We know there is a difference between coffee and good coffee. But what makes a good coffee great?
Defining the flavours, aromas, acidity and the body of the coffee requires a fair bit of practice, patience and acquired skill.
Coffee tasting is similar to wine tasting; at first it might be difficult to differentiate between the Barossa and Bordeaux, and this is true for coffee too! It takes experience to recognise the character and traits of a certain coffee type.
Cupping vs Espresso Tasting
Casual tasting for the purpose of finding a personal favourite is commonly done with espresso, as it is usually the quickest and easiest way to try several coffees in a short space of time for most people.
Tasting in a professional setting – such as profile-matching blends or creating new blends – is normally done using ground coffee and water of a very specific temperature.
In this post, we’re talking about a coffee enthusiast who wants to take their appreciation to the next level and is beginning to try and see the differences between blends. To that end, we’ll be assuming that you’re focusing on espresso.
Tasting Espresso – Black or White?
Milk, sugar and any other sweeteners should never be used during tastings, as understandably these interfere with the flavours and composition of the coffee. Remember that the sweetness of the coffee itself is one of the things we’re tasting for, so adding other forms of sweetness will only confuse things.
Where people will vary is whether they strictly try new coffees as pure espresso, long blacks, or some form of milk-based coffee. As a café owner, it’s of course important to be sure that your main blend works both as a black drink and when mixed with milk. But generally, our advice is this: drink it how you like it. It’s no good spending time going through several cups of espresso to find one you can tolerate the most if all you normally drink is cappuccinos, only to then realise that your chosen espresso is actually a bit too sweet for a cappuccino and ends up tasting bland.
The freshness of the grind is fundamental, as without this the quality will deteriorate in a matter of minutes. Additionally, if we allow the espresso to stand too long, the crema will disintegrate, and you’ll lose the window to taste the coffee in a fair, objective way.
What’s a good coffee palate cleanser?
Another factor to consider when tasting is to allow at least 20 minutes to pass after you’ve eaten. Food consumed prior to tasting coffee can greatly affect the flavours you experience, and even make the coffee taste bitter. If in doubt, rinse your mouth with water to neutralise the taste buds before tasting your first espresso. Many professionals swear by carbonated water as a superior palate cleaner because the bubbles act as a surfactant on the coffee that remains in your mouth.
It pays to taste coffee in a calm environment free of any disturbing influences. Any food smells lingering in the air can greatly affect your experience of the flavour, since most tasting happens as aromas in the nose. Experts suggest we should also pay particular attention to the type of glass we use, with the narrower style enhancing the aroma, taste and intensity of the coffee. It’s also said to highlight the powerful, roasted flavours, while the broader glass draws your attention to the more subtle flavours.
The coffee tasting process begins with the fragrance, so give yourself time to savour the aromas. Next we consider the appearance of the crema, which is the important layer on top of the coffee. The texture of the crema and how it sticks to the wall of the cup speaks volumes about your espresso; it actually closes the aroma into the coffee, so its texture and quality is important. After examining it, we move it away from the surface of the coffee with a small spoon. Then we can notice the opacity of the coffee and the colour itself, which can be gold, brown or bronze.
Now for the fun part- we taste the coffee! There are four key elements to this phase:
Roasting: The roasting process affects the acidity and bitterness of the coffee. One of the easiest ways to start differentiating between coffees is to try both a light and dark roast in the same session. With single-origin coffees, most people find that they lean towards a certain roast in milk and a different roast of the same bean when drinking black.
Body: This component fundamentally represents the density or mouthfeel; the more full- bodied coffee is creamier, and the lighter has a more watery texture.
Acidity: This element is influenced by every part of the coffee making process, and provides a fresh, lively taste to the coffee, emphasising the natural, sweet taste.
Aroma: By smelling the coffee we can distinguish between light, moderate and strong aromas. This can sometimes be the most challenging part of coffee tasting.
Detecting flavours in the coffee:
Coffee that offers a light aroma could be said to have a floral, fruity or citrusy smell. Medium blends are characterised by honey and slightly roasted notes, while bold, strong aromas carry a spicy, woody and cocoa flavoured base.
You don’t need to be a coffee sommelier to understand what makes a great coffee (although it helps!) But with some specific knowledge and a passion for the pursuit of your personal perfect espresso profile, you’ll be tasting like a pro in no time.