, you can use the coffee wheel to narrow the flavor down. The tastes on the next-highest ring of the coffee wheel are “burnt,” “cereal,” and “tobacco.” The flavors help a taster relate the subtle tastes of their coffee to flavors that are better known.
Continuing the example, let’s say you use your color wheel and identify a distinct “burnt” taste in your coffee. You go one level higher on the coffee wheel and find the flavor “smoky” that you feel best describes the taste.
By following the coffee wheel, you now have a series of adjectives you can use to describe a particular flavor in your coffee. When writing in a coffee journal and tracking your coffee tasting journey, these adjectives make it easy to differentiate between coffees and identify your preferred flavor profile.
The most challenging part of increasing their coffee tasting skills for many tasters is putting their newfound preferences and understanding of taste into words. This is the problem the coffee wheel is designed to solve. While it takes time and experience to rapidly identify every flavor present in a brew, the coffee wheel makes it easy for new tasters to get started.
Tracking the Taste
It can be difficult to keep track of every facet of a coffee’s taste profile. It can be even more challenging to keep track of your own flavor profile as your coffee experience increases. Take time to invest in a method to keep track of your tasting journey, as well as your findings of different coffees and flavors.
Being able to revisit past tastes and impressions is one of the most important yet most often overlooked pieces of coffee tasting. No one can remember every coffee they have ever tasted, but having access to that knowledge can facilitate the selection of new roasts and the development of a coffee drinker’s unique preferences.
Whether a journal or dedicated coffee notebook, a method to collect and retain tasting information is essential. You’ll be amazed as you look back and reflect on how your coffee palate developed. In addition, you will have an excellent description of your own preferences beyond what is available to the average coffee drinker.