In terms of flavor, coffee is one of the most complex beverages in the world, much more so than wine, despite the culture built around tasting wine. If you have only ever had mass produced, darkly roasted coffee, this may come as a surprise, but the specialty coffee is dedicated to both improving the quality of coffee and coffee brewing as well as educating consumers on how intricate the drink is.
A coffee palate is like any other palate, i.e. the ability to notice the differences of taste when it comes to a variation of origin and roasting method. For anyone unfamiliar with palate development, this may seem like a strange concept. Taste is automatic, how does one get better at tasting?
We are naturally very good at tasting broad categories of things like sweet, sour, savory, etc. because it was necessary for our survival, but we are not as good as picking out specific flavors within those broad categories. That’s where palate development comes into play. We can train ourselves to not only discern broad categories of flavor but also specific characteristics within those categories.
One word of caution though, developing your palate is challenging and not without some drawbacks. On one hand, it can be a fantastic way to appreciate different flavors and therefore different drinks or foods. However, making your palette more sensitive can also mean you are more sensitive to bad flavors, and being more discerning can rub some people the wrong way. Still, developing your palate is a worthwhile pursuit and will make brewing your own coffee immensely more enjoyable.
One of the most famous representations of the flavors of coffee is the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) Flavor Wheel. Having a flavor wheel on hand while tasting can be a very useful tool, but beginners are often overwhelmed by the wheel’s apparent complexity. We’ll show you a fairly simple way to both characterise your coffee and improve your palate using the wheel.
If you haven’t tasted coffee professionally, it is completely fine and even expected to start in the center most ring of the wheel. These are the most general of flavors and are the easiest ones to tell apart. There are two good exercises to start with using the central ring:
This is the easiest way to start developing your palate. Just find a roaster who lists their flavor notes on the bag, brew that coffee, and see if you agree! It’s pretty simple, but there are a few caveats to this exercise.
The next level of palate development is very similar to the last exercise, but this time buy two different coffees and hide the notes when you taste them. This is even better if you can get someone to help by mixing up the cups so you have no idea which coffee is which. If you have a general idea of the notes (for example, one coffee might be fruity while one might be more roasted) you should attempt to identify which coffee is which. This is much more of an actual test than the last exercise, and doing this regularly will help your palate to learn what different sensations mean.
Once you feel you have a pretty good mastery of the first ring, it’s time to move farther outside and repeat the exercises, getting as specific as possible. Developing your palate and tasting coffee is not an easy thing, so don’t be discouraged if you run into difficulties especially when getting to the outermost ring. Even many professional tasters have a hard time with the last ring. Most casual tastings will talk about flavors in the second ring and occasionally dip into the third.
Another useful exercise at this stage is to bring in an object that primes your senses to the desired flavor. For example, you might have an array of fruit, berries, chocolate, and spices to smell and/or taste before drinking a coffee that is supposed to have the flavor of that item. A good way to do this is much like weight training: taste the item, taste the coffee, cleanse your palate, then taste the coffee again to see if the flavor in question is more noticeable. Repeat this process a few times. If you don’t notice a difference right away, that’s okay. Palate development is a slow and mostly unconscious process.
Coffee cuppings are the ultimate way to taste coffee. True professional cuppings have rigid procedures and criteria, but casual cuppings are still great exercises and can be a fun activity to do with fellow coffee lovers. The point of a cupping is to brew a very concentrated amount of coffee multiple times to make the flavors as pronounced as possible while eliminating any variance from only brewing one cup. Cuppings can be all about one coffee, or (more commonly) can be about comparing multiple kinds of coffee.
To conduct a proper coffee cupping, one will need the following items:
This process should ideally be conducted in a quiet, isolated room absent from strong fragrances.
Once you find this environment, organize your cupping tools and label the coffees to be tasted. Be sure to take notes after each sample is tasted. Keep a cup of clean water available to rinse your spoon between each sample and an empty cup to deposit coffee after tasting.
Visual examination is also an important aspect of cupping; each coffee bean sample should be spread out on its own plate. Important aspects to note are surface texture (smoothness), the colors, the size, the shape (uniform or not), and oil presence (contributes to the “body” of the brewed coffee). Visible oils and having a darker roast does not always indicate that the bean is superior quality. This visual examination of the coffee beans helps you relate the flavor and aroma of the different coffees to be tasted.
If no foam presents itself during this process, the coffee may be lacking freshness. As the spoon continues to work the crust, grounds will begin to sink to the bottom of your cup.
Check the fragrance as your spoon breaks this layer, as much of coffee’s fragrances are trapped in the form of carbon dioxide underneath it.
To be able to fully experience the coffee’s aroma, place your nose close above the coffee. Smell is a large factor in taste and, by capturing the aroma’s essence, it will reinforce the tasting experience.
In tasting the coffee you should:
Throughout the tasting experience, you should attempt to decide if the body, aroma, acidity, and flavors present within the coffee were pleasant, or unpleasant. It is useful to know how each of these properties is evaluated during professional coffee cuppings.
Acidity is one of the desirable properties of coffee. It contributes to coffee’s tendencies to produce dryness under the edge of the tongue and towards the back of the palate, with sharp and vibrant characteristics. Coffee will tend to taste flat without the presence of sufficient acidity.
Aroma mingles with one’s tasting experience. If we did not have our sense of smell, the only taste sensations we would experience would be sour, sweet, salty, and bitter. The palate is made up of both aromas and taste. “Floral” and “winy” characteristics originate from the coffee’s aroma.
Body is the feeling of the coffee in one’s mouth. It’s the properties such as viscosity, heaviness, thickness, or richness that the tongue perceives. A coffee’s “body” is related to all of the oils and solids extracted while brewing. Indonesian coffees usually possess greater body that those of Central or South America. Body can sometimes be difficult to discern; if so, add an equal amount of milk to each and determine which maintains its flavor more than the other. Heavier bodied coffees maintain their flavors more if diluted.
Flavor is the holistic perception of the coffee in one’s mouth. All of the components (acidity, aroma, and body) balance and homogenize to create its overall flavor.
Richness: in reference to coffee’s body and fullness
Complexity: one’s perception of more than one flavor
Balance: the presence of each taste characteristic where no single one overpowers any other