I hear it all the time from the local farmers in my neck of Texas: “coffee just tastes like coffee.” Plenty of other people share the opinion – that coffee is a simple drink, without much in the way of a flavor range. They're wrong.
Let's take wine as an example. Some are dry, others are sweet. Some are fruity, some woody, chewy, or tart. If you've ever heard a sommelier describe a bottle, you know that sensations and flavors in the wine world are hugely diverse – well, coffee is no different. Variations in plant genetics, farming techniques, processing methods, and brewing styles can create a wide array of flavors in coffee, even though the ingredient doesn’t change.
Plus, the world of coffee is evolving rapidly as innovation impacts every stage of the coffee chain. Farmers around the globe are sharing new research and techniques online. Roasters are tracking metrics in their craft with greater precision than ever before. Coffee grinders and espresso machines are becoming more consistent and accurate every year. Coffee quality in many corners of the world is skyrocketing, along with flavor diversity. Fruit, vegetable, and spice notes are overtaking the classics of ash, chocolate, and nuts.
Tasting these newer flavor nuances coffee can be intimidating at first, but it isn’t difficult. Are you up for the challenge?
The Nature of Taste
It's our nature to categorize experiences, even though we understand that most things don’t fit into neatly packed category boxes. Tasting works the same way. Instead of identifying a new note and slapping a brand new label on it, we tend to associate it with similar tastes.
Take star anise, for example. How do you describe its flavor? It’s bitter and sweet and reminds you of liquorice, fennel, and allspice. Understanding that flavor comes when you connect it to existing points of reference and build from your existing vocabulary.
There is some groundbreaking research being done by the Specialty Coffee Association of America and World Coffee Research that attempts to establish a standard for recognizing some of coffee’s more common flavors, but numbers and charts aren’t the keys to coffee tasting. To catch and identify the subtle exciting flavors of coffee, you simply need to keep your senses alert.
How to Taste Coffee
The professional tasting world uses acidity, sweetness, flavor, body, and aftertaste to break down and understand how food and drink tastes. The coffee industry uses these metrics too, but adds in a sixth: extraction.
Acids are a major player in bringing coffee flavor to life. A coffee heavy with citric acid will remind you of lemons, oranges, or pineapples. Phosphoric acid can taste quite similar. Malic acid may remind you of a green apple or kiwi. Tartaric acid may remind you of a sour, astringent grape.
That said, acids are often but not always accompanied by flavors. A citric heavy coffee doesn’t have to taste like citrus fruit, and malic acid doesn’t necessarily taste like apple. The sensation of the acids is what you’re really after. Sometimes they're very familiar, like the sour, puckering sensation of tartaric acid. Sometimes it's more subtle, in which case you can try to find the flavor that most closely pairs the sensation and go from there. It may sound overly complicated, but the secret is simply to use your senses and allow past flavor experiences to inform new ones.
Sweetness (and Bitterness)
The first question is whether or not the coffee is sweet at all. If it’s sweet, what kind of sweet? Is it a caramel sweetness, is it more like honey, or is it just plain sugary?
If the coffee is not sweet, is it bitter instead? Does it have a dark chocolate bitterness or is it more like over brewed black tea or bitter hay? Maybe the coffee is roasted so darkly that it simply tastes like carbon or ash. The best coffees aren’t devoid of bitterness entirely. When under control, bitterness gives coffee a rich, full mouthfeel, something that leaves no taste bud unaroused.
Aromas are powerful flavor components and often make the difference between a stellar coffee and a terrible one. Most fruity and floral flavors are actually aromas being interpreted by your sense of smell, rather than notes that your taste buds are picking up on. If you get a strong note of strawberry or jasmine as you swallow, you’re effectively tasting the aroma, rather than the liquid, as the fragrances pass right by your sensitive aroma receptors at the very back of your mouth.
This is where it comes together. Use your insights on acidity, sweetness, bitterness, and aroma to allow the flavors to come to life. Sometimes specific flavors will be very obvious. Sometimes only general ones will come to mind. Here are some real-world examples you might come across in specialty coffee shops:
Citric acid + caramel sweetness + floral aroma = notes of orange, caramel, and rose
Citric acid + gentle sweetness and bitterness = note of grapefruit
Citric acid + harsh bitterness = notes of bitter ash with an unpleasant acidity
Malic acid + caramel sweetness + spicy aroma = notes of red apple, brown sugar, and anise
Phosphoric acid + fruity sweetness + fruity aroma = notes of candy
Do your best to compile your experience into a realm of flavor, but don’t worry about being exact. It’s not uncommon for five people to come to five conclusions over the same coffee. Professionals are usually within the ballpark from each other, but dissimilarity is expected and celebrated. What would the fun be if all our taste buds worked exactly the same way?
Some coffees have a very heavy body, while others seem tea-like thin. It’s also possible to have a coffee that seems juicy, silky, or dry. Most fall somewhere in the middle of the road, but when you come across one with a unique body characteristic, you won’t miss it.
Body can also be manipulated by the brewing method. A french press will produce a heavy body because it doesn’t use a paper filter; some oils and micro-grounds find their way into the final cup. The Chemex uses a thick paper filter, so the coffee's body will be more thin and clean without sediment or oil.
How does the coffee finish? Does it have a lingering sweetness or bitterness, or does it just fall off the tongue entirely? Does the aftertaste boast a particular flavor? Flavors can become intense as you swallow the liquid and the aromas have a clear path to your aroma receptors.
Brewed coffee is created when water penetrates coffee bean cells and extracts both soluble and insoluble materials out of them. First come the acids, then the aromas and sugars, and finally, the tannins. A great coffee needs all of these elements to provide a tasty and well-rounded experience.
If the brewing process doesn’t extract enough from the beans, the acids will be highly concentrated with nothing to smooth them out, and the result will be a sour, unpleasant cup of coffee. In the professional coffee world, we call this under extraction. If the brewing process extracts too much from the beans, the tannins will overrun the acids and aromas, producing a dull flavor and harsh bitterness. We call this over extraction.
Poor extraction is a brewing problem, not a coffee problem, but analyzing extraction is one of the most effective ways of diagnosing brewing techniques and practices.
Final Tasting Tips
If you take a sip of hot coffee and don’t taste much, you’re not broken. Your flavor receptors are most effective when coffee is warm, but not scalding. Let your mug sit for a couple minutes before you drink from it.
Think slurping your drink in public is bad tact? Well, it is, but it’s the best way to get coffee to every taste bud quickly. As the liquid hits all parts of your mouth, the flavors are easier to see all in one moment.
The Specialty Coffee Association of America released a brand new Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel this year, a tool for seeing different spectrums of coffee flavor. If you find yourself in a tasting rut, take a look at it to see if you’re missing something.
The framework for tasting coffee like a professional is laid, but experience is the true teacher. Next time you’re enjoying your morning brew or afternoon cup, all you really need is to take a few seconds to be silent and ask yourself the key question: what does this coffee remind you of?