If you’ve been in a coffee shop lately, you’ve probably seen a menu with coffee that has “amazing notes of blueberry with bright acidity and a clean finish” or “hints of milk chocolate and apple with a jasmine aroma and a syrupy mouthfeel”. And unless you’re a professional barista, these highly detailed descriptions likely left you either feeling confused, left out, or just flat out convinced that the barista is a liar. But the truth is that, believe it or not, you really can taste all of these things (and more) in just a single cup of coffee.
Coffee is a highly complex food and its taste can be affected by everything from the country of origin, processing method, roast level, and even how it’s brewed. Each of these aspects can introduce subtle differences into the taste of your coffee. And while coffee might just taste like plain old coffee to you now, the truth is that you can learn to taste these differences the same way that a coffee professional does.
Below, we’re going to dive into some of the tasting aspects to look for in coffee, how to detect them, as well as how to identify flavors in your coffee. To do this effectively and really highlight differences in each coffee, we recommend comparing two or more coffees side by side. You can use any brew method you’d like, though we recommend setting up a cupping at home for best results.
Tasting for Flavors in Coffee
When you buy bags of coffee, they usually come with some tasting notes on the bag. One bag might have fairly straight forward tasting notes on it, such as cocoa or citrus fruit. But sometimes you’ll find a coffee roaster whose bag promises you oddly specific notes of things like pineapple upside-down cake or sundried tomato. When you’re tasting coffee, be like the first bag and keep it simple.
To help coffee lovers accurately describe the flavors in their coffee, the Specialty Coffee Association of America created the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel. The wheel categories flavors into broad categories (sweet, fruity, nutty) and gets more specific as you move outward. Using a flavor wheel is a great way to improve your tasting abilities. Just remember to try tasting with and without the poster to really sharpen your skills.
Acidity is one of the most debated aspects of coffee. On one hand, the widespread popularity of specialty coffee really brought acidity to the front of coffee conversations, as a lot of specialty coffee enthusiasts love the acidity of certain coffees. On the other hand, coffee lovers with more traditional palates are either less fond of acidic notes in their coffee or they simply don’t know what to make of it.
When we discuss acidity, we don’t mean the pH levels of the coffee. Instead, we’re attempting to describe how the coffee tastes and feels. This type of acidity is similar to the acidity we taste in food. Acidity can be a crisp and refreshing sensation, like biting into a fresh green apple. Acidity can also present itself as a sour taste, like lemon juice, citric acid, or vinegar. If something is highly acidic, such as lemon juice, you probably don’t want to eat or drink it on its own. But, again, acidity can also be a good thing, like that satisfyingly crisp green apple. It all depends.
This is where it helps to have multiple coffees for comparison. Ask yourself which coffee tastes more acidic and which acidity one do you enjoy more? Does one make your mouth feel good or bad compared to the other? These questions will give you a good starting point for gauging acidity in coffee.
When it comes to coffee, aroma is basically exactly what it sounds like. You’re trying to determine how good (or bad) a coffee smells, as well as how strong of a smell it has.
Aroma is a big part of how you taste things. Plus, whether you realize it or not, it’s probably a big part of why you love coffee in the first place. The smell of freshly ground coffee, of walking into your favorite cafe, of the aroma that’s released when your coffee is brewing. Aroma plays an important role in the overall experience.
When assessing a coffee’s aroma, you want to consider 2 aspects: quality and intensity. So, if you were grading a coffee the way professionals do, a coffee that smells great and has a very strong aroma would score highly in both categories. On the other hand, a coffee might smell great but the smell could be weak and hard to detect. Or it could have a strong smell, but unfortunately, the smell is terrible. So you want to evaluate the two aspects separately in your coffees.
Body is an important characteristic of how we taste and enjoy coffee. It describes how heavy or light the coffee feels in your mouth when you drink it. You might also hear the body of a coffee be described as its “texture” or “mouth feel.”
While it sounds strange at first, we already judge and differentiate the body or mouthfeel of plenty of drinks, such as wine or even milk. If you drink a glass of skim milk followed by a glass of whole milk, you can easily tell that they have a massive difference in texture. The skim milk is thinner and lighter, whereas the whole milk will feel thicker and richer.
When comparing coffees to determine body, ask yourself which coffee has a bigger, fuller, richer mouthfeel. Does one feel thick like you’re drinking a dark stout beer? Is the other light and tea-like?
Even though most people don’t associate coffee with sweetness, we often hear coffee being described as having a sweet taste or notes of things such as caramel or milk chocolate. But when we drink it, doesn’t have that sugar-like sweetness that we’re used to.
That’s because, when it comes to sweetness in coffee, you’re not looking for the obviously sweet taste found in a cookie or cupcake. In coffee, it’s a deeper, more complex sweetness that we’re tasting for.
The sweetness in a coffee can come from many areas. It can be a result of exceptional beans. It could come from the processing type (washed vs. natural vs. honey). It might really stand out thanks to excellent roasting or brewing. It all depends.
This is another area where comparing multiple coffees is extremely helpful. While one coffee might not taste sweet on its own, it might taste sweet alongside another coffee. The use of a flavor wheel might also help you flesh out the type of sweetness you’re tasting.
Think of the finish as the aftertaste or the lasting impression of your coffee.
After you take a sip, does the flavor go away quickly? Or does it linger for a bit?
Does it leave an overly bitter or harsh taste? Or can you still taste some of the notes that made you love the coffee in the first place?
Does the coffee sort of disappear as soon as you swallow it or does the taste linger for a while?
Evaluating the finish might take a bit longer than other aspects. You really need to take a moment after you sip your coffee to examine the finish. You’ll probably also need to try your coffee a few times to get a good feel for it. Be patient.
Zach is a writer and content marketer, specializing in coffee. His work has also been featured on Sprudge.