What to Look For When Tasting Coffee
What are the things to look for when tasting coffee?
Green apples. Lavender tea. Roasted Almonds.
The flavor labels on our specialty coffee aren’t just there for show. When it comes to developing your coffee skills, one of the most important aspects is learning how to properly taste a cup of coffee. Honing your ability to identify a coffee’s distinct qualities can also help you figure out your preferences.
Follow our guide on what to look for when tasting coffee to help you on your journey towards understanding those coffee labels and tasting coffee like a connoisseur.
Can Coffee Taste Like Anything Other than Coffee?
There is a valid question that beginners have: “can you taste all of these different flavors in coffee?” The short answer is yes, you absolutely can. In fact, there’s a whole sensory lexicon and tasting guide centered on coffee tasting, which we recommend you use while you practice your coffee tasting at home.
Freshly roasted specialty coffee has unique qualities, which act as the foundation for all sorts of flavors. There’s a world of possibilities that are unlocked by how your coffee is roasted and brewed.
Aroma is how your coffee smells. Your nose can pick up thousands of different aromas, and work together with the coffee’s taste profiles to create its distinct flavors — our nose works with our tongue to create our experience of coffee tasting.
Your coffee can smell fruity, floral, savory, nutty, and loads more — savor the aroma of your coffee before taking a sip. Smelling and describing aromas is the best way to learn how to differentiate a cup of coffee from another.
Not all coffee is just bitter. Some specialty coffees are known for their sweetness, like certain Arabica varietals. But, this sweetness may not be the sugary taste you’re familiar with. They could be more fruit-like or malt-like rather than just plain sugar. This is why it's important to find the right descriptor and not just say it’s sweet.
With every coffee, ask yourself what kind of sweetness you’re tasting. And when you eat, pay attention to the differences between white and brown sugar, honey, syrup, caramel, chocolate, and so on. All of these are sweet, but each one has varying qualities. Having these sensory memories will serve as your guide to figuring out the sweetness in your coffee drink.
Acidity is what gives coffee a certain vividness, and without it, it would just taste flat. It’s worth noting that the acidity in our coffee is important in balancing the rest of the flavors.
These qualities range from lemon-like to wine-y, which you can taste on the sides of your tongue. Take a sip, roll coffee over these parts, and ask yourself: does it have a citrus-like tang or is it closer to apples and grapes? Is it muted and barely-there, or bright and forward? These are just some of the different types of acidities out there, but the ones most often found in coffee.
Bitterness is not necessarily unpleasant in coffee — it can be pleasant, given the quality of the beans, roasting, and brewing methods used. Without the bitter taste, you might find your coffee too sweet or acidic. Some bitterness is needed to ensure proper balance and flavor complexity, especially in brewing methods like espresso.
When tasting coffee, bitterness is most apparent at the back part of your tongue. Is it overwhelming, or does it seem to blend in well with the acidic and sweet notes of your drink? If you pay close attention, you might even notice hints of ashy, grainy, or tobacco-like flavors in the bitterness.
The flavor is how coffee tastes. In the beginning, tasters may find that they can only taste the general flavor of ‘coffee.’ When you start with coffee tasting it can be quite overwhelming to try and find so many flavors at once and then describe them.
If this is where you are, try taking a few more sips. At first, it might be difficult to put it into words, so consult this flavor wheel and start with the basics. Your main objective here is to identify the coffee’s flavor profile, so we recommend splitting up this main goal into smaller steps.
Can you taste something fruity about the coffee? Focus and try to describe what fruit comes to mind. It can be citrus, berry, dried, or another kind of fruit. Try your best to find a more specific description with each sip to begin building your idea of your coffee’s flavor.
Body refers to the weight and feel of the coffee on your tongue. This is one of the easiest qualities of coffee for new tasters to learn.
We often use different kinds of milk to make sense of the concept of coffee’s body. Similar to non-fat milk, light-bodied coffees are thin and watery, with very little texture on the tongue. And, like whole milk, fuller-bodied coffees feel much thicker, creamier, and may have some texture that makes them feel rugged.
The body of your coffee depends on many factors, such as the blends of beans you’re using, brew method, filter material, and many more. There won’t necessarily be good or bad descriptors, but a body that matches the rest of the coffee’s taste characteristics can make or break the experience of drinking your cup.
Consider the last impression you have of your coffee after you’re done sipping. We often describe finish in terms of duration and mouthfeel. Does it feel rough or smooth in your mouth? Does the flavor dissipate quickly? Is it long-lasting but with an unpleasant aftertaste? A long and satisfying finish is ideal as it's a reminder of the freshly brewed coffee you got to enjoy.
Being a Better Taster Every Day
Your sensory coffee skills are something that you can work on gradually. You can use our guide on how to develop your palate to take your tasting to the next level.
The next time you make a serving of Plain Sight Coffee Roaster’s specialty coffee, focus on what kinds of tastes you can find in your cup. It might take some time to develop your ability to identify and articulate more nuanced tastes, but don’t give up!
Tasting coffee is all about keeping an open mind, exploring, and experimenting. If you’re just starting, then we hope this guide on what to look for when tasting coffee helps you gain a deeper appreciation for specialty coffee and its subtleties.
A great way to deepen your coffee skills is to try a variety of blends and single-origins. Looking for new coffees to taste? Click here to check out Plain Sight Coffee Roaster’s collection. We have coffee beans from different regions, and blends of all kinds of flavor profiles for you to try out.