We all enjoy a nice cup of coffee, but do you really understand the full complexity of what you are tasting on a regular basis?
Coffee today is available in all sorts of different flavours and bean types from all around the world.
There are blended batches, single origin beans, single plantation products and dozens of preparation methods too – all of which can affect the taste of the beverage that ends up in your mug every morning.
To really experience and understand the full complexity of these tastes, it can help to have a guided tasting experience where you get to try and take in all aspects of the flavours.
Coffee tasting or coffee cupping, as it is often known, is the practice of deliberately analysing, identifying and appreciating all the flavours and aromas of various coffee samples.
In this article we take a look at why people carry out coffee tastings, how to do it properly, some of the resources used, and what you can learn in doing so.
Why to try a proper coffee tasting sessions
When you learn more about something, it is easier to enjoy it properly.
There’s a reason why lovers of fine wines, rare whiskies or even simple craft beers put time and effort into appreciating the complexities of the drinks they love – why should coffee be any different?
We often call someone’s ability to recognise and enjoy the different aspects of a complex flavour their ‘palate.’
You will only develop your own coffee palate by learning how to do a tasting properly and comparing different flavours and aromas by concentrating on the differences and similarities. You will learn all of this in coffee cupping.
And once you do, you’ll be able to identify and better understand different bean types, origins, preparation techniques and other aspects – which also means you’ll be able to enjoy your coffee more than ever.
You will also know exactly what sort of beans you like best and can be more confident in investing in new products.
Sound good? Then let’s carry on.
How to taste properly
There are two main parts to the process – smelling and tasting.
The first action is to take a deep and careful sniff of the vapours evaporating from the drink to take in and assess the full aroma.
Coffee beans are technically the seed of the fruit that grows on the coffee tree, which is present in various countries around the world in the ‘bean belt’.
They are carefully dried and prepared before being roasted to a greater or lesser amount, depending on the brand.
This roasting will change and enhance the aromas that are produced when hot water or milk is added to the ground beans and understanding these scents better enhances the overall drinking experience.
Next the coffee is tasted by slurping it (usually quite loudly) and allowing it to spread through the mouth to the back of the tongue.
Our tastebuds aren’t spread evenly – different parts of the tongue detect different aspects of taste and build up the full picture of the drink’s profile.
The most complicated coffees reveal the different layers of flavour over time, and it will usually take several sips in this manner to really appreciate it all.
Although it will be educational to just give this a go, it can really help if you have access to some reference guidelines to help you better understand what the different possible tastes are.
The coffee tasting wheel
Created by the Specialty Coffee Association of America and World Coffee Research, the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel was originally published in 1995 and is one of the most well-known resources in the industry.
The wheel is designed to help people better understand the different aspects of flavour that they are tasting and experiencing.
Various flavour concepts are included on the wheel and are linked together more or less closely depending on how often they occur together, and how similar they are when present in coffee.
Working from the inside of the wheel outwards a taster can get a much richer appreciation of the full complexity of the different flavour aspects relating to country of origin, preparation technique, bean type and more.
For many years this handy cupping coffee chart has helped tasters all over the world to more easily identify these concepts.
Here are some of the flavours that you might be able to pick out, guided by resources such as the Flavour Wheel, or by your instructor at an in-person tasting session:
- Sweetness and bitterness
- Acidity, or lack of it
- Citrus (such as lemon, lime and orange notes)
- Chocolate and caramel
- Nuttiness and earthiness
- Maltiness and woodiness
Once you feel like you can start to appreciate and explain different aspects of the flavours, you need to start comparing different drinks to really take your palate to the next level.
Comparative tasting simply means having different brands and beverages available to compare in the same sitting – contrasting the smells, colours and flavours to pick out the best aspects.
This will be very useful. For example, it is great if you have been able to identify that a certain coffee you particularly like is “mellow and nutty” but you might try another brand that is even more nutty but a bit less mellow – and that may be something you don’t like.
A good coffee tasting session will give you the opportunity to try out several different kinds of drink and challenge you to try and compare them to work out the intricacies of the flavours they feature.
For the more professionally-minded there is a whole certification program that has been developed to assess and qualify coffee tasters internationally.
The Specialty Coffee Association of America’s (SCAA) ‘Q Grader’ program offers a way to develop certified qualification.
The aim is to develop experienced tasters all round the world who share a common vocabulary about coffee tastes so that brands and types can be better compared, particularly for businesses and regular buyers.
The training program helps people learn how to identify and rate different elements of coffee cupping samples according to an established set of criteria.
These criteria include both the physical properties of the beverage and the sensory results it produces.
You can find out more at the Coffee Quality Institute (CQI) website here.
Enjoying tasting events
Ultimately, any tasting is about enjoyment.
You shouldn’t expect a competitive atmosphere or get too over-awed with information and education.
This is about finding out a little more about the drink you love and building some simple skills that can help you understand it better for the future.
A great coffee tasting experience can help you gain a much deeper appreciation for the drink that you enjoy every day and make a more informed selection when choosing a new brand, country of origin or flavour.
If you would like to learn more about how to identify and explore coffee flavours then a tasting experience is ideal.
At Adams and Russell, we regularly run various different tasting sessions and also help out home tasters with the information published on our blog.
Best of luck trying out new coffees!