Just like wine, coffee boasts a dramatic variance in natural flavor. The beans themselves hold unique clusters of flavor that can bring to mind anything from violets, to cranberries, to tomato soup, and discovery of these flavor profiles is a delicious adventure well worth taking. In this article, we’re starting with the basics! This simple process will give you a solid starting place.
1. Grab two kinds of coffee with flavors distinct from one another. The comparison approach will give you immediate context for what you’re tasting – instead of just ‘coffee,’ the two cups become ‘smokier’ and ‘more citrus.’ The options are endless – feel free to pick from different origins, different roasts, or different processing approaches. We recommend specialty coffees, and perhaps a light to medium/dark roast. Once a bean is roasted beyond dark, the flavor is almost entirely created by the roast, not the coffee itself. Moreover, low-quality coffees tend to lack the distinct flavors and vibrance of specialty coffees, so while you may be tasting accurately, it might not be worthwhile. Don’t forget to check freshness! (Here’s our guide on that)!
2. Brew with identical methods. Ideally, this will also happen at the same time for the best shot at clear comparisons, but if you don’t happen to have duplicate versions of your favorite brew method, pouring hot water over your grounds in small ceramic bowls works just as well. If the coffee is fresh, the grounds will rise to the surface and can be easily spooned off, leaving a taste-size sample of the brew.
3. Wait for it to cool to roughly 100 degrees. Our tongues pick up the most flavor when food and drink is at body temperature. Ever notice how a lukewarm Coke is unbearably sweet? That intensity has been there all along, it’s just masked by the chill. In the same way, while a hot cup may be perfect for a wake-me-up, body temperature is ideal for tasting purposes.
4. Aerate the coffee as you sip by sucking it in noisily. Breaking the liquid with tiny air pockets maximizes the flavor impact on your tastebuds, revealing subtleties you may not pick up otherwise. Plus, it’s so much more fun.
5. Put words to what you’re tasting. Think about the texture (is it more like skim milk or whole?) and acidity (sharp? mellow?) Use the flavor wheel. This gem was created by the Specialty Coffee Association of America as a tool to hone in on specific flavor profiles and develop the vocabulary of a taster, and it’s incredibly helpful.
6. Take notes on each coffee. Having a record on hand will allow you to compare today’s tasting to future brews.
7. Rinse and repeat! This is a process that lasts a lifetime, and will only get better as your palate improves.
Training your tongue is part of getting the most from your daily cup. The more you taste, the more you appreciate. Keep exploring the incredibly diverse world of coffee!