Donaldina is a coffee lover and freelance writer from Tanzania. Coffee runs deep in her family - tracing its roots to her grandmother’s running of their first coffee farm in the mid-70s. She enjoys spending her time writing and co-running her grandmother's small robusta coffee farm with her sister in northwest Tanzania during the summer seasons.
Why Learn How To Taste Coffee?
Learning how to taste coffee comes with a variety of advantages. For one, it makes it easier to identify different types and choose your preference. If you are a coffee shop owner, you can also use these skills to curate your house blends.
Further, understanding the coffee taste and the different relationships behind its factors allows you to use the information to hone and perfect your coffee-making skills. Knowing how to identify flavors will help you perfect the technique of brewing and yielding the perfect coffee cup.
How Do I Taste Coffee Like A Pro?
There are several ways to taste coffee like a pro. The most common ones include standard brewing or more complex cupping methods. Further, when tasting coffee, you want to consider the six key factors, i.e. sweetness, body, acidity, aroma, flavor, and finish.
But first, Here's how each tasting method works:
Pour Over or French Press Brewing
The simplest way to taste coffee is through regular brewing. Freshly roast and grind your coffee beans and use a weight scale to get an accurate volume of the coffee.
Use the pour-over or French press coffee brewing method to make the coffee as it helps it maintain its most dominant flavor and taste characteristics. If you taste different coffees, stick to the same method as a control.
Cupping is another popular coffee-tasting method involving specific bowls, spoons, rinsing cups, and accessories. In the cupping process, you taste everything, including grounds, sugars, acids, and lipids, since coffee doesn't undergo filtration.
But, this process can be tedious and time-consuming, especially if you taste coffee as a hobby. This method is ideal for professionals – for example, business owners who want to launch signature coffee blends or specialty coffee or put together a menu for their coffee shop.
Tasting coffee like a pro comes with several components. Plus, it's not a one-day process. You must develop your plate over time and flavor familiarity to familiarize yourself with different coffee tastes (even unique ones).
This will also help you differentiate even closely related coffee varieties. You can even practice your coffee vocabulary and tasting every day with your morning cup of coffee.
Coffee Tasting Dos and Don'ts
Here are standard practices to stick to (or avoid) when tasting coffee:
Get used to coffee flavors: Avid coffee drinkers will always know which coffee they like and which they don't. Go the extra mile and learn how to describe these different taste profiles. The best way to develop this literature knowledge is by familiarizing yourself with a Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel developed by the Specialty Coffee Association of America and World Coffee Research. This is a tool regularly used by baristas and other coffee professionals.
To read a coffee-tasting wheel, start defining the coffee's flavor from the center, working your way out. The center refers to the core flavors of the coffee as they broaden up while you work your way from the center. For example, Tanzanian coffee can be described as having a berry-like taste - the outer parts of the flavor wheel let you pinpoint the definitions by picking the actual l berry flavor.
- As mentioned above, coffee tasting is not a process you learn in one day. You continue to evolve and improve with each practice. So, jot down your observations in a journal whenever you do your coffee tasting. Keep a detailed assessment of every tasting session. Doing so helps you track your progress and improvement as you build your coffee vocabulary.
- Use properly clean equipment during a coffee tasting
- Use the same brewing method and maintain the exact details, like volume, etc.
- Never taste coffee after eating strong or rich foods, as the flavors may linger on and affect the tasting
- Avoid other cleansers as they may also imYou want to consider several important factors during the coffee tasting. All these factors contribute to the overall taste of your coffee and how you will perceive it. In fact, this is an important skill any barista or coffee professional possesses – you must be able to tell between a Vietnamese robusta coffee and Tanzanian robusta coffee through these key factors.
What To Consider When Coffee Tasting
To the untrained palate, all coffee appears to be bitter. Unbeknownst to many people, the better coffee is, the sweeter it will taste. This explains why the sweeter Arabica variety is more popular than the somewhat bitter robusta variety.
When describing the sweetness of your coffee, you want to use terms such as fruity, honey, or molasses, to name a few. For example, Kenyan coffee tends to light, sweet honey taste, while Brazilian coffee develops a caramel-to-chocolate sweetness.
The body describes the weight and feel of the coffee on your palate. When you take a sip, you want to ask whether the coffee feels light or heavy. Does it feel like 1% milk or heavy cream? The body is usually described using terms like heavy-bodied, full-bodied, or light-bodied, to mention a few.
