What do you mean, taste coffee?
Doesn’t it just taste like…coffee?
Ah, the ubiquitous coffee flavor…
It’s quite fascinating actually just how many flavors and aromas can come from coffee. You could spend your entire life and never have two coffees exactly the same.
I remember from my early days of discovering coffee, hearing people talk about the flavors – ‘the notes.’
I recall always being skeptical. After all, I was also drinking the same thing, and it was just dark and bitter. I mean, if I concentrated and thought about it, sure I might be able to see some kind of chocolate…
But it certainly wasn’t the kind of chocolate I would enjoy.
Aside from chocolate, there are a host of other flavor possibilities. The coffee fruit and it’s pit (the seed/bean that we know as coffee) are mind-bogglingly complex. There is seemingly no flavor element which this magical plant is not able to replicate.
Therein lies part of the joy of coffee. It isn't just drinking a delicious cup of coffee, but drinking a delicious cup, and then remembering that amazing apple pie from Thanksgiving which your aunt made.
Of course sometimes I just want to sit and enjoy the sense of my cup (especially in the morning), without thinking in depth.
I do know that my deeper understanding of what is possible is part of what creates that depth.
I also get more enjoyment out of trying many different coffees when I can easily discern the incredible uniqueness amongst them.
So then – how do you taste coffee?
There is a scientific approach to this conversation. This involves looking at the components of coffee and realizing that when you taste orange (for example), that’s the same component in the coffee giving the flavor as is in the orange. I’m not a scientist – nor do I think it’s terribly important to understand these things (but if you wan’t a more complete scientific look at coffee, here’s a good place to start).
I like to think of flavor from the perspective of memory. It’s an exercise in awareness and recall.
You taste the coffee, you have an experience – in terms of the aroma and the way the coffee feels on your tongue. Then,to put a name or description to what you are experiencing, this is a matter of connecting those experiences with your past. Like my aunt’s apple pie at thanksgiving. Powerful sensory memories are easier to recall.
This might be one of the reasons it’s so easy to detect negative flavors…
“But!” You say… “I taste something interesting, but I just can’t put words to it!”
Only what you might actually say is what I would have said in the past – “uh…it’s coffee?”
Sensory and memory overload lead to a dumbfounded reaction.
This isn't just about awareness and recall – choice plays a huge role. Especially when you are new to this sort of exercise.
As you taste more coffees and get used to the process of tasting, recognizing, and putting a name to your experiences, your mind becomes better at jumping through the hoops of memory.
At the beginning, the massive amount of choice in front of you is crippling.
We know this simple fact: the fewer choices you have available to you, the more likely you are to make a choice.
The Coffee Tasting 101 Guide
With this in mind – I created a guide to learning how to taste coffee. It’s my Coffee Tasting 101 Guide. I’m going to share the important parts with you right now, and you can download the whole thing below if you like (or just click/tap here).
My goal with this guide, is to reduce the number of choices you have in front of you, and increase your awareness and recall of those choices. Those are the three main factors that go into tasting coffee; your choices available, your awareness of the taste, your recall in memory of that taste.
Instead of having you try to connect what you are tasting/smelling with a past memory, I have you connect that taste experience to only 6-8 distinct food items. These items are designed to cover a large swath of flavors that can be found in coffee.
First, go get the following from the store (one from each line):
Dark Chocolate (avoid chocolates with added flavor)
Green Bell Pepper
Make sure you have some good coffee available. I recommend a single origin, but a well made blend will suffice for the exercise – this is about the tasting process, not the coffee.
Download the Coffee Tasting 101 Guide for my list of recommended roasters (as well as a more thorough version of this guide).
Once you have your grocery items, break this practice up into two days. On the first day, give yourself half an hour to sit down with the food. Taste each item – think about each as you are tasting. Firmly lodge these flavors and aromas in your memory. Write down your thoughts. Remember the juiciness and crispness of the apple, the smooth richness and bite of the chocolate, and the butteriness of the walnuts. Etc.
On the second day, you will prepare your coffee.
Your task is then simply this: Taste your coffee, and then decide which of the items you tasted the previous day it most closely resembles.
You have to pick one – there’s no right or wrong choice, but you must make a choice.
Then do it again.
Then get a different coffee and try it again.
The more you do this, the more confident you will become in understanding what you are seeing and experiencing – before too long you will find as you taste a coffee that memories pop out of nowhere. That flowery candy you had at a party 3 years ago. Those from-scratch fudge brownies you made last week.
Mastering your comfort level with this process will unlock a world of joy you’ve yet to discover with coffee…