If you are anything like my wife, you know what you like and what you don’t like when it comes to coffee. When I test roasts out at home I get great feedback like ‘It tastes good’ or ‘it isn’t as good as the last one’ – you know, the type of feedback that really helps you to critically assess the minute details of the roasting process. As frustrating as that can be at times, I think my wife’s approach is shared by a lot of people who drink coffee. Either you like it, or you don’t; maybe you can’t put your finger on why but you know what you taste and you like it.
My goal with this blog is not to convince anyone of anything. I earnestly hope only to give you some tools that might help you answer the question of why you liked or didn’t like something you tasted, or maybe to help you clarify what you tasted that you liked or didn’t like.
Why does it matter?
This is honestly a fair point to raise here and I can thank my wife for raising it. If you like the coffee, why does it matter why you like or what it tastes like? It just tastes good, right!? It is a point that is hard to argue with, so I will not try. You really don’t need to know why your coffee tastes good – and there are reasons not to learn more about tasting coffee. James Hoffman, owner of Square Mile Coffee Roasters in the UK and former World Barista Champion, warns that while learning to taste can provide a lot of joy and excitement, it also has some drawbacks. “Learning to taste is great because…you don’t just know that something is good, you can explain why it’s good” but he cautions that “while the highs get higher, on average, what you eat and what you drink will get worse”.
Unpacking what you are tasting in precise detail will inevitably lead to critical assessment of all things tasted and this can be tough because you find yourself chasing that high quality great experience. I certainly do NOT want to push you down the path of endless pursuit, but with just a brief tasting primer you can start to sort out the complexity of the coffee that is in your cup.
Coffee Tasting Basics
One of the biggest hurdles in understanding what you are tasting is putting the words to it. Fancy coffee people have a lot of fancy words to describe the flavors and aromas (if you have come by our market setup I will surely have used some of those fancy words), but the basic flavors you are looking for start with the following:
These groups are usually pretty distinct, but if you have trouble figuring it out, you can work through it using the beautiful coffee taster’s flavor wheel you see below made by the folks at Counter Culture Coffee.
Navigating this wheel can seem intimidating but we have found that it works best when you look at the outer edges of the basic flavor you identified and ask comparison questions. For example, if you felt the coffee tasted sweet, was it more like chocolate or sugar? If it was sugary, was it more like vanilla or cola/molasses? Sometimes setting the outer bounds of what you could be tasting helps you put words to it for what you are actually tasting.
The largest section of the wheel is fruit, which is not surprising since coffee comes from fruit, but it does mean pinning down the flavors can be more challenging. The best thing you can do is work simply from out to in – Citrus or dried fruit? If citrusy, can you pinpoint Lemon or Orange? Or is it more like a tropical fruit? Then is it coconut or pineapple? The contrast of two different flavors is the best way to sort out what you are tasting so keep pushing it.
Most coffees will have a primary flavor group followed by a secondary and potentially a tertiary. Some are extremely fruity, others subtly floral with notes of sweetness. If you are just starting to taste coffee differently, don’t get stuck on the details. Try and figure out one flavor in each coffee. Identify it as specifically as you can. Enjoy the fact that you are learning more about how your mind works. And if that isn’t fun for you, then just enjoy coffee that tastes good.
Our next blog will go into detail about how a coffee's origin and how it is roasted impact the flavor that is in your brew. When we get into 2021 we intend to roll out a series of tasting events that should allow for anyone to get a better sense of what is going on when they drink coffee. Until then, if you have any questions about what you are tasting or about coffee in general, please reach out to us! Comment below or shoot as an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are here for you and love talking coffee!