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Coffee Tasting 101: Introduction

Coffee, like beer and wine, has seen a shift toward craft over the last decade that emphasizes process and taste over bulk and uniformity. Like beer and wine, however, the profusion of Third Wave coffee options can be confusing, and when you're just getting started in the world of craft coffee, it can be difficult figuring out what all the fuss is about. Part of finding out is getting the hang of correctly tasting coffee. Here are a few tips for getting the most out of your next cup:*

Pay Attention to Scent: Don't forget that much of what we perceive as taste is actually a function of how something smells. When your coffee is done brewing, or when your barista hands over the cup, take a slow, deep breath of that scent. Often, the scent will give you hints at the tastes to come. There's an aroma we associate with coffee, and that will be present. But don't be surprised when you find notes of fruit, flowers, chocolate, or tobacco lingering in your nose. Pay attention to which of those scents carry over into the flavor of the coffee, or how each modulates the others.

Remember How Taste Works: There are five types of taste: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savory. The areas that sense those tastes aren't evenly distributed on your tongue; different tastes are "assigned" to different areas. Swish the coffee around in your mouth and pay attention to the different notes that present themselves as you do.

Pay Attention to Time and Temperature: Here, we're not suggesting getting a weather report before each Americano. Instead, see what the passage of time does to the taste of the coffee in your cup. What fades, and what persists? Which tastes are most pronounced when the cup is hot versus how it tastes as it cools?

Pay Attention to Layers: If you've ever tried a perfume or cologne, you've no doubt noticed that it smells much different ten minutes after you apply it than it did when it was first applied. A half hour later, that scent will have changed again. Coffee works in much the same way, only a bit faster. Different flavor notes are present at the beginning and middle of the sip, with a finish that often lingers after you've swallowed.

That's nice, but where do I go for the rest of the coffee?


Don't Stop at Taste: Coffee tastes wonderful. You'll get no argument from us on that point. But don't neglect the rest of your senses. Think about some of your most memorable dining experiences, especially if you were dining out. Odds are, it wasn't just the taste of the food that amazed you. Its scent, how it was arranged on the plate, the decor of the place, the conversations you had with your dining companions or the music that played, the silky mouth feel of the lobster bisque or the buttery tenderness of prime rib... the experience involved, and excited, all your senses. Approach your coffee the same way. Pay attention to the aroma and mouth feel, certainly. But also involve your other senses, and take time every now and again to turn each simple cup into a memorable experience.

Practice: Like anything else, tasting takes practice to develop. It also takes mindfulness to maintain. Drinking (or eating, or most other things in life) quickly can short-change the experience. Take your time!

A good cup of coffee can truly surprise you. Approach it right and it's more than a caffeine delivery system. The best coffee delivers a bouquet of sensory surprises that can make you wonder what you've been missing all this time. Next week, we'll go into a bit more depth on how to get more out of your coffee tasting.

*Forgetful? Take notes on your coffee!