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Coffee Tasting 102: The Fundamentals of Taste

Last week, in our introduction to coffee tasting, we laid out a few ground rules (pun only partly intended) for tasting coffee. This week, we'll go in a bit more depth by looking at the specific things to look for as you taste your coffee. Next week in the third and last installment, we'll go a little further still and explore the reasons and methodology for cupping. Let's get started, shall we?

Aroma: Also called the "nose," aroma is -- as we mentioned last week -- a big part of the coffee experience. Part of this is because of the lovely bouquet of a good cup of coffee. A much larger part, however, is that our sense of taste is inseparable from our sense of smell. Pay close attention to the scent of your coffee, taking time to note how it smells before and during your tasting. Some notes will be present more in the nose than the taste, while others may only be hinted at in the nose but more fully expressed on the tongue.

Acidity: There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of acidity. One of these is desirable, and gives better coffees notes of fruit and flowers (among other things). There's a less desirable variation as well, a sourness that comes when coffee is under extracted.

Sweetness: Many of us associate bitterness -- especially the sharper, nearly burnt bitterness associated with darker roasts -- with the typical taste of coffee. All coffees will have some degree of bitterness, but coffee beans (which, remember, are a fruit) also contain sugars that undergo changes during the roasting process. Those sugars help to offset the bitterness with sweetness that can be reminiscent of sugar, malt, muffins, or fresh-baked bread.

Body: Also called "mouth feel," the body of a coffee refers to how it feels in your mouth. In the best-case scenario, this is a function of the roasting and the preparation; in less-optimal cases (like diner coffee that's been sitting for an hour on a hot plate), it can also be the result of the coffee having aged and/or having its water content reduced. The coffee's body can be thin, grainy, syrupy, buttery, or oily (especially with darker roasts or unfiltered preparations), or may take on other characteristics.

Finish: The finish is the aftertaste left after you've tasted and swallowed a mouthful of coffee. Sometimes the coffee has a quick, clean finish. Other coffees -- especially darker roasts, or preparations like French press, espresso or Turkish coffee -- have a longer finish that lingers for quite some time.

Other things to look for: Balance (is the coffee's bitterness nicely offset by its sweetness and acidity, or is it one-note?) complexity (a broader variety of aromatic and flavorful elements), and surprises (notes of earth, tobacco, spice or herbs) are all things to take note of. More than once, I've asked a barista to give me a cup of coffee that would surprise me; more often than not, those surprises have come in the form of a complex cup of coffee that's yielded scents or flavors that elevated the coffee far above the ordinary.

Take notes: As an old friend used to say, the shortest pencil is better than the longest memory. If you're in the habit of trying several new coffees from multiple cafes, your notes will give you an idea of what you'd like to return to and why.

Compare notes: Take a friend! Each of you may find something in the coffee that the other has missed, or may have very different opinions on why a coffee is any good. Even if you find yourselves disagreeing on everything, coffee tasting -- and the conversation that goes with it -- is a great social activity.

Compare coffees: You can, of course, taste one coffee at a time. Trying a variety in one sitting -- similar to trying a flight of beers, or sampling tapas -- has its advantages as well, however. You have a broader basis for comparison, and a chance to get an idea of what you like the best about certain types of coffee or certain roasts in much the same way that an ale, a porter and a stout can have vastly different flavor profiles.

Another tip: Expand your palate's palette. Taste more things, from exotic fruits to stinky cheese. Not only is it fun in its own right (discovering new tastes in food is every bit as exciting as discovering something new in your coffee), it also gives you a broader basis for comparison when you're tasting coffee.

In closing: Take your time. Don't expect, or try, to evaluate everything at once. Most of all, give yourself time to enjoy it without necessarily evaluating it. Do you have any tips you'd like to share for better coffee tasting? Let us know!

A guide to coffee tasting from the folks at JJ Bean Coffee:

Flavor Wheel images from SCAA (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)