Coffee Tasting Tips

"I don't taste all that stuff in coffee that you guys do.  I just know what I like."

I can't tell you how many times I have had that, or something like it, said to me.  In fact, there was a time when I said that very thing myself.  I was of the opinion that people that taste "blueberry with a hint of lemon zest" in coffee were either more sophisticated than me or just plain full of malarky.

But, I've learned that the confusion over what people taste comes back to a very basic understanding of the limitations of language in regards to describing what we taste.  It has little to do with your ability to taste.


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There is an old joke that says, "If everything tastes like chicken, what does chicken taste like?"

The reason that is funny (sort of) is that we all understand the trouble in describing flavor.  We can't really describe it directly.  Instead we are forced to use hamfisted metaphors.  So we say, "This tastes like chicken" because almost everyone knows what chicken tastes like so that gives us a point of reference.

The same is true of coffee.  It's not that you can literally taste bluberries (as in the above example) like you would in a blueberry jam.  It's that you are tasting something like blueberries and the only way you know to describe the flavor is to liken it to blueberries.

Some Tasting (Cupping) Terms

Here are some terms that will help you:

Fragrance - the smell of the dry, ground coffee.  This is helpful because you taste what you smell.  Smell and taste are VERY closely linked.

Aroma - the smell of the brewed coffee.  This is helpful to compare to the fragrance.

Intensity - how aggressive is the coffee?  Most people use the word "bold" but that word means different things to different people.  Some coffees are mild (like a good Peru).  Others are more intense.

Sweetness - how sweet is the coffee? Some coffees are sweet, others are herbal and earthy.

Acidity - is it crisp, flat.  High acidity or low?  Acidity is that bite in the back of your throat.  Some coffees have a flat, clean acidity.  Some are more citrus in nature.  SOme coffees (like many Sumatrans) have very low acidity.

Body - otherwise known as "mouthfeel".  Is it heavy, syrupy?  Light and airy?  Milky smooth?  How does it feel in your mouth?

Finish - this is the aftertaste.  Some coffees linger in your mouth for a very long time after you swallow (long finish) while others disappear the moment you swallow (short finish).  What do you taste in the finish?  Often this is where the more subtle notes in the coffee are most obvious.

Balance - how do all the different flavor elements in the coffee balance against each other?  Does one characteristic dominate or is it more balanced and even?

There are more terms we could discuss, but this is a great place to start in your journey to enjoy your coffee more!