Coffee tasting may have felt out of your realm in the past because its flavor is so complex and varied. However, you don’t need anything special to enjoy coffee tasting; all you need is the ability to taste and a genuine curiosity about the taste of this delicious beverage. More than anything, coffee tasting is about taking the time to sit quietly and reflect on the qualities you notice in the flavor. As complex as coffee is, with thoughtful tasting and dedication to developing this skill, you can cultivate a rich understanding of its flavor. With time, this practice may come to bring you a sense of satisfaction and happiness.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Developing the ability to taste coffee is like any skill: it requires practice. In an ideal world, you would do this by sitting in peace with a cup of coffee every day, doing only that. No email, no television, no distractions—just you and your coffee. Of course, this is not always possible. You lead a busy life, so occasional distractions are inevitable. However, no matter how busy you are, when you do drink your morning cup of joe, you should be asking yourself these questions:
- What does this taste like?
- What do I like about it?
- What do I not like about it?
Take a moment to scribble down your thoughts, even if you only list out a couple of words. The idea here is that with the time, you expand your ability to notice different aromas and tastes that you would not have otherwise. With practice, you start to pay attention to new flavors that you never noticed before, and as you write them down, you are able to optimize your tracking methods. While you can use your own vocabulary around tasting, it may be helpful to break it down into tasting categories: body, acidity, sweetness, flavor, and finish.
When you first start tasting coffee, you may find it helpful to choose one of these categories to focus on at a time. Read below for a description of each, as well as simple ways you can practice tasting for each so you can more fully understand them.
Sweetness will probably be easier for you to detect as your tongue is already used to detecting whether something is sweet or not. Do you notice a sugary quality to your java? Does it remind you of a specific type of sweetness? For example, is it sweet like a hard candy, or is sweet like maple syrup? If you have access to sweeteners such as honey, brown sugar, white sugar, and molasses, taste them each in succession and assess what makes them different from each other. Even though they are all sweet, they are sweet in different ways.
Assessing the body is about observing the weight and feel of coffee on your tongue. If you have dabbled in beer tasting, you may have noticed that stouts are heavier than pilsners, for example. Milk can also help demonstrate body. Take a sip of whole milk, one percent milk, then skim milk. You will notice that they feel thicker or thinner, heavier or lighter, in the mouth.
Acidity might be a quality you don’t tend to have positive associations with, but acidity, or “brightness,” is a popular marker of many types of coffee. Think about the spectrum of acidity in terms of citrus fruits; compare a grapefruit to a lime to a lemon, for example. Yogurt is also acidic, due to the tangy quality of lactic acid.
Flavor is the most open-ended of these categories, and you can get quite creative with it. The key to assessing flavor is to access a whole selection of different flavors to reference. Taste wines, taste beers. Eat a variety of different types of chocolate. Try new foods that you never thought to try before. Write down memories about certain aromas and foods and what they evoke for you. If you taste coffee and it brings you back to your memories of your grandmother’s cookies or the smell of your dad’s pipe, you are well on your way.
Finish refers to what happens after you swallow your sip of coffee. Does the taste or feeling linger? What impression does it leave? You can practice this with chocolate. Compare the finish of a piece of dark chocolate to a piece of milk chocolate. Does one leave a dry feeling in your mouth? Does one linger long after it’s gone? You can make these same assessments between two cups of coffee.
Each of these categories can be assessed in each cup, and within each category, there is also the opportunity to assess its strength and pleasantness. For example, some sweetness may be quite strong and unpleasant to your tongue, while some acidity may be subtle and delightful. Beyond noticing these qualities, a big part of tasting is assessing what you like or don’t like about each category, and to what degree. This is where you are able to differentiate between preferences, as well as quality of coffee.
Falling in Love With Tasting
What is wonderful about learning how to identify these five categories in coffee is that you can apply it to tasting literally anything, from spaghetti and meatballs to tea to maple syrup. The more you pay attention to your cup of coffee, the more you discover flavors to love.
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