How to Taste Coffee

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#1

This seems like an odd question, but really if like me you have been wondering how in the world some coffee bags come with descriptors like “florals” or “tangerine”. This thread is dedicated to my favorite aspect of coffee roasting: drinking roasted coffee.

Inevitably as we drink coffee we are in fact tasting it. I believe the difference of tasting coffee vs drinking it is based on how quickly and if we are paying attention to the flavors or not. Concentrating on what is being presented on our palate. How much concentration you wish to apply is up to you…from a “zen” like tea ceremony to quaffing barrels as you are busily working to meet some deadline. In addition, I would also like to talk about not only the procedure, but how to get better at it. What other aspects or “training” our palate to help analyze, memorize and recall, tastes and smells.

Cupping, is used to analyze a roast, used to find and see apparent defects that arise from how you roasted the coffee (still a requirement of producing exceptional roasts and tastes). Tasting coffee is, I believe, can be less strict. Not to say that it should not be constant. But our procedure depends preferences how we extract the coffee, in what ratio, for how long, etc. Personal preference is ok, BUT at the same time, varying the different ways we brew the coffee (V60/Kalita, aeropress, espresso, drip, french, et al) can highlight certain aspects of the cup and have an effect on taste. And in part, knowing that a rushed French Press is going to inevitably give a grainy texture is mainly the contribution of the brewing method rather than an Espresso being grainy, in which the user has control to fix the issue either at the roast or grind, pressure/temp…but I am digressing. What we are talking about tasting coffee.

For god’s sake do not do any tobacco, or anything that will dampen your palate.

  • Nothing, is more important than good dental hygiene. NOTHING. In this order: Floss (do a good job), brush (buy non mentholated toothpaste, or better no flavor), mouthwash, water pick aka water floss. Buy a tongue scraper or tongue brush https://oralb.com/en-us/oral-health/how-tongue-scrapers-work, I have one that has both and I put a little dab of toothpaste and lightly scrub my tongue, and lightly scrape off the gunk, swish/rinse with water and gently scrub and scrape any residual toothpaste etc. off. Practicing good dental hygiene is a good thing and shouldn’t be observed just before you are about to taste coffee. Having a healthy regimen is good in general.

I prefer this order because the water pick rinses out the mouth wash flavor. I am not a dentist. If you have other dental requirements or you can’t do somethings that is ok, follow what your doctor recommends.

  • Do not eat or drink things or clean your teeth, right before trying to taste coffee, wait a couple hours before doing your tasting. I don’t drink coffee on an empty stomach. Though it has been noted that humans are more perceptive to taste when hungry. I still don’t recommend it, I like to be not full but not hungry, right in the middle.

Something I’ve noticed helps when drinking a lot of coffee, that I like doing is, juicing a fresh lemon is at least 8oz of water. It helps me stay hydrated, also be aware of your coffee consumption, and your health. Safety and health first, do not forget what is important. As Nacho Libre says “Take it easy.”

On a side note, drinking too much coffee/caffeine has been noted to affect perception of taste. So if you are doing a lot of tastings, spit out the coffee, rinse your mouth with water (optional) and proceed. I’ve noticed with brown liquors that when I am tasting, after I take a sip and swallow letting the flavors linger a little, taking a sip of water (takes the burn away) and opens up some flavors.

  • Drink better coffee, you can drink all the hotel, 10hr old coffee in the world and then you will be the world most experience Hotel coffee taster, and your accomplishments will include being able to tell how many months it’s been since the last time that urn was cleaned properly.

  • Sufficient ability to brew/extract coffee, Go to a coffee shop, taste their coffee as you would drink it at home, but at least try their drip coffee and espresso. Buy a bag of their coffee and try to replicate or do it better. If the barista is not busy talk with the barista (not all barista’s are powerhouses of knowledge). Being kind gets you a long way, and always tip. ALWAYS (with respect to the tipping countries, in the USA: Terrible service 0%, bad 10%, good 15-25%, amazing 30+%, but for coffee usually $1 per drink)

However if you feel confident that your abilities and understanding is past this…

  • Procure in a legal fashion some high end, well recognized roasters roasted roasts.

I would suggest starting from the best (most famous, expensive etc.) and working yourself down. A great taster can still appreciate Starbucks’ espresso, it’s creamy, sweet, full bodied and has it’s own merit, but also it is mixed with several regions and who knows how many farmers and their crops Starbucks support around the world. That is to say specificity is hard to determine. On the other hand a single origin (SO) crop with prominent flavor attributes are really easy to find because they are just so in your face. If you can’t taste these then back to the coffee shop for you. Also you will notice as you move down the ladder the “lesser” coffees are missing aspects or strengths, it is this contrast, I think gives the best understanding.

