Coffee has more than 800 aromatic compounds and a myriad of different tastes.
When I heard about this, one question came to my mind:
If so many flavors are available in coffee, what’s the ONE flavor which differentiates coffee from other beverages?
I think this question was justified as during coffee tasting classes many people holding a cup of top-notch coffee in their hands just said again and again: It smells/tastes like coffee.
After researching and talking to coffee professionals, it became clear that there was not the ONE coffee flavor. It’s rather a mix of tastes and aromas which make the coffee flavor.
As this is not enough to understand coffee at its full extent, it became necessary to learn more. My questions were:
- Where do these flavors come from and how can I perceive them?
- What single aromas and tastes could be attributed to coffee and how could they be described?
This post is for those who want to cup at home, but also for those who just like to have a casual coffee tasting with a cup of coffee.
Why Does coffee have so many flavors and where do they come from?
Coffee is an extremely versatile product when it comes to its flavors and the reasons why these arise. Many different factors determine coffee flavors from the origin to your final morning brew. Let’s take a look at it:
The terroir (origin related to the soil, the altitude and the temperature)
Wine is a good example to help understand this first point. You can take one grape variety and plant near the coast or in a certain altitude. The different soils, the weather conditions and the altitude will give this same varietal different flavor tonalities.
The coffee origin and the related conditions have an enormous impact on how a coffee plant grows and consequently on the development of the coffee cherries and its seeds (the coffee beans).
I’m sure you’ve heard about Arabica and Robusta coffee. If not, these two are the world’s most produced and traded coffee species. But behind coffee Arabica, there is more. Behind the coffee species are the coffee varieties.
There are many coffee varietals and each one has its distinctive flavors. It is similar to grape varieties in wine; think about Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and all the others.
Coffee production and processing
What the farmer does or not and how beans are processed after they have been picked has a tremendous impact on the final coffee flavor as well.
The roasting process
I call the roasting process the point of connection between the producer and the consumer. The roaster is responsible for turning out all the rich flavors of coffee. Depending on the roast degree, the tonalities of flavors can vary greatly and thus contribute to different flavor profiles even if it is one coffee from the same region.
The freshness of the beans and the actual brewing process
How much time after the roasting date do you brew your coffee? Roasted beans reach a flavor peak after a certain amount of time, which is the best moment to brew. Brewing before or after is possible, but will give slightly different notes in the cup.
Where do humans perceive flavors?
In order to get better in coffee tasting, it’s very important to understand what you have to improve.
As your nose and your tongue are the protagonists in this game, it’s obvious that you should work on these two powerful “tools”. You can train both your tongue and nose and start to memorize different flavors.
Just imagine it’s like creating your own sensory data base which is then complemented by flavors which you already know.
On the tongue, you have five different areas where taste buds are located and which help you to perceive tastes. Becoming aware of this and recognizing this flavor is like creating a “tongue map” which you can use later to navigate through your tasting experience.
These are the five tastes you can perceive on your tongue:
For coffee tasting we will only take the first three tastes into account.
Sweetness can be the sugary taste which you know from normal sugar, but can also be something more like honey or the sweet taste of some beers. All these are sweet, but each one is different.
This is why it is so important to find the right descriptor and not just to say It’s sweet.
Where do you perceive it? – at the tip of the tongue.
Acidity is the taste which gives coffee a certain vividness or sparkle. Without acidity, most coffees would taste flat and boring. There are different kinds of acidity, ranging from those which are more like lemon juice to those which are more winey or pineapple-like.
Where do you perceive it? – at the lateral part of the tongue
Most people relate coffee with bitterness. While it’s true that coffee has some bitter components such as caffeine and the melanoidins created during roasting, it’s also true that bitter compounds can result from the roasting or the brewing process.
If brewed or roasted appropriately, coffee does not have to be bitter.
Where do you perceive it? – at the back part of the tongue
Body or Mouthfeel
The body or mouthfeel is not a flavor, but a sensation. It’s the texture or heaviness of the coffee on your tongue and in your mouth. The best example to understand body better is by thinking about the feeling (not the taste!) of water and maple syrup in your mouth.
