by Catherine Franks
So, how does your coffee taste?
We have a running joke here at Steampunk when tasting a new coffee for the first time. The roasters have cupped the coffee many times by this stage. First, as a green sample (when they are choosing what to buy) and then many more times as they work up a profile of how to roast it.
Finally, after much experimenting, tweaking and perfecting they will ask others of us in the team to taste the culmination of their efforts. We are at the stage where we need to describe the coffee to potential customers, how do we let people know which coffee to choose and get an idea whether they will like it? Is it smooth and rich, light and tea-like? Does it have more chocolatey notes or a fruity character?
Slowly we sip the new coffee. We swirl it around in our mouths. We may even slurp. The roaster is watching us carefully. Do we look like we are going to love this coffee or say something negative? So we take our time, we think carefully about all the flavours in that coffee, then we look the roaster dead in the eye and say it tastes like … coffee.
Trust me, they love it!
Joking aside, taste is of course both a very simple and a very complex thing. It is something we do every day without thinking and yet, as with most things, as we learn more about taste and flavour we realise how very little we know and what a complex and fascinating topic it is. There is endless information available online to help you explore taste in greater detail and I hope you will check out some of the links in this article as well as dive deeper down some rabbit holes that interest you. Here, I would like to look at a few of the basics to consider as you start to think more about taste.
First, context is everything. Think back to the best coffee you have ever tasted. Now think about where you were, who you were with, the circumstances surrounding that cup. One of my most memorable cups was this: I had decided to do a caffeine detox (why I thought this a good idea I can no longer remember) and had gone a week without coffee - the first three days were hell, the next three were bland and unremarkable. I went to visit some mechanic pals - brewed up a cafetiere of one of our coffees I had brought (already ground), poured it out into a selection of all different sizes and cleanliness levels of metal cups. I can remember as we stood there in amongst a selection of vintage cars at different stages of restoration, chatting, steam lifting off the surface and the hot cups warming our cold fingers, that that was one of the best cups of coffee I had ever tasted. Now, was it objectively, scientifically, the best cup I’ve ever had? Surely not. But it stands out in my memory as one of my favourite coffees ever.
Some of my fondest memories are wrapped up in coffee and as coffee lovers I’m sure yours are too. As we try to learn more about flavour and tasting however our aim is to try to strip away what the context adds and understand the flavours themselves a bit more clinically and scientifically. But always keep in mind that the best tasting coffee you may have in your life may not be a prize Geisha tasted at a coffee event but a mug of diner coffee you sipped across the table from the person you first fell in love with.
So how do we step away from the context of coffee and start thinking more scientifically about its flavour? I would recommend you start off by watching this excellent short video on The Basics of Tasting Coffee. As you do your research don’t be confined to coffee either, there are great resources when thinking about flavours in food, wine, whiskey and the same science is at work in the background. By reading or watching a range of resources you will bring lots of different perspectives rather than just by looking as flavour through the lens of coffee.
Thinking specifically about coffee, it is important to have a good starting knowledge of what the coffee bean is and what can affect its flavour - varietal, ripeness, processing. Check out Can you eat a coffee cherry? by the Coffee Chronicler for a good overview to get you started.
Now that you are armed with the basics, let's do a mini workout and learn to flex your taste buds.
Training your taste buds
As with learning a sport or any new skill, developing your sense of taste is something you can work on and improve. First, start by becoming more conscious of what you are tasting. Not just with coffee but with things you eat too. Use your sense of smell first and think about how that food smells and how it is likely to taste. Then as you taste it think about its characteristics. Is it sweet? Sour? Salty? Bitter? Think about how it feels - is it rich and creamy or light? Does it linger on your tongue or does the taste disappear? Does it leave something behind like an aftertaste or maybe a dry feeling on your tongue. Just notice these things and be deliberate about what you are tasting. This will start you thinking about taste and start building a basic vocabulary to describe and understand the language surrounding taste.
The next step is to consciously think about some of the flavours found in coffee and learn more about those. Take a look at the coffee flavour wheel and pick a few items from the outer wheel that are next to each other. One of the nicest places to start is in the fruit. For example go to citrus and next time you are shopping pick up a lemon, lime, orange and grapefruit. Try each of them in turn and think about how they taste compared to each other. Remember to smell the fruit too and think about how the smells differ from each other. Then think about the taste - the acidity, sweetness or bitterness in the different fruits. Try the flesh and then try tasting the pith or skin. How do they compare? How do the different fruits make your mouth feel? Does it water or does it feel dry afterwards? What are the relative sweetness levels?
Next time try some chocolate - yes you can eat squares of milk and dark chocolate in the name of science. I’m eating Nerds in the interest of science as I write this.
Finally, brew yourself a coffee - I would recommend either an immersion method like cafetiere or setting up a cupping or brewing some sort of pour over rather than preparing your coffee by espresso. These brewed coffees will be easier to differentiate tastes in. Now, let the coffee cool for a while. The hotter it is, the harder it is to taste. Then deliberately sip the coffee and remember the tastes you have been thinking about with the fruit experimentation. Can you taste some of the same acidity you detected in the lemon or orange? Is there any astringency (like the dryness left by the grapefruit pith)? How about the sweetness?
This kind of palate training is an ongoing process and as you get better at detecting different flavours you can be sure that you will enjoy your coffees even more. (Until you don’t - check out this cautionary tale What nobody tells you about learning to taste) That’s when you need to head back out to a greasy spoon diner with a pal and recalibrate your taste buds.
Once you have begun to think carefully about flavour and have worked on naming what you are tasting you should start to get a better insight into the flavours in your coffee. When you next read a label on a bag of beans that says red grapefruit, hopefully you will understand better what to expect.
Continue to concentrate as you taste and think about different flavours you experience every day. How does a gala apple taste compared to a pink lady? Or a red grape versus a green one? How does brown sugar differ from white sugar or from honey or maple syrup? The experimenting is endless and fun. As you continue to do it you will find it becomes easier and easier to name what you are tasting and develop a language for sharing this sensory experience with others.
Just make sure you don’t end up sounding like this: Things coffee snobs say.
We run regular online cuppings for coffee lovers of all experience levels. They are a fun way to learn more, taste and chat about coffee. Check out our events page to see when the next one will be.