  • Sit with the cup, sip the cup as it moves from hot to cold. Take the time to let the coffee settle in your mouth, move it around or chew on it get some saliva to mix in, like chocolate, let it melt away. What are you tasting as the coffee initially enters, the aroma as you take a sip? Get a feel for the texture. Is it smooth, watery, luscious, grainy…Does it want to be swallowed? Does it leave your mouth wet, or drying? What is the taste after you’ve swallowed, does aroma waft into your nasal cavity? Taking notes is a very handy feature, it lets you recall and see similarities.

  • Do side by side or blind tasting, with friends or in a group is always more fun. Sometimes local coffee shops will host tastings, just ask if it’s open to public or you can participate or observe. Doing a comparative brew between two regions helps understand origin better and see the differences.

  • Crossing over from tea: Reducing the consumption of certain foods will make you more perceptive. This is a Catch 22 aka a double sided sword. Because if you want to expand you palate you want to taste as many different things as possible. But if you want to make your palate more sensitive to the flavor you have to restrict the kinds of “powerful” flavors you consume. Moving to a more bland “diet” makes your palate more perceptive to aspects like, sweetness bitterness, etc. Avoiding spicy foods, alliums, things high in sugar like sodas, overly bitter foods and beverages makes the palate more sensitive to these things

In the end tasting coffee is based on building/strengthening the connection between your nose/tongue and brain. So patience, practice and perseverance will get you there no matter what.


Guatemala Xinabajul - Santa Barbara (from Sweet Maria's)
#2

Great post Deven. Thank you for this! Most of it I knew but still did not think of stringing it together like this, very inspirational to read.

I am no absolutely sure if starting with the best/most expensive is wise - they can be also quite complex so … I would leave them for later maybe. An easy start IMHO may be high quality beans with clean well defined taste profiles, so its more easy to taste and describe them. I would add complexity with growing confidence, with added benefit of spending more when it can be better used having some experience.

Also great that you mentioned the extraction, I would say not enough experience there may make it very hard to notice clear well defined tastes. My experience with Kruve sieves maked me say, that this is the topmost reason for using them for a brew - as making the particle sizes simillar makes the brew more clean and defined, reducing a part of complexity that comes from adding over and under extraction to the brew. So it becomes way easier to read …

And … one question just from curiosity - what is the price of coffee when you say its common to tip 1usd per drink? (Here its more than half of price for espresso :slight_smile: )


#3

Perception of what something tastes like can influenced by circumstance as well. For me a wine will usually “taste better” when I drink it with friends than at a tasting (a good thing Imho). Other things that can influence, are time of day, if you are tired, if you are jaded from tasting several/many wines/coffees, weather hot/cold (even humidity perhaps), and for me mood can be a big influence, what you just ate, if you did not clean your teeth, or rinse etc.

I remember once when a (respected) barista introduced me to an “amazing new 4th wave coffee blend” (don’t remember exactly the exact words) from a well known roaster - the barista hyped this as being much better than the roasters “old” regular blend (which is/was a great favorite of mine). Unfortunately I was unable to detect any difference between the new and old blend - it just seemed the same to me… The barista was very disappointed that I could not tell the difference (and I suspect he totally lost faith in my tasting abilities). When I asked the owner of the roastery what the difference was he couldn’t stop laughing and eventually explained that I was 100% correct - because it was actually the same blend marketed under a different name!!! As a bit of background he had been pressed to produce an updated blend - but blind tastings showed that the preferred “most improved” blend was always the original. You might question the ethics of “rebranding” the same coffee but I suspect there was some financial pressure (and he did make a genuine effort to come up with a improved new blend first).

Which goes to show that if you want something to taste better that it can alter your perception…

Another common example I have seen is at wine tastings when the most expensive wines are (almost) always rated as the best (even when they are clearly not). And to be fair the most expensive wines often are the best (but not always).


