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.
Mentally Building your Flavor Catalog
Think about your experience every time you drink. It doesn’t matter what it is. Just make a mental note about what you’re experiencing. Is it bitter, sweet, acidic, savory? Also think. About the mouth feel, is it heavy or light? Do you like it? Why or why not? Can you relate the taste experience to a memory? This is all the key to becoming a better overall taster. Building a mental archive of these flavor experiences will help you develop a frame of reference.
Practice makes perfect
No-one becomes a Doctor, Educator, or Chef over night. Like a career, developing your palate takes time and dedication. You can practice by working on trying certain flavor families at different times. You don’t want to overwhelm yourself with loads of different flavor profiles in one sitting. You can try one profile per sitting, and go from there. For example going to a store and buying multiple varieties of citrus. Lemons, limes, oranges, etc. Smell them, compare how they are similar and different. Try to think of an experience or memory that relates to the flavor profile. Then next time try berries, followed by vegetables, and so on and so forth. Try this same technique with coffee. Light and medium roast coffees tend to have notes of fruit, so this will help build your context in consideration when tasting different coffees.
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 when tasting coffee.
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.
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.
“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. 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.
Soon you’ll be a coffee tasting master.