Acidity doesn't necessarily add bitterness like what many people believe. It is a pretty important feature of your coffee as it adds character and brightness. Acidity can be described anywhere from a mellow tanginess to a citrusy tartness. For example, a dark roast chocolate blend will have a mellow acidity more than a light roasted fruity and citrus blend.
Note: In addition to the actual nature of the whole bean, dark roasting can help mellow the acidity. The darker the bean is roasted, the more it becomes caramelized. This roasting process helps dissolve the coffee's tartness or juiciness and explains why green/unroasted coffee is ultra-tart.
The fragrance and smell of your coffee play a significant role in determining the taste. After all, aroma is the crucial step in detecting and recognizing taste. The aroma of your coffee is the first thing that draws you to it and stimulates your appetite.
This explains why you wouldn't like bland coffee even before tasting it – it has no attractive aroma! In the coffee lingo, the smell is broken down between fragrance and aroma. The fragrance refers to the smell of dry ground coffee before you add water during brewing.
The first whiff of freshly ground coffee is the true fragrance of your coffee! On the other hand, the aroma is the smell you get from brewed coffee after the grounds come in contact with hot water. Smell the top layer of the coffee immediately after brewing to get the authentic aroma. Again, you can refer to the flavor wheel and use the same jargon to describe fragrance and aroma.
Coffee tasting to identify flavor is a process that you shouldn't expect to master in a day. There will always be trial and error before you master this skill. When you start, do so to taste the real flavors – not just coffee.
Ask yourself questions such as what is the overall flavor profile? Is it fruity, berry, or floral? Do you taste any nuttiness? Almonds or candied walnuts? Slowly categorizing the flavor descriptions (with the aid of the coffee taster's flavor wheel) will ultimately make it easier to describe the flavor profile of the coffee fully.
The finish describes the aftertaste after swallowing. How does the coffee feel and taste a few seconds to minutes after swallowing? Do you get a rich lingering aftertaste you get any bitter undertones? Does it feel rough or smooth? The overall experience is what describes the coffee's finish.
What Determines Coffee Flavor
Different coffee varieties come with varying taste and flavor profiles. In addition to the bean variety, other external factors play a significant role in determining flavor. These include;
Origin most definitely impacts the flavor of coffee. In this case, you want to think of factors such as geographical location, climate, water, soil, and altitude, to mention a few. For example, coffee from the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania grows on the foothills of Africa's highest mountain, Mt. Kilimanjaro, several feet above sea level at high altitude.
The soil is also acidic, owing to the dormant volcanic mountain. The high altitude, low temperature, and volcanic mineral soil give Kilimanjaro Arabica coffee its characteristic taste profile with distinctive chocolate and blackberry notes.
This is an entirely different flavor profile to Tanzanian coffee that grows in the northwestern region of Kagera. The robusta coffee develops an earthy flavor profile with a medium body and subtle notes of herbs, bakers chocolate, and kumquat.
Now, in this case, plenty of factors interact, for example;
- Soil: Nutrients such as potassium, nitrogen, and phosphorus in the soil promote optimal and healthy growth and abundant harvest. Minerals like potassium also boost the acidity of the coffee for that lime or lemon-like acidity. On the other hand, higher levels of phosphorus impart a berry or grape-like taste to the coffee bean. Good soil microbes also help balance the flavors of the coffee, making it sweeter.
- Climate: Coffee harvested in east African regions like Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, and Tanzania, which lie immediately above or below the equator, also have distinct flavors due to the climate. This tropical and subtropical climate typically experiences wet and dry seasons contributing to flavor development.
- Altitude: coffee that grows at higher altitudes, like Ethiopian coffee, achieves a pleasant fruity and flora profile. Coffee growing at lower altitudes, such as Tanzanian coffee from Kagera, develops a mellower taste with mild/reduced acidity.
The way harvested green coffee is processed to its overall flavor development. Different farmers use different processes, although the washed or wet process is popular. This process involves the coffee fruit being stripped of skin and pulp before being cleaned, rinsed, and fermented.
This process gives the coffee a clean taste with acetic acid for bright acidity. It typically develops tart fruit acidity like lemon and pineapple with some tea-like hints. On the other hand, the dry or natural process involves sun drying the whole coffee bean until it removes more than half its moisture.
This process allows the bean to absorb the flavors of the pulp and skin, which influence its overall taste. Coffee processed this way tends to have a more robust profile with sweet and fruity notes. Other processing methods include the natural honey or pulp process, which involves washing and striping the skin and pulp.
A small layer of the pulp known as the mucilage is left behind to impart sweetness to the bean as it dries. Farmers in the Java region of Indonesia use a unique processing method, allowing the coffee to develop an equally impressive taste profile.