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How to Taste Coffee Like an Expert

March 10, 2022

Top Tips for Improving Your Coffee Tasting Palate

 

Spiller & Tait customers often tell us it's the depth of flavour of our coffees that differentiates them compared to other coffee brands.  To achieve this, all of our coffees, whether single origin or blended, are designed to be balanced, rich and lacking bitterness, while enhancing the subtle flavours inherent in the beans. These are taste qualities we know are highly valued by coffee drinkers.

Occasionally, we are asked for advice on how to approach the tasting of coffee so that the range of flavours in our drinks can be fully appreciated.  This blog provides a summary of the tips we offer for opening up taste buds and expanding your palate to appreciate the taste of fresh coffee like an expert.

1. Start with Your Favourite Brew Method

For professionals in the coffee trade, coffee tasting is a technical procedure called a Cupping.  We don’t recommend you try to replicate Cupping at home.  Without extensive training and specialist equipment, Cupping (which involves slurping black coffee from a spoon) can deliver such an intense flavour that most people find it overwhelms their palate and prevents them from discerning any subtlety in flavours.

 Therefore, coffee connoisseurs intent on extracting full flavour from a coffee will use a pour-over method, like a V60 dripper or Chemex, because these brew methods tend to deliver a clean cup (see Cleanliness below), making it easier to discern the flavours in a black coffee.  If you're new to this brewing method and want to give it a try, have a look at our guide to making pour-over coffee in a Chemex.  However, our advice to customers is to start the taste appreciation process with their usual brew method, whether Cafetiere, Espresso or Aeropress and with or without milk, because this is likely to be a method that they have already mastered to maximise flavour.  In our view, the brew method is secondary in enhancing flavour, when compared to the consistency of the grind, the cleanliness of the water and the fresh beans.  So, using your usual brew method is the best place to start.

2. Use Your Nose

Taste isn't just about what you experience on your tongue. The perception of flavour comes from our body's chemosensation system, in which olfactory (smell) and gustatory (taste) inputs converge.  While you naturally use your sense of smell when you drink, we recommend actually pausing to smell your coffee and to do this at a few specific moments in the coffee making process:

  • Smell the whole beans when you open your storage device (we always recommend starting with whole beans for maximum flavour);
  • Smell the ground coffee as soon as it has been ground;
  • If you're doing a pour-over or Cafetiere, inhale the bloom (first wetting of the grounds), before you pour on the rest of the water;
  • Prior to your first sip, tilt the cup over the bridge of your nose and inhale.

Each of these steps will smell slightly different.  But, collectively, they are warming up your chemosensation system so that you are able to discern the full flavour of the coffee when you finally come to drink.



3. Take Several Sips

There is a sipping sequence coffee experts follow to assess flavours in a cup.  After inhaling the aroma, they start with a tiny sip, followed by a more extended slurp into the mouth, aerating the coffee as it travels across the entire surface of the tongue.  This is followed by another tiny sip.  Like the smelling sequence described above, these sipping steps help to wake up your brain to the full range of flavours.  Experts also keep their eyes closed, in an effort to focus their tongue while specifically searching for the following taste characteristics:

  • Sweetness: Can you detect specific kinds of sweet tastes, such as honey, molasses, brown sugar or caramel?
  • Acidity: Also known as "brightness," acidity brings out tastes such as citrus, blueberry, strawberry, or even flavours like watermelon and tomato.  Please note, acidity isn’t the same as acidic, which is a measure of pH and not a question of taste.
  • Body: While the brew method does influence the weight of a coffee in your mouth, different beans and roast profiles feel different in the mouth. Does the coffee feel rich and heavy, light, watery, or smooth?
  • Flavour: Coffee is often sold with tasting notes, which describe the flavour hints that should be detectable in the cup (like note of hazelnut and soft fruits).  These are not artificial flavours added to the coffee, but describe the subtle flavours which are derived from the complex compounds in the essential oils which emerge during the Roasting Process.  Picking out these flavours isn't easy, especially in the early stages of developing your coffee palate.  If you can’t identify specific flavours, try to put them into taste families, like: chocolate/cocoa, earthy/herbal, or fruit-like.  As you become more accustomed to doing this, you will begin to identify individual flavour notes.  You can refer to the Speciality Coffee Associations Flavour Wheel,  which is a great tool to help you pinpoint specific flavours.
  • Cleanliness: This under-estimated aspect of taste is what happens after you swallow.  Harsh coffees can linger, often with a singular flavour (which can be bitter, or smokey), while cleaner coffees leave your palate feeling neutral.  The latter is a prized aspect of great coffee and what we aim for in most Spiller & Tait coffees.
  • Finish: A magical thing about a great cup of coffee is that, even five minutes after you sip it, you can still experience its flavours.  This finish is normally described in terms of duration and texture.  Is it fleeting or lingering? Is it rough or smooth?  What’s your last impression of it?  Are you sad to see it go?

In the end, taste is highly personal.  But, by starting to think more about what you're drinking and following the expert steps, you should be able to identify what types of coffee you really enjoy most.  This can change over time, just as your tastes for wine, beer and other beverages naturally changes.

4. Look for the Signature of a Great Cup

When evaluating the quality of a roast, there are a few things experts look for, especially in coffees that are rare, exotic, or expensive:

  • Is there a complex layering of flavour? Are there taste notes that play well with one another in harmony? Think about the complementary interplay between salt and caramel, versus an earthy background with odd hints of citrus, as two counter-examples.
  • What's the timing of the tastes? Great coffees normally have a sequence of two or three sets of flavours.  A one-note coffee can be tasty, but great coffees will often have a compelling beginning, middle and end as those distinct flavours come through.
  • The single best marker of a great coffee is what happens to the flavour over time, as the temperature changes. Great coffees invariably get more and more interesting, and tasty, as they cool because the flavour notes are more discernible at lower temperatures.  If you lose a few degrees and a bitter taste emerges, it’s likely to be a lower quality coffee.  When a drink is hot, the heat can hide defects like tar, bitter, or sour tastes.  But, as it cools, if these flavour defects are present, they will emerge and overwhelm the subtle flavour notes, making the coffee less appealing.

5. Practice

If all of this seems complicated, don’t worry.  Your morning cup gives you an opportunity each day to develop your palate, which will become more discerning as you give the tasting process more attention.  But, you can help things along by having a basis for comparison, so brew a couple of different coffees and taste them with friends.  Our Taster Packs are perfect for this, but you can do it with any coffee.  You could even compare fresh coffee with not-so-fresh coffee, though you can probably guess what the results will be.  Consider it an interesting experiment to see which flavours you and your friends agree on, and which, perhaps, only you seem to pick up on. 

 

Another interesting comparison is to taste some single origin coffees from different regions of the world, to see how regional differences in growing conditions have a significant impact on the flavour of coffee beans.  Our Coffees of The World Collection is ideal for this purpose.

 

We hope you enjoy the journey of tasting coffee like an expert!





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