A coffee tasting primer
One of the most common questions I get from my coffee fans is how can I get better at tasting coffee. Specifically, they want to be able to pick up on the subtle flavor notes we coffee roasters put on our bags.
First of all, I want to say, there is nothing wrong with just enjoying coffee for what it is. Really serious study of coffee tasting can really ruin your love for coffee if you are not careful. When coffee becomes "test subject #12", instead of your morning moment of bliss, you have definitely lost something important about coffee. Coffee is an amazingly complex beverage, and its je ne sais quoi is a large part of its charm; the fact that it tastes amazing, but you can't explain why. But, I have also found it thoroughly exciting when I find a flavor in a particular coffee that captures an experience. Like when I first smelled my Rwanda: Nova Washing Station and got toasted marshmallow. Or when I noticed the striking blueberry aroma from my Ethiopia: Yirgacheffe (like a freshly baked blueberry pie).
In this post, I want to teach you how to taste coffee intentionally. In the industry, we use the coffee cupping as a common experience to analyze coffee. Progressive farms and coops are starting to cup at origin to analyze their growing and processing methods. My importers cup thousands of coffees a year to pick the ones that they will make available for me to purchase. I cup new coffees that I am interested in purchasing as well as my production roasts to check quality and consistency. If you are interested, here is the full SCAA cupping procedure. This process is complex, exhaustive, and requires a lot of equipment. I don't expect the average home coffee enthusiast to take this on. So, I am offering a simplified coffee tasting that you can easily do at home.
Tasting coffee at home
1. Coffee (at least 2 varieties)
2. Good tasting, filtered water, heated to 195-205 F
3. Coffee grinder
4. Pour-over brewing device (multiple devices if you have them so you can brew simultaneously, if you don't have a pour-over brewer, just use the device you are most comfortable with)
6. Notepad for observations
7. Enough mugs/cups to split coffee between each taster
1. Weigh and grind each coffee (following the process you would use to make a single mug of coffee). Smell the freshly ground coffee and write down any observations. This is called the dry aroma (or fragrance).
2. Begin preparing your coffee following your normal brewing recipe. Smell the wet coffee grounds during brewing and write down any observations. This is called the wet aroma.
3. When the coffee has finished brewing, smell the aroma from the freshly-brewed cup of coffee. This can also be factored into the wet aroma. Write down any observations.
4. Divide the coffee between all participants. Take a small sip of the coffee, swallow, and breath out with your mouth closed. This will bring the coffee aroma into your retro nasal passages and will allow a complete taste of the coffee. Write down any observations from the flavor of the coffee.
5. Allow the coffee to cool for a few minutes and taste again. Many coffees will change drastically in flavor as they cool. While the aroma portion is pretty straight-forward (what does it smell like), you can analyze many different things in the flavor such as:
-body: how thick or thin is the liquid? More skim milk or more whole milk in mouthfeel?
-acidy: how strong is the acidity, does it increase when the coffee cools? Is it a specific type of acidity; citric, malic, acetic? Is it more bright and snappy, or sour?
-sweetness: how sweet is the coffee? Is it a specific type of sweetness; cane sugar, honey, molasses, nuts, chocolate, etc. Does the sweetness change when the coffee cools?
-aftertaste: is the aftertaste different from the initial flavor? Does it linger on your palette, or dissipate quickly?
-balance: How do all of these qualities (including the aroma) work together? Is it a coherent whole, or do some flavors/aromas fight against each other?
6. Taste the different coffees side-by-side and note any differences. You can compare any of the previously mentioned variables; body, acidity, aroma, etc.
7. Finally, pick your favorite coffee and try to figure out why you like it better than the other coffees on the table.
Remember, there are no right or wrong answers. Everyone tastes differently. If you taste something and it is exciting to you, then you have been successful! If you want more help pinpointing flavors and aromas, the SCAA flavor wheel is a great resource. Start at the center of the wheel and if you think the element you are evaluating is more distinct look further out. For example, a coffee might taste fruity (which is really common), you might try to decide what type of fruit; is it more berry, citrus, tropical, stonefruit. If you get to this level, you have a pretty awesome coffee. But, the coffee might be even more distinct than that, tasting like blackberry rather than just a general berry flavor. While you can probably trick yourself into tasting anything, very few coffees are this distinct, so don't be discouraged if you are not getting individual fruit flavors.
Coffee tasting is a lifelong pursuit. I still have so much to learn, but it is one of the things that keeps me coming back even though I eat, sleep, and breath coffee. There is always something more to taste in a great cup of coffee.