How to Properly Taste Coffee

Coffee beans have up to 800 flavor characteristics that our senses can detect. Red wine, by comparison, only has 400. Most coffee connoisseurs prefer mild roasts because the longer a coffee bean is roasted the more characteristics that are burned off.

Tasting coffee is an art form. To detect the most amount of flavor from the coffee bean, it must be tasted properly. Coffee tasting works much like wine tasting. As in wine tasting, coffee tasting has special terms, used to describe the taste of coffee and to find the perfect balance.

The Cupping Method of Coffee Tasting

Coffee tasting, or cupping as it is called, has to be done the same way every time to ensure that the difference in the taste of coffee beans is not due to outside factors like amount of coffee and water temperature.

The cupping method works in the following way:

– Choose the beans that you want to taste.
– Take a quarter ounce of coarse ground roasted coffee.
– Heat 5 ounces of water to just below the boiling point.
– Pour the water over the coffee in a circular motion.
– Dip a spoon into the cup (with your nose close to the cup) so that it breaks the top layer of that coffee grinds that floated to the top.
– Take approximately half a spoonful of the liquid from the cup.
– Quaff it with a loud slurping noise. The noise is made so that you can mix the liquid with the air, spraying it directly over your tongue.
– Savor, swish once, and the spit out the liquid.

Using this method, the tongue is able to discriminate among the many subtle flavors of coffee.

Different parts of the tongue detect different flavors:
– The back of the tongue discerns the bitterness.
– The sides of the tongue discern the staleness.
– The tip of the tongue discerns specific flavors.

Terms used in Cupping

Knowing how to taste coffee is not enough. One must know how to describe the flavors. The terms below are used in cupping. Each of these terms describes certain characteristics of coffee.

Aroma: the smell of the coffee.
Fragrance: the smell of the coffee grinds.
Body: the way the coffee feels in your mouth. This is the feeling of weight and texture.
Rich: the coffee has more than body and aroma. The coffee is buttery and satisfying.
Mellow: the coffee has a fully-developed body; not harsh.
Acidity: The verve (for lack of a better word) of the coffee. Arabica beans are famous for having this characteristic.

A Word on Acidity

Acidity is a highly desirable characteristic in coffee. Water that is used in brewing can affect it. If alkaline water is used to brew coffee, it will counter the acidity in the coffee. Purified or filtered water is recommended to get the best and truest taste from coffee.

Tasting the Roasts

As coffee is roasted, it goes from a sharper, more acidic taste, to a smoother more full bodied taste, and finally to a full bodied, almost charred taste. Here is a breakdown of the typical roasts followed by the flavor characteristics.

Cinnamon or Light Roast (Light brown and dry surface): a bright, acidic, toasted grain taste.

Medium High or Regular Roast (Milk chocolate brown with a dry surface): acidic and bright but lacks the grain taste.

Full City or High Roast (Darker brown with a satin appearance): Slight bittersweet tang with less acidity.

French, Italian, or Espresso Roast (Dark chocolate with patches of oil): Very little acidity and noticeably bittersweet.

Dark French or Heavy (Almost black and very oily): Almost no acidity and very bittersweet.

Starbucks or The Coffee Bean?

Here are some terms used to describe DESIRABLE flavor qualities:

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

Here are some terms used to describe UNDESIRABLE flavor qualities:

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