#4

Yea I was going to not write a whole thing but then I started and…anyways much appreciated, I’m glad you liked it. With regards to the most expensive, I would have agreed with you if this was roasting coffee but for tasting coffee I feel is different. I have various conversations around with people and last night I was talking to a bartender at the only good cocktail bar in my city and he (like most) thinks that coffee is just varying degrees of bitterness (or astringency) and so I came to the same conclusion that people will think this until you put a cup of some really fruity stuff in front of them and then they are open minded when I tell them start looking for other flavors like florals, chocolate, nuts and caramel. Defining the flavor is not the issue but just being able to taste that “something” is really key. Getting clear defined tastes I don’t think is a problem with you personally or most people. When you eat a sauced pasta dish can you say there were certain ingredients/flavors in it that were really upfront? And some that built the base of the dish, those indistinct but good flavors? That is one way how I view it. Also to note when I mentioned
“not all baristas are powerhouses of knowledge” not all coffee shops make good tasting coffee, there is discretion required and finding an in house roaster or a shop that supports local roasters would be a good start.

The price in the US can certainly vary and it has been a long time since I’ve worked in a coffee shop. But I would say small drip = $1.60-2.60, espresso single shot (double basket avg19g) $2.50, Milk drinks $4-6. Like I said it’s been a while so take those numbers with some cream and sugar :smiley:


#5

Definitely best to start with the best wine and work backwards too. Basically the same principle - if you don’t taste the good stuff you don’t know what you are missing.

Particularly if you go to a trade show where you can taste lots of stuff. If you start with the cheap stuff you are too jaded to appreciate the good stuff once you get to it.


#6

Deven thanks for sharing about coffee tasting.

I can see I am going to have to do a lot more tasting of different coffees - and being more diligent about how I taste them. So much to learn.


#7

Deven sure, but that is what I ment by high quality coffee … you can get fruity african or south american coffee for a decent prices, far from best/most expensive (which can sometimes be more of a price than taste difference :smiley: ) … I am talking of the level I am used to, which is by my standards high quality for a good price …
Regarding the complexity … I think its a very different thing if one can simply enjoy the high complexity, and if one can describe that complexity. So my view of this is its easier to start when the complexity of tastes is lower and they are well defined, so one can build some confidence of detecting them and then when more complex tastes come there is some library of tastes allready known and its easier to separate some more … but any path is good and I think simply starting is the biggest step :smiley:
I have still loads of problems expressing lots of tastes in words, partly because I am not thinking of tastes in a “food” library only, but I use sound and image a lot in my head … so I say quite often that a taste is bass/mid/high … or “see” spikes in those regions of some taste in my head … or say a taste is “yellow” or “green” or “red” … and this is way less easy to understand for many I think. Its way easier if I say its sort of like canteloup melon for one kind of those “yellow/orange” tastes, yet its not a canteloup melon actually in my head, its just yellow taste kind of sort of melonish - not the same well defined taste I ment when I said if the taste is decribed as strawberry I expect to feel straberriness … that is the confusing part that sometimes we are not equiped with wide enough library to find best descriptor and than its kindofsortofbutnotexactlythat-ish :smiley:


#8

: ) lovely … I have to say I have had this same experience with a client once, doing some animation work for TV comercial. It was quite funny actually and shows how much we are influenced by our expectations - I played a loop of that animation, repeating again and again … and the client was not totally happy about it when it started playing, after few repetitions he said its getting better and at one point he shouted that now its perfect (me doing nothing at all just trying not to look to startled by this) so I just stopped the loop playing and the client was happy - he just saw it being fixed :D.
This for sure also means for me, that lots of times the decriptors on the bags can be a bad thing … as we may tend to find then even if they are not really there, if we really want to :smiley: thats the same as when you said the most expensive wines tend to be judged as better even though they might not be … very hard to not be expecting anything and just observe the tastes in what they are.

Regarding starting with the best wine when there are lots of samples … yeah sure … but its just about fatigue and overload … but would you really recommend to someone not really knowing much about wine to buy the most expensive bottle he can to start with wine tasting? I deffinitely would not do that … as quite probably he might get a lot confused as it migth not be a pleasant experience (some expensive wines are not easy to drink and understand … not speaking of archived ones, that are not really ment to be opened and tasted … :smiley: )


#9

OK I think I gave the wrong impression - does this make more sense? Remember this is just my opinion - and god forbid that anyone thinks I am an expert (= unknown quantity under pressure - “x-spurt” :slight_smile: ) And it sounds as if you know as much or more about wines as I do…

And the comment about trying the expensive stuff first at trade shows was out of context and misleading - and you are right it is simply about fatigue. But a good tip for trade shows imho…

I think when getting started it is definitely a good thing to drink at least some really good wine - go to tasting of expensive wines - they are often great value (much cheaper than buying the bottles…). Also if you are lucky you will get a good presenter that will teach you something :slight_smile:

And as you said about coffee it doesn’t have to be the very best - just things that demonstrate the good qualities. Though a few exceptional bottles (or tastes at a tasting) will really help you to learn what is possible (a bit like getting a few god-shot espressos).

