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How to Taste Coffee Like a Pro

Matthew Berk Matthew Berk • April 07, 2021

Customers often ask us how to think about enjoying super rare, exotic, expensive or otherwise standout coffees, and the answer is pretty simple: use the same approach for tasting any coffee you like. Here's a quick primer on how to open up your taste buds, expand your palate, and start to really appreciate the delights of tasting fresh coffee.

1. Don't Worry About Brew Method

For professionals, coffee tasting is a well-specified technical procedure called a cupping. We avoid this, and so should you, unless you're planning on becoming a coffee bean grader or coffee roaster. Not only is it a ton of overhead, but it can be overwhelming to taste so much of the raw flavor of the beans (the advantage of the cupping method). Worse, it's just not a great way to enjoy your coffee!

If you're a purist, do a pour over. It can be an inexpensive, low-tech, simple way to bring out the best flavors in coffee. If you're new to this brewing method, check out our step-by-step guide to making pour over coffee in a Chemex

Or, if you're really wed to another method such as the AeroPress or French press, stick to that. The brew method is secondary when you consider the real impact of clean water, fresh beans, and a consistent grind

2. Use Your Nose

Taste isn't just about your tongue. The perception of flavor is the result of our body's chemosensation system, in which olfactory and gustatory (smell and taste) inputs converge. You'll automatically engage your sense of smell when you drink, but we recommend pausing to "smell the roses" at a few specific moments:

  • Smell the whole beans.
  • Smell again post grind.
  • If you're doing a pour over, inhale the bloom (first wetting of the grounds).
  • Prior to your first sip, tilt your cup over the bridge of your nose and inhale.

All of these will smell slightly different, but they'll warm up your brain to get a full set of sensations from the coffee.

3. Evaluate Each Sip

There are a few agreed-upon ways to look for what's going on in your cup of coffee. Although there are roughly double the number of taste-influencing compounds in coffee as in wine, identifying flavor doesn't require any kind of special license. 

Start with a tiny sip, followed by a more extended slurp into the mouth, aerating the coffee as it travels across the entire surface of the tongue. Take a tiny follow-up sip. Keep your eyes closed, focus on your tongue, and taste for the following: 

  • Sweetness: Can you perceive specific kinds of sweet tastes, such as brown sugar, molasses, honey, or caramel?
  • Acidity: Also known as "brightness," acidity brings out tastes such as citrus, blueberry, lemon, strawberry, or even flavors like watermelon and tomato. Note that acidity isn't the same as acidic, which is a measure of pH and not a question of taste.
  • Body: While brew method often bears on the weight of a coffee in your mouth, different beans and roast profiles feel differently in the mouth. Does the coffee feel rich and heavy, light, watery, or smooth?
  • Cleanliness: A really under-appreciated aspect of taste is what happens after you swallow. Harsh coffees can linger, often with a singular flavor (which can be acidic, bitter, or smokey), while cleaner coffees leave your palate feeling neutral. The latter is a prized aspect of great coffee, and can often be directly influenced by the roasting method.

If you can’t identify specific flavors, try to put them into taste families: chocolate/cocoa, earthy/herbal, or fruit-like. Check out the Specialty Coffee Association's Flavor Wheel for a helpful nudge in the right direction. 

In the end, taste is highly personal. But by starting to think about what you're drinking, you should get a better feel for quality and start to identify what types of coffee you love. Remember that this can change over time, just as your tastes for wine, beer and other beverages naturally change. 

4. Know the Signature of a Great Cup

When we evaluate the quality of a roast, there are a few things we look for, especially in coffees that are rare, exotic, or just plain costly.

  • Is there a complex layering of flavor? Are there taste notes that play well with one another in harmony? Think about the complementary interplay between baker's chocolate and caramel, versus an earthy background with odd hints of citrus, as two counter examples.
  • What's the timing of the tastes? Great coffees often have a sequence of two or three sets of flavors. A one-note coffee can be tasty, but truly great coffees, like great stories, will often have a compelling beginning, middle and end.
  • The single greatest marker of a great coffee is what happens to the flavor over time, as temperature changes. Great coffees invariably get more and more interestingand tastyas they cool. If you lose a few degrees and start to taste bitter, you're not in a good place. In fact, people often shy away from cold coffee for two reasons, both appropriate for drinking stale or bad coffee: when a drink is super hot, our palate literally can't taste as much (this hides defects like tar, bitter, or sour tastes), and as it cools, the flavors get ever less appealing.

5. Host a Mini Tasting

Sometimes you need a basis for comparison, so brew a couple different roasts and taste them with some friends. Our sampler boxes are great for this, but you can do it with any coffee. You can even compare fresh coffee with not-so-fresh coffee (though you can guess what the results will be). Another fun variant is tasting a single origin alongside a blend that includes it as a component. Can you taste that bean's influence within the blend? Consider it a fun experiment to see which flavors you agree on, and which, perhaps, only you seem to pick up on. You’re not crazy, we promise!

Remember that training the palate takes time and practice... but practice has never been so fun, energizing, and delicious. Sip, savor, and enjoy! 

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