We’ve all been there before. Your friend takes a slow sip of the coffee and says, “Caramel, with hints of red grape and honeydew melon, I’d say. What do you think?”
“Er, yeah, I think you’re right,” you answer. You don’t quite meet their eye, because what you really think is that it tastes like, well, coffee. Good, and a little sweet, but standard coffee all the same.
The thing is, being able to pick up on the flavour profile of a coffee doesn’t just look impressive—it also heightens your enjoyment. And although at first it might seem impossible to distinguish between flavour profiles, it’s actually pretty easy to train your palate. Like anything, practice makes perfect. The more we expose ourselves to the different flavours and attributes of coffee, the better we become at identifying them. And I have 5 steps to share with you that will make it even easier.
Spanish Version: Catación de Café: 5 Pasos Claves para el Dominio de la Catación
Coffee lovers, this should be done black so as to isolate the flavours and taste balance.
Step 1: Find a Network
First of all, you should find a local roastery, coffee shop, or coffee network with regular coffee cupping and tasting. Go along to a few shops and ask if they do cuppings or know someone who does. It may seem difficult at first, especially if you live in a small town, but keep persevering; you’ll find one eventually. You can view our Public Cuppings interactive map to find a regular and FREE public coffee cupping near you.
Its Cupping Time! Credit: Counter Culture Coffee
Step 2: Get a Flavour Wheel
My favourite flavour wheel is this one from Counter Culture Coffee. I’ve found it has the best layout and range of flavour spectrums. It’s downloadable from their website and can be blown up to quite a nice size, so you can even pin it up on your wall.
No coffee enthusiast should be without their coffee flavour wheel. Credit: Counter Culture Coffee
Study it to familiarise yourself with the categories, and make sure to bring it along when you do a coffee cupping/tasting.
Step 3: Identifying Taste Balance
Wondering when you’re actually going to start drinking coffee? Don’t worry, we’ve finally reached that stage. The first thing you need to know is that different flavours stimulate different parts of the tongue. When drinking coffee (or anything else), try to identify which part of your tongue you can taste it on. Then compare it to the diagram below to know what taste it is. Start a taste journal and make notes of what you can taste.
The idea that different flavours stimulate different parts of the tongue has been scientifically disputed. However, I feel this exercise is still useful to engage with and analyse different flavours.
Taste balance on the tongue (and yes, I know it may not be 100% correct). Credit: Paul Malagrifa, Musings on the Vine
Finding this difficult? Don’t worry. An easy way to practise is to dissolve some potent ingredients (sugar, salt, lemon, etc.) into water and then taste them.
SEE ALSO: 5 Coffee Brewing Methods – Throw Yourself into the Sweet, Dark and Deep End of the Coffee World
Step 4: Identifying the Flavours
You know how we finally started tasting coffee? I’m afraid we’re going to have to put it back down for this next step. Don’t worry, it’ll be back as soon as we’ve got used to the general flavour of coffee profiles. It’s all very well trying to taste the flavours, but if we don’t know the difference between lemongrass and lemonade, we’re still not going to be able to identify them.
Flavour wheel? Tick. Samples of coffee flavours? Tick. Coffee? Coming soon
We want to practise tasting some common coffee flavours. Lay out a nice variety of them. I always use lemon, grapefruit, orange, Granny Smith apples, strawberries/mixed berries, 70% dark chocolate, salted cashew nuts, and butter biscuits. This selection gives you a nice variety of the taste balance attributes and also covers a lot of the more common coffee flavours. Personally, I prefer to keep it simple in the beginning, but you could also add a spice or two and some of the herbs on the flavour wheel. You may also want to amend this list to match the popular local coffees.
I find it works best to start by tasting the sweet fruits, move on to the more acidic ones, then the chocolate followed by the nuts, and then finally the butter biscuits. Remember to take notes on what you’re tasting and where, and also keep referring to the flavour wheel to help you get used to the categories.
Step 5: Taste the Coffee
While the flavours are fresh in your mind, it’s time to taste the coffee. First of all, clean your palate by drinking some water or chewing plain white bread. Also, make sure your flavour wheel is on hand.
Next, make a note of what type of coffee you’re tasting, for example, Ethiopian Sidamo or Indian Mysore. Make sure you have some ready that reflects the flavours you’ve just tried, such as a raspberry and caramel biscuit with a buttery dark chocolate finish. (When buying your coffee, don’t be afraid to ask about the flavour profile if it’s not on the packaging—and don’t forget, as always, to check the best brewing methods and parameters for them).
Now that we’ve finished preparing, it’s time to actually begin drinking the coffee. Follow these four steps:
1. Have a good sip. Write down your first impression (e.g. watery, fruity, citrus tones, nutty), if it’s good or bad, and where on your tongue you can taste it.
2. Take a second sip to reinforce the taste, and make any amendments to your notes that you need to.
3. Have a good slurp—the louder, the better! Slurping allows the coffee to cover the whole surface of your tongue while also increasing the amount of oxygen which heightens the sensation in your mouth.
4. Take a big sip and swirl the coffee around your mouth for about 5 seconds, before swallowing. You’ll have experienced the complete taste of the coffee, and should also be able to identify exactly where on your tongue it resonates. Don’t forget to write it down!
In the middle of coffee tasting
Learning to identify the flavours in coffee takes lots of time and practice, but trust me, it’s possible to go from novice to pro just by repeating these 5 steps. While we all love the taste, aroma, and caffeine buzz of a good cup of coffee, learning how to dissect the flavour and taste balance can add a new level of enjoyment. I’m always searching for new and unique coffees, and I know I’ll never stop because there’ll always be new combinations of flavours to try.
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Edited by T. Newton
Feature Photo Credit: Counter Culture Coffee
Perfect Daily Grind.