IMHO it also worth doing some tastings of older wines and some verticals (same wine different vintages). Personally I love the flavours developed in older wines - but it is not everyone’s cup of tea.

That way you can start off by learning what the good stuff tastes like. And getting a good basis to judge what other wines taste like. Basically this will help to form an understanding of the qualities of good wines early. After this you can often find/identify much cheaper wines that show the same great qualities (for example I think there are many really good white wines here in Hungary that are excellent value)

Most people do the reverse drink cheap stuff for years. Then when they try good stuff they are so used to cheap stuff that they don’t even like the good stuff… Though to be fair that probably does save them money :slight_smile:


#10

Expectations are very interesting: With the ad on a loop - it seems that the material was always good - but initially the client was unfamiliar - but as it was repeated he started to understand how it worked - and appreciate that it was good.

And he (mis)interpreted this as the fact that it was being changed/improved.

In a way the rebadged coffee is the same, once the pre-conditioning of the old packaging is removed people can try the coffee from a fresh point of view and appreciate for what it is…

And a further bit of context this was a medium/large roaster whose “old” signature blend was being criticized by new small craft roasters as “old fashioned” when trying to steal his customers - hence the requests from customers to create a new blend. Driven by false perceptions created by competitors…


#11

@pavel I saw a video talking about creating the flavor wheel (i think I’ll try and find the video and post it) talked exactly about the color and association with flavor. I think you are on the right track, I say this because you sound like I did half a decade ago. I just trying to reassure you that it’s no biggie you’re on the right track :smile:

Here is the SCA(A) flavor wheel and we can see that they color the lime flavor, lime-ish color

+1 I’m going to use that one

I love older wines. Especially an old Champagne.


#12

Hey a cool quote feature I didn’t know about

This is the main reason that I like to do my “basic” descriptions first - as I find it helps to me not just repeat what someone else said. Then I can add “poetic” stuff later - and I find that when/if I do add “poetic” notes they tend to be more what I actually taste (and less influenced by any notes someone else made).

I think this is because my “basic” notes are my own work - and they form a foundation that I can build on. So doing this is a good technique for me to separate myself from preconceptions. Also if/when I cannot identify “poetic” flavours (which often happens to me) then the basic means I at least have something…


#13

Absolutely! Though to be honest it is so expensive that I do not have the opportunity very often…

I find that the older Blanc de Blanc (100% Chardonnay) champagnes can be amazing (the few I tasted).

Also Cristal is great - it seems to change from tight closed and acidic - to something amazing after around 12 years in the bottle. Tip from an MW I knew “never drink until it is at least 12 years old”. Sad story is we had a good amount of Cristal 1990(?) around in NZ - but then the Americas cup came to town and the billionaires bought every bottle - and drank it like lemonade 10 years before it was ready… aaagh… (if you are a billionaire I apologize - and please send me a few cases of Cristal :slight_smile: )

Though my favorite aged wines are probably reds, or maybe great Alsace dry Riesling, or maybe sweet whites, or maybe Port or maybe… ok I give up I don’t know…

And please use the “x-spurt” it is certainly not original I copied it from someone else…

And once again I need to be careful not to hijack the thread. Hopefully a little wine talk gives some perspective - but this should be mostly about coffee.


#14

I am the opposite of a billionaire and if there are any here, reading…lurking send me a case too :slight_smile:

Personally, I don’t very much care about derailment, with such a lack of talking I find any contribution nice, and I could easily make a correlation of older Blanc de Blanc similar to that of what George Horwell is doing with his aging of green coffee. He also talks about coffee and I enjoy his videos https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mg9MqGCRHDw


#15

Yeah :slight_smile: x-spurt … niiiice :smiley:

I can say I do have some appreciation for some aged wines, but then there are many that I think if you dont know the whys you have hard times understanding why it should be good or interesting. I am more into 1-7 years old wines, but that might be also due to my preferences of tastes and origins.
I am not much into red, mostly dry white wines … just for a little bit of explanation :slight_smile: If think I am no where near your depth @jmuir2009 in wines anymore … used to be on a good path to it some years ago, but now I have just not enough exposure to it :slight_smile: (I have usually around 5 /different/ espressos a day, but usually around a bottle of wine a month these days :smiley: )

One experience that I have from those old times when I was very much into wine - we did drink only Chardonnay for a few years (5 maybe) … from all over the world but only chardonnay. Both on the more expensive side and not so much expensive, reserves, all kinds we could get our hands on. It really gave me quite an insight into this variety at that time, as we noticed very subtle differences. Its really very much about the exposure and having someone to help along the way also helps a lot - but sometimes also making it sort of simple … like staying with one variety for some time, learning a lot about it.