Where do you perceive it? – in the entire mouth
How to describe coffee taste and aroma and how to taste coffee properly?
When you start with coffee tasting it can be quite overwhelming to face so many flavors at once and then describe them. As your main objective is to identify a coffee’s profile, it’s recommendable at the beginning to split the main goal up into different small steps to achieve it.
Splitting up the tasting process in different steps mainly means to take each taste separately, perceive it and find a descriptor. It helps to decompose the complex flavor of coffee. The method I use is partly based on the SCAA cupping form.
Heads-Up: many flavors are perceived due to the interaction between aromas and tastes and cannot be “observed” separately like suggested in this section. But for our purpose, it’s useful to take the simplified approach and to get there one by one.
#1: Fragrance perception (dry coffee grounds)
The fragrance refers to the dry coffee grounds which relieve the most volatile aromatic compounds. Mainly one or more of the following categories can be perceived:
- Fruity notes
- Floral notes
- Herbal notes
Start with identifying the predominant fragrance and from there you can retrieve your “sensory data” and try to get a descriptor. For instance, if you note that the coffee has fruity notes, try to find which kind of fruit it is. Is it a stone fruit like peach or plum or more of a citric fruit like orange?
#2: Aroma Perception
As soon as you put the first drops of hot water on the dry grounds, the aroma will arise. The mixture of hot water and coffee will reveal notes, which arise from sugar-browning reactions.
In short: sugar browning creates most of the coffee’s aromatic compounds. The aromas can fall into one or more of these categories:
- Nutty-like notes
- Caramel-like notes (can appear in lighter roasts)
- Cocoa-like notes (typical in darker roasts)
If you think that nutty-like aromas are in the air, then try to find descriptors such as almonds, hazelnuts or peanuts.
Take the fist sips or slurps of coffee, then start out with perceiving and describing sweetness. You will have many tastes in your mouth, but try to focus on the tongue’s tip and on sweet tastes. Sweetness can come in different notes:
- Candy-like sweetness
- Malty-like sweetness
- Fruity-like sweetness
Acidity is a distinctive characteristic of specialty coffees and adds brightness into the beverage.
Focus completely on the lateral parts of your tongue. Take a sip and “roll” the coffee over these parts. Taste the acidity with these areas of your tongue and ask yourself if your tongue starts to salivate.
If this is the case, then you’re probably drinking a coffee with a citric acid. Possible descriptors are:
- Citric acid like lemon, orange or other kinds of citric fruits
If you perceive the acids more in the middle part of your tongue and it is very strong (pungent) it could be the acid found in green apples. The descriptors would be:
- Acid notes like in green apples
These are only two examples which I could perceive quite often in cupping, but there are many more. Just think of foods and drinks with a certain level of acidity. Examples are:
- Winey acidity
- Pineapple-like acidity
As body describes the texture of coffee, it is important to feel it over your tongue and palate. Take a sip and fake-chew the coffee on your tongue. How does it feel?
- Does it feel heavy comparable to a honey-like texture?
- Does it feel rugged because of small coffee ground particles floating in the beverage?
- Or is there no real feeling and it is some kind of watery?
Finally, drink the coffee and start to taste what is left behind. I recommend to slightly inhale a little bit of air which helps you to perceive the aftertaste better. Ask yourself:
- Is something left behind or is it gone completely?
Let’s wrap this up
In this post, I wanted to show you an easy step-by-step way of how you can approach coffee tasting when you have no or few experience. Now you know your tongue better and can start to perceive different tastes.
This post is not meant to be exhaustive and is only the very beginning of your tasting journey.
To improve your tasting and cupping skills I strongly recommend participating in course or finding a local coffee shop or roaster which offers cupping sessions with experienced cuppers.
Only by practicing you will be able to get more “fluent” in decomposing coffee flavors in their single parts and describing them.
I hope you liked this post. Tell me about your coffee tasting experience. Are there things you’re struggling with? Leave me a message below.
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Coffee Chemistry: Coffee Aroma. Coffee Research Org. Available at: http://www.coffeeresearch.org/science/aromamain.htm (Accessed on 2017, July 15)
Title picture by romanov on Pixabay
Corrected & Revised by Andrea Letzner