Monday, 22 August 2011

How To Taste Coffee

A few months back I started experimenting with brewing ratios, partially to help me find out how I preferred espresso to taste.  As part of that experiment I found that I needed to improve my ability to recognise and articulate what is going on when tasting espresso, but the same applies to brewed coffee.  I came across the Coffee Flavour Wheel, which is an excellent tool to help pick out flavours/aromas. I also found several "Coffee Terminology" webpages (easily googled), which helped.  However, it all feels a little disparate... disconnected.  I've been feeling that I need to link things together in a process.  Tools work best when they are put into their correct place in a process.

So I found myself drawing on a whiteboard, trying to put some of these pieces of information relating to tasting coffee into some sort of order.  I ended up with a kind of flowchart (harking back to my days working in business consulting) which I've been actively using daily to help me make more of a connection between my brain and what I'm tasting.  It comes back to a rather crass line I wrote once... "Don't Just Drink It... Think It!" (That still makes me wince!!)

I've knocked the following simple diagram up to share my thoughts on one possibe way for people such as myself, relatively new to tasting coffee, to improve their tasting abilities and make that tongue-to-brain connection.  I could have made it more complex, more professional etc, but I think simple is good.
Please note - this isn't based upon any recognised methods for cupping coffee etc. and I suspect that many experienced coffee cuppers would find it laughable, but it's purpose is merely to provide a foot in the door.  A method for learners where no method previously existed (or at least no method readily presented itself).  It's a work in progress, so feel free to comment.

The idea is to start on the left and work your way right, sipping, swilling, gulping etc, at all times thinking about the coffee in your mouth.  Actually, one think that is missing is smelling it! I'll have to add that. But from an oral perspective, consider Body, Taste, Flavour and Aroma in turn, and for each one try to pick out characteristics.  For example, is the Body heavy? If so, does the mouthfeel remind you of perhaps a rich, heavy wine such as a zinfandel? If it's light, perhaps it could be described as a Beaujolais... or it may even be light enough to become a Rose wine.
If wine isn't your thing then use something else.... maybe cheese. If it was a cheese would it be a light swiss cheese like an Edam? Or perhaps more of a Mature Cheddar that feels like a lump in your mouth?  This is a great way to find your own method of articulating the coffee.

Move onto Taste, refer to the diagram, and continue.  Umami is the 5th taste, and as yet I haven't been able to find a good definition, but if what you're getting doesn't seem to fit into the four other Tastes then perhaps it's savoury Umami.

Flavour... at first you may not be able to pick out individual aromas and only be able to pick out 'coffee'! That's fine. In that case, everything will taste Balanced. Very soon you will pick aromas out, and realise that some coffees are Complex rather than Balanced.

Aromas... I won't recreate the Coffee Flavour Wheel (it's all over google), but HERE is a similar thing produced by Kaladi Coffee of Denver USA.
Also here's a list of Desirable and Undesirable aromas, taken from

Bright or dry – highly acidic leaving a dry aftertaste
Caramelly – caramel like or syrupy
Chocolaty – aftertaste similar to unsweetened chocolate or vanilla
Earthy – a soily-like quality (sometimes unfavorable)
Fragrant – an aroma ranging from floral to nutty to spicy, etc.
Fruity – having a citrus or berry scent
Mellow – a smooth taste lacking acidity but not flat
Nutty – similar to roasted nuts
Spicy – an exotic aroma of various spices
Sweet – a lack of harshness
Wild – a gamey flavor rarely, but sometimes considered favorable
Winy – aftertaste resembling a mature wine

Bitter – aftertaste perceived on the back of the tongue
Bland – neutral in flavor
Carbony – burnt charcoal flavors
Earthy – a musty, soily-like quality
Flat – lacking aroma, acidity, and aftertaste
Grassy – aroma and taste of grass
Harsh – a caustic, raspy quality
Muddy – thick and flat
Musty – slightly stuffy smell (sometimes desirable in aged coffees)
Rubbery – a smell of burnt rubber
Sour – a tart flavor such as unripe fruit
Turpeny – a flavor resembling turpentine
Watery – a lack of body
Wild – a gamey flavor

The coffee will be cooling, and as it cools the taste and characteristics change.  Often the Taste may move from Sweet towards Sour, perhaps being more tangy towards the end. What else do you notice?

Rightly or wrongly, this has certainly helped me and I hope that someone else finds it useful.


  1. Excellent piece. Thank you.
    I was recently chatting to a Barista friend of mine complaining that I had no taste memory and therefore struggled to describe coffees. He pulled a long short i.e. over poured it but changing the espresso cup every second or two. I then drank them in order. The difference in taste from the first to the last is huge and gave me some confidence that my taste buds are sophisticated enough to taste and one day identify the nuances of coffee flavours.

  2. Must admit, I struggle. But like you I'm hopeful! Some people do have better olfactory functions - my wife is brilliant at identifying tastes and it pissed me right off :) But many people think you either have the ability or you don't, from birth or something. I prefer to think it takes work.
    Glad to see you're still blogging :) Thanks for the Twitter follow.

  3. Thanks Mike for sharing this informative blog. I am coffee lover and like instant coffee. I like a full robust coffee with a lot of bite.

    Finn Felton