And back to coffee - just to make clear why I am a little against saying best/mostexpensive as something someone being a beginner should seek for - if I think what coffees are the most expensive here, its probably Jamaica blue mountain, Hawai Kona, Kopi Luwak, Gesha … and probably except of Gesha (which can be a great example of florals, but quite often is not … that much floral :))) ) its not really too helpfull for a beginner compared to how much they cost. On the other hand, there are dozens of roasteries that I know of cause I tried their coffee, that have lots of coffees at normal prices, that exhibit all those interesting fruity/floral/… tastes this was all about. Of cause buying some Tim Wendelboe packs thats is something I would recommend very much, but though a bit higher priced its not the most expensive at all :)) So thats why I say high quality medium priced ones …


#16

Deven - what is the opposite of a billionaire? :)))


#17

Completely agree - completely agree I think Gesha is probably good to try. But IMHO the other three seem to be priced mainly on rarity - so (as you said) you can get much cheaper options to demonstrate the same qualities. Then a bit later you can try the really exotic stuff once or twice - just to see what the fuss is about.

The same happens in wine there are some overpriced rare wines (which are usually very good), but you can get much cheaper (but still excellent wines) as examples to demonstrate flavours. However in wines in wines it is a bit easier to taste the really expensive stuff as there are often (or occasionally) tasting that you can get to…


#18

Apparently I am a strange one - I just loved the aged characters from the first time I tried them… “Ohmigod that is amazing!!!”

My first wine tasting was a vertical of high quality Chianti (which is basically Sangiovese + some other grapes) - oldest maybe 20 years. My favorites were the three oldest ones, plus another one (recognized as the best vintage) which had developed some great aged flavours. Strangely enough these were pretty much the the least favorite with all the other people at the tasting - who liked the the young stuff… Other than the presenter who was surprised that I like the same stuff as him (we became friends).

Sounds like you prefer whites did you ever try Trimbach Clos St Hune? I think this is probably the best dry Riesling I ever drank - just has such pure flavours. The quality is so great that a 20 or 30 year example still tastes young. And all (most) of the other wine from Trimbach is also great - but Clos St Hune is the jewel in the crown. Some context I was able to drink a lot of this at a reasonable ( = ridiculously cheap for the quality) as an importer in NZ “accidentally” got sent pallets instead of boxes (or so the story goes). But for whatever the reason I could buy 15-20 year old vintages for about 30/40 eur… My only regret is that I didn’t realize how fortunate I was (or I would have bought a lot more). Currently post 2000 vintages are around 100-125 and the 20 to 30 year old stuff is around 300 to 600 (or even over 1000)!!! And IMHO this wine is so good that 100 is reasonable (or even cheap) for the quality - but be sure to check tasting notes and get a good vintage (or several and do a vertical :slight_smile: ). This wine consistently rates in the 92-94 (with a few in the high 80s) - Jancis Robinson’s notes are good if you can find them.

And if you mainly like whites then IMHO you may enjoy Italian reds as they tend to have a lot of acid in the structure = “sort of like” the structure of a white wine (whereas most other reds have a more tannin-based structure - which is less approachable). Anyway just my random thoughts…


#19

I think it has really lots of layers. I would not say you are a strange one at all :slight_smile: we all have different experiences and preferences, that is all fine and good :D. For me, its my preference to “light” tasting wines (white over red, dry over sweet, light over heavy …) that makes me not prefere archived ones overall, and that makes me choose what I do … its very simillar in my coffee choices, where I do prefere intense fruitiness or florals, so africans and some south americans are what I really choose the most often. Yet at the same time I try intentionally drink as wide selection of coffee as I can that I am still able to enjoy (so almost no dark roasts :)) to keep my ability to appreciate a coffee very different from my preferences. Yet if you did let me pick one region it would be Ethiopia for me. If I had to drink a coffee from only one region from now on, I would go for this one :smiley:


#20

Err … maybe light is not the best way how to describe what I mean … because my light can be a pretty intense taste, yet its not “heavy” taste … it can be rich, full, but still on a light side for me … or maybe bright is better to call it, not sure.