If you have ever looked at a coffee description, sipped the coffee, and thought to yourself “how do they taste these flavors?”, you are in the right place! Coffee has over 1,500 unique flavor and aroma compounds; developing the ability to distinguish and identify those unique flavors is an art. All it takes is time, patience, a strong love of coffee (there is a lot of tasting!), and a sense of sensory adventure. In this entry, we’ll walk you through the palate development process and share some of our favorite palate development tools.
Exploiting the available tools
Maximize available resources! The Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) and coffee enthusiasts worldwide have developed a suite of informative tools that enable you to create a framework through which you can learn to identify and track nuanced coffee flavors.
The SCAA Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel breaks down the most common flavors found in coffee by flavor category. If you are new to the flavor wheel, we recommend trying to master the inner circle or broad flavor categories before moving to the outer rings of the circle. Click here to learn more about how to use the Coffee Taster’s Wheel.
In conjunction with the flavor wheel, we also recommend downloading the World Coffee Research’s Sensory Lexicon. The Sensory Lexicon delves into specific coffee flavor categories and descriptives, using common foods to help you tease out taste nuances. For those of you with extreme coffee tasting devotion or professional taster aspirations, you might consider purchasing the Coffee Flavor Map T100. This pricey little tool ($300) contains vials of the 100 most common aromas found in coffee. While it isn’t necessary to use standard flavor descriptors, it is important to have a working coffee flavor vocabulary. Without one, it will be very difficult to create meaningful distinctions between coffees.
That brings us to step two, record your tasting notes in a coffee journal. Tasting notes should include: the coffee’s name, origin and/or blend combination, scents found in the aroma before and after brewing, the grind, the brewing method, coffee flavors present at different periods of cooling, and the aftertaste or close. Tracking your tastings is important to your development and for documenting changes in the nature of a specific coffee (coffees, especially single origins, vary slightly from lot to lot and within lots).
Developing your palate
Developing your palate is a practice of awareness. As a first step, try to breakdown the nuanced flavors, sensations, textures, and aromas in your food and drinks. For example, you may know what an orange tastes likes but to be able to apply the word ‘orange’ or ‘citric’ to coffee, you need to be able to recognise how the juice feels in your mouth, its aftertaste, texture, any sensation created, and, most importantly, how these qualities change as they hit different parts of your mouth (e.g., the roof, back, sides, tongue, etc.). Now to the coffee!
Often, it is easier to describe one coffee by describing how it differs from another. Start by comparing 2 to 3 coffees or the same coffee prepared 2 to 3 different ways (filtration, pressure, and immersion techniques each emphasise different elements of a coffee’s character*). The first thing you want to do is smell your coffee grounds before brewing. Aroma greatly impacts taste; smelling the grounds before you brew provides insight into some of the dominant base and upper notes. Smell your coffee again after brewing and as it cools to see how the notes change. When coffee is hot, base notes tend to dominate. As, the coffee cools, lighter, brighter notes are likely to emerge. While we often drink coffees at approximately 180 degrees Fahrenheit, the ideal temperature for tasting is approximately 145 degrees Fahrenheit.
Next, sip your coffees. For the most accurate impression, we suggest sipping the coffee black and breaking up tastings with sips of water or a palate cleanser. When tasting, the first thing to focus on is the scent of the coffee as it travels from the back of your mouth up to your nose. Next, consider mouthfeel — how does the coffee physically feel on your tongue and in your mouth — is it heavy, light, silky, earthy, etc. Identifying the mouthfeel should naturally lead you into observing the acidity level. It is very rare for a heavy coffee to be bright (i.e., high acidity). Once you’ve pinned down the acidity, focus on the coffee’s dominant flavor characteristic, such as sweet, spice, or earthy. Finally, observe the aftertaste. A very clean coffee should leave little to no aftertaste while a highly acidic coffee should say goodbye with a slight sparkling sensation similar to drinking sparkling water. A rich, earthy coffee will likely leave you with the sensation of having just eaten dark or bitter chocolate. Once you’ve identified the main sensations and taste categories, then you can move on to identifying specific flavor notes.
If you find it challenging to identify flavors, read the description provided by the roaster and consciously eat those foods before sipping the coffee. For example, if you are tasting a coffee that has notes of milk chocolate, clove, and cherry, let a small piece of dark chocolate dissolve on your tongue, paying careful attention to the flavors produced as it dissolves. Once the chocolate is dissolved, take a sip of your coffee and try to identify that same milk chocolate sensation. Follow the same process with the clove and then the cherry.
Finally, step out of your comfort zone! If you only taste dark roasts or medium roasts, your palate will acclimate to the roast characteristics making it increasingly difficult to taste individual coffee characteristics. If this sounds too intimidating, rather than start with flavor notes, start by comparing and identifying differences within your roast band (e.g., comparing a French roast to an Italian roast).
Testing your taste buds
Testing your palate development is a wonderful way to identify areas of improvement. There are numerous easy tests you can give yourself, the most basic being (please note these are not official testing game names; these are QB names!):
Two-out-of-three: Brew two similar coffees and pour them into three identical cups. Fill two cups with the same coffee and the third with the other coffee. Using sticky notes or anther identifier, label the cups and turn the labels away from you. Shuffle the cups until you aren’t sure which coffee is in which cup and then start your sipping! As you sip, try to identify the cups containing the same coffee.
Match the roaster: Compare your tasting notes to the roaster’s notes. While everyone’s taste buds are different, dominant coffee flavors should be identifiable to all tasters.
Palate development is a process and a skill. Try not to be discouraged if it takes you a while to begin tasting anything beyond coffee. Palate development takes time, attention, the development of a coffee vocabulary, and conscious sipping of countless cups of delicious coffee! To learn more about coffee cupping, please visit our blog, Smart tips for coffee cupping.
*To learn more about different brew methods, visit our blog.