Have you ever been at a loss while trying to taste the flavor notes printed on your favorite bag of coffee? While these notes are helpful to experienced coffee tasters, the everyday coffee drinker is often flat out confused what it means when a coffee is going to taste like mandarin oranges, raspberries, and almonds. My goal is to break down this barrier of understanding and help you become and expert at coffee tasting, decode tasting notes into practical and approachable flavor expectations.
Being a good taster means being aware and, like any good skill, lots of practice. It comes down to intentionally tasting and comparing foods, drinks, and coffee constantly to build a frame of reference of all kinds of flavors to develop your palate and be able to understand what these tasting notes mean.
Building a Mental Flavor Catalog
Think about what you are experiencing every time you eat or have something to drink, it doesn’t matter what it is. Make mental notes about different flavor experiences: Is it sweet, bitter, acidic or savory? Is it more than one of those things? Think about the mouthfeel, is it heavy or light? Does it have an effervescent sensation or does it linger on your palate? How do these aspects interact with each other? Do they work together harmoniously? Do you like it? Why or why not? What personal experience or memory does it remind you of?
This will require you to be deliberate and thoughtful when consuming, which might be a difficult task for some. This part is absolutely key to helping you become a better overall taster, regardless of the application.
Building a mental archive of these flavor experiences will help you to develop a frame of reference for tasting coffees or foods in the future and will help you be able to identify these unique flavors more vividly.
Practice, Practice, Practice
No one becomes an Olympic athlete, artist, or doctor in a single day. It requires a lot of time and dedication to delve into a subject matter and become good at it. In the case of tasting, you’ve got it pretty easy, compared to the few examples above. Other than simply being aware of what I eat and drink every day, I like to practice by working on certain flavor families one at a time so that I don’t overwhelm myself. Go to the store and buy a whole bunch of citrus, like limes, lemons, oranges, tangerines and grapefruits. Taste and smell them side by side. How are they similar to each other? How do they differ? What experience or memory does each one remind you of? Then next time, buy all kinds of berries, like strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries. Do the same exercise. How are they similar? How do they differ? What memory do they remind you of?
Try this same technique for:
Chocolate – milk chocolate, baker’s, semi-sweet, dark, cocoa powder
Nuts – almonds, cashews, peanuts, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts
Baking Spices – nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, star anise
Sugars – caramel, butterscotch, toffee, honey, brown sugar, molasses
Apples – Honeycrisp, Granny Smith, Red Delicious, Fuji
Grapes – white, green, red, concord
Stone Fruit – cherries, plums, peaches, nectarines, apricots
Dried Fruit – golden raisins, raisins, dates, prunes, dried cranberries
Tropical Fruit – pineapple, passion fruit, mango, papaya, coconut
Melons – cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon
Herbs – oregano, tarragon, rosemary, thyme, mint, dill, sage
Vegetables – beets, mushrooms, peppers, squash
This isn’t a comprehensive list of every flavor found in coffee, just a handful. Each flavor family is quite large and can be easily overwhelming. I recommend starting simple and go with a few items rather than all of them at the beginning. Maybe just taste one type of apple, one type of grape, and a lemon next to each other, and compare and contrast the acidity and sweetness of each. Light and medium roasted coffees often have a vibrant acidity with lots of varying acids and sugars that can taste like any number of fruits, so this will help build a context for you to consider when tasting these coffees.
I also like to think about memories and experiences that these flavor and aromatic sensations recall, because we all have memories tied to food or smells. These can be quite powerful and when tasting coffee, it can be much easier to think about a memory that it reminds you of, and figure out what you are tasting from there, rather than trying to deduce the flavor alone.
Lastly, coffee and food pairings can be really enlightening as well. Look at your coffee package and buy the foods that are listed as the flavor notes, tasting them alongside the coffee think about the flavor pairing. Do the flavors in the coffee become more intense? Can you pick up the note or are other flavors accentuated instead? This can be really helpful to learn what each flavor translates to as a coffee flavor.
Context is Everything
Remember that identifying sensory experiences of taste and smell depends entirely upon context. Learning to taste and identify different flavor attributes in coffee is quite difficult when tasting one coffee without any reference. This is why a mental catalog of different flavor experiences is helpful to determine exactly what it is you are tasting. However, until you have built up your personal memory of these flavors and aromas, it’s quite helpful to give yourself an immediate context to compare and contrast with.
In addition to tasting various flavor families or pairing food with coffees, I recommend tasting multiple coffees side by side, which gives you a context, and helps give your sense of taste a frame of reference for what different origins or processing methods might taste like. Tasting them one at a time, they might taste, well… like coffee. Introduce a few more coffees and instantly one might taste more chocolaty, while another one suddenly tastes more tart or acidic and the other tastes earthy. Tasting a few coffees side by side is one of the best ways to develop a sense of what flavor profiles you enjoy in coffee, and even what it means for a coffee to have notes of fruit or caramel or nuts. Often times, coffee shops will offer free public tastings or cuppings and these are great opportunities to taste different coffees side by side and further educate your palate.
Coffee Tasting Resources
The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) just released the first update to the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel for the first time since it was released 21 years ago. This new wheel was a multi-industry collaboration with input, research and design from a multitude of sources doing truly amazing work. If you want to learn the basics of how to use this incredible tool to help develop your palate, I recommend you start here for a simple and approachable guide. You can read all about how these organizations and universities worked together to create it here. For the seriously science-minded, you can learn about the intensive research from some incredible folks at UC Davis here. If you are a coffee professional or just want to be able to understand the wheel better and use it appropriately, the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon is the foundation of the new wheel and quite useful for understanding coffee sensory experiences at a deeper level.
“It just tastes like coffee”
Remember that these flavors rarely jump out at you right away and that coffees generally still taste mostly like coffee (whether your local baristas admit it or not). The ultimate goal should be to develop a vocabulary that helps you to relate what you are tasting and effectively communicate it to others. The notes on the label or the bag aren’t always the only flavors found in each coffee and there certainly won’t be a test on it. It’s important to remember that different flavors often come across in varying levels of intensity, so don’t be discouraged if you easily pick up notes of chocolate or citrus, but have a hard time finding the notes of jasmine or flowers in the aroma.
How you grind and brew a coffee, how fresh the coffee is, and even the water you brew with can affect how a specialty coffee might taste, and it might be quite different than what someone else with the same coffee might experience. Try not to take it too seriously and remember that it’s all about making your coffee enjoying experience that much better.
Soon enough, you’ll be a coffee tasting master and you’ll want to host a coffee tasting party for your friends or tell your local roaster that what they taste as “home made cherry cola” actually just tastes like strawberries to you.