Some people are lucky enough to have a highly refined palate. These are the kind of people who can easily detect specific stone fruits in a cup of coffee or name a defect by taste alone. And this equips them with a valuable tool: a refined palate will help them to enjoy their brews even more, not to mention further their coffee career.
But while some of us may be born with more of a sensitive palate than others, the good news is that being able to taste coffee is a learned skill. You too can develop an excellent palate, because good coffee tasters are people who practise, practise, and practise some more.
Lee este artículo en Español: Ejercicios de Catación para Mejorar tu Paladar
Lok Chan competes at the World Cup Tasters Championship 2017. Credit: Dick Cheung
A World Champion’s Tips for Improving Your Palate
Few people know this better than Lok Chan, the World Cup Tasters Champion 2017.
Last year, Lok and I met on the Ally Coffee Champs Trip. It was one week of non-stop coffee drinking, brewing, and learning as we visited some of Brazil’s best specialty farms, most of which produced natural processed Catuaí, Catucai, or Bourbon.
Lok tells me that his personal favourite was from the organic Minamihara Farms in Alta Mogiana: a coffee with an aroma of white flowers and berries; a flavour of white flowers, blackcurrant, and grapefruit; a citrus acidity; and a smooth body. It’s a description that makes your mouth water – and the kind of description that only someone with a well-developed palate could give.
He kindly agreed to give me his advice for improving your palate, as did the rest of the Ally Coffee team and my SCA Sensory Foundation Course Trainer Régine Guion-Firmin. Read on to discover their tips.
You might also like: How World Barista Champion Berg Wu Won His Title
Lok Chan cups coffees at Minamihara Farms during the Ally Coffee Champs Trip of Brazil. Credit: Angie Molina
1. Drink Coffee, Coffee, & More Coffee
The first step is a simple one – in fact, no doubt, you’re already doing it. Drink coffee. Drink a lot of it. And most importantly, drink a variety of it. Lok tells me that trying different coffee origins, and different roasts from different roasters, can help you distinguish between the huge range of profiles and flavours out there.
Taking notes while cupping, using a industry standard form or an internal format tailored for your business, is an excellent way to build sensory perception. Credit: Ally Coffee
2. Add Fruit & Candies to Your Diet
How can you recognise something if you’ve never experienced it before? In order to be a great cup taster, you need to be familiar with a wide range of flavours – and one of the most common types of notes in coffee is fruit-based. Try eating as many different fruits as possible.
However, depending on where you live, this can be hard. You’ll rarely see a mangosteen in a British supermarket or a prickly pear in Japan. So, what do Lok and the rest of his team at Craft Coffee, Hong Kong do? They train by eating candy, which Lok tells me can be very similar to fruit.
Yes, if your parents had known that you were going to become a cup taster, things might have been different in your childhood!
Candies: a practical way to increase your awareness of different flavours. Credit: Norman Kazi
3. Know Your Basic Tastes
You cannot start tasting coffee by trying to tell the difference between lemon and yuzu notes, for example. Instead, you need to become familiar with the basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. In the SCA Sensory Foundation Course, it’s recommended that you try the following solutions to train yourself in recognising them:
Sweet: 24 g sucrose per litre of water
Sour: 1.2 g citric acid per litre of water
Salty: 4 g NaCl (salt) per litre of water
Bitter: 0.54 g caffeine per litre of water
Umami: 2 g monosodium glutamate per litre of water
Cupping coffee in a blind tasting. Credit: TAOCA COFFEE
4. Train With The Sensory Lexicon
Dean Kallivrousis, Q grader and Account Manager at Ally Coffee, trains with his team using the World Coffee Research (WCR) Sensory Lexicon – the same lexicon that the colourful Coffee Flavor Taster’s Wheel is based on. The lexicon, and the wheel, contain numerous flavours that you might experience in coffee (although not all; as WCR says, it is a reference that is currently evolving).
“The flavor lexicon was invented to give a standardized language on how coffee professionals talk about flavor, with a reference and intensity scale of 1–15,” Dean explains. He believes it is a great tool for improving sensory skills.
You can download a free pdf from WCR, which contains all the information you need to conduct your own workshop.
Flavor Wheel and coffee ready for cupping. Credit: Sinan
5. Use The Coffee Flavor Map T100
Another tool that coffee professionals should consider is The Aroma Kit Coffee Flavor Map T100 – in fact, Lok trains with it once a month. It contains aromas representing 100 common coffee flavours, making it incredibly useful for people wishing to develop their palate. In fact, there’s even a World Aromaster Championship in which coffee professionals compete to accurately label the various scents.
Not only does the kit develop your ability to distinguish between different flavours, but it also helps you to calibrate your senses. You can describe notes in a universal language and professional settings.
The Coffee Map: 100 coffee scents and cards, along with a detailed book. Credit: Ricardo Vaquerano
6. Practise Matching Organic Acids
There are so many different types of organic acids in coffee: citric, malic, phosphoric, quinic, tartaric, lactic… And each one will produce a different taste sensation. Being able to recognise the different acids, and describe them, will help you to further understand and appreciate your coffee.
Learn more! Read Coffee Chemistry: Breaking Down Where Flavor Comes From
Régine tells me, “What people should understand is not the intensity… [but] how this intensity reacts on their tongue. Therefore, they will recognize the intensity and will be able to detect it whenever they are exposed to it, even if laced with a different acid.”
But how do you train yourself to recognise the different acids? Well, Régine recommends the following:
- Brew a weak coffee (50 g of coffee per litre of water)
- Split this brew between five cups:
- Cup 1 – reference cup; add nothing
- Cup 2 – add 0.2 g of malic acid
- Cup 3 – add 0.2 g of tartaric acid
- Cup 4 – add 0.2 g of phosphoric acid
- Cup 5 – add 0.2 g of lactic acid
- Taste the five cups, comparing all of the more acidic ones against the reference
- Repeat as a blind cupping to see if you can identify the added acid
Organic acids ready for use in training. Credit: Tanpong
My final recommendation takes inspiration from the same tasting exercise that Lok was crowned World Champion of: triangulations. These are an excellent way to train and evaluate your palate, whether in competition or in the workplace. What’s more, it’s very easy to adjust the difficulty.
To triangulate coffee, you set out three cups labelled A, B, and C. Two of them contain an identical coffee; the other, something different. Your aim is to correctly identify the different cup.
The more similar the coffees, the harder this exercise gets. You can play around with different origins, processing methods, roast styles, and even samples from different lots on the same farm. And it’s fun!
Detecting aromatic differences during a triangulation cupping. Credit: Padre Coffee
Following these exercises can help you to better understand the flavours and aromas in a cup of coffee, recognise the impact of processing and roasting, and taste the different origins. But only if you practise them regularly: a refined palate requires constant training.
So why not get started today? Head to the supermarket for some fruit and candy, set up a coffee triangulation, and read the WCR guide to the Sensory Lexicon.
Trust me: you’ll soon notice the difference that this training can make.
Enjoyed this? Coffee Chemistry: Breaking Down Where Flavor Comes From
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