With coffee shops on every corner and many online coffee stores to choose from, it can be hard to find a coffee that stands out from the rest. There is a reason for this: coffee flavour profiles are nuanced and complex. Furthermore, coffee is one of those beverages where preparation methods vary across regions of the world. For these reasons, there are many misconceptions about what makes a good cup of coffee. If you want to taste coffee like a pro, here are some tips that will help you get started!
The first thing to do is understand that palate is something that develops. As coffee is a complex beverage, it may take some time for you to develop the taste buds necessary to appreciate coffee like a barista. So don't get discouraged when your coffee doesn't taste quite right at first!
What is palate?
Palate refers to the coffee drinker's sense of taste. The term is useful because it helps people understand that coffee does not just affect one part or aspect of their senses, but instead has a wide-range impact on many different abilities.
While coffee can be broken down into several parts (for example: acidity, sweetness and dryness) and has a clear impact on your coffee's taste, it also impacts how coffee smells and feels. This is because coffee combines the senses to create one sensation of flavour that people then interpret in order to understand what they are drinking.
Palate can be broken down into two different abilities:
- Smelling coffee
- Tasting coffee
1) Smelling coffee
A coffee's aroma is the first aspect of coffee tasting that you will notice. Aroma plays an important part in influencing how "flavourful" coffee tastes, and it can help people understand what they are drinking before their coffee even reaches their mouth. The coffee-drinking experience begins when a person smells coffee beans or ground coffee while brewing them.
The way to think about smelling as opposed to tasting something relates back to our other senses: taste is closely related to touch, which enables us not only feel food with our tongue but also lets us get information from foods by touching them with different parts of our mouth (for example: we may touch cheese with your teeth in order to fully appreciate its texture). Smelling actually works almost exactly as tasting coffee does, but instead of using our tongue and saliva to create a sensory experience we use the nose.
We should be able to pick up on three different smells when smelling coffee:
- Coffee "aroma" (smells that come from coffee beans)
- Roasted coffee smell (coffee beans before they have been brewed)
- Coffee "scent" (smells that come from coffee flavours)
2) Tasting coffee
Tasting coffee is the second part of coffee tasting, and it involves getting a sense of coffee's sweetness, acidity, body, flavour profile and aftertaste.
When people think about how coffee tastes they are talking about five different aspects:
Coffee sweetness is coffee's natural taste, and it can be found in all coffee beans. Sweetness provides coffee with a balanced taste that makes coffee feel smooth to drink (rather than tasting "bitter" or "sour"). While some people enjoy the bitter flavour of dark roasted coffee, others prefer light-roasted coffee because its coffee sweetness is more accessible.
Some coffee beans are naturally sweeter than others, depending on the coffee's country of origin and how it was roasted. Arabica coffee beans tend to be slightly sweeter than Robusta coffee because they contain less caffeine, while dark-roasted coffee will have a stronger taste that takes away from sweetness.
Coffee acidity is coffee's natural "tangy" flavour. It is more noticeable in light-roasted coffee beans and it provides coffee with a lively or zesty taste by stimulating the tongue to sense sourness (similarly to how salt stimulates us). Acidity also refers to coffee having certain smells that are bright, fruity, citrusy or apple-like. These aromas form when coffee has been roasted for less time than dark roast coffees because they have not had as much time to develop their flavours during the roasting process.
Acidic coffees tend to come from Central/South America where processing methods allow them more polyphenols (natural plant compounds) since acids both cause bitterness and create coffee's natural acidity.
The coffee beverage that we drink actually contains both coffee sweetness and coffee acidity, as well as other tastes like nuttiness, chocolate or coffee "fruitness" (which contributes to coffee's fruit aromas).
Coffee body refers to coffee's weight. It is often described as coffee tasting thick, heavy or rich. This feeling can be noticed when coffee touches the tongue and stays there for a while after we swallow it (because coffee beverage contains oils that enable us to feel its weight).
When people taste coffee they are actually trying to get an idea of how "full" their coffee will be: espresso drinks like lattes have more condensed coffee body than filtered drip coffees because they are made from more concentrated coffee beverages with less water added afterwards.
While many factors influence what kind of flavour profile one might notice in their cup of brewed coffee, different types of beans do produce distinct flavours through their own unique tastes which vary slightly depending on where they come from and the coffee processing method that they go through.
Coffee flavour profile
Coffee flavour profile refers to coffee's overall taste and the way that it can shift depending on what kind of coffee beverage you are drinking.
Flavour is an important part of coffee tasting because it enhances coffee's natural aromas, sweetness and acidity: together these three characteristics create a unique cup of coffee for each type (or blend) of beans.
For example, coffee grown in the mountains will have a distinct flavour profile from coffee that is cultivated near oceans or lakes. Coffee's natural flavours also vary depending on coffee growing regions and processes which involve drying coffee beans with different exposure to sun, rain, wind etc.
Flavour profiles are integral to understanding what kind of coffee beverage you might want to drink and where coffee's natural aromas come from. They are also closely related to coffee tasting notes which coffee professionals use to communicate coffee's flavour profile and coffee quality in a more precise way.
A coffee professional might create tasting notes for a coffee grower, roaster or buyer that describes what kind of flavours they are likely to find when drinking their coffee beverage. For instance, the following coffee taste and aroma descriptions can be used as part of coffee tasting notes: coffee has a "nutty" taste and smell; coffee is floral, chocolatey or fruity.
It's important to remember coffee tasting notes are subjective and coffee professionals use them to communicate coffee's flavour profile in a way that is sensory (or based on what they can smell and taste) but also coffee specific.
Coffee aftertaste refers to coffee's flavour once it has been swallowed and digested.
The coffee beverage that we drink actually contains both coffee sweetness and coffee acidity, as well as other tastes like nutty-ness, chocolate or coffee "fruitness" (which contributes to coffee's fruit aromas). These flavours linger in our mouths giving us the sensation of tasting a cup of brewed coffee long after we have finished drinking it.
Coffee aftertaste can also be described by how long it stays in your mouth. Some coffee drinkers prefer a short coffee aftertaste (which can be thought of as "sweetness" on the tongue) while others might enjoy coffee's flavour lingering longer.
Explore the coffee flavour wheel
The coffee flavour wheel is a tool coffee professionals use to assist coffee tasting. It is a visual tool that helps coffee tasters explore coffee's flavour profile in terms of the following:
- Coffee acidity (or brightness)
- Coffee body or texture (coffee "weight")
- Coffee sweetness and its intensity
The wheel lists different types of tastes including citrus, chocolate, nutty and spicy as well as flavour descriptors like floral or earthy. Some people find it helpful when they first start exploring what kind of taste notes their palate can detect while others simply enjoy using this wheel for fun!
Practice improves your coffee tasting skills
One of the best ways to become a coffee expert is by getting regular coffee tasting practice. Coffee professionals often say that it takes a lot of cups before you can taste coffee like a barista because there's so much complexity and variability in coffee flavours that you have to get used to them over time.
The first step towards improving your coffee-tasting skills is finding good quality beans, which will produce better tasting coffee than lower quality alternatives no matter how carefully they're brewed. Buying from reputable coffee roasters who offer coffee sampling kits and detailed descriptions on their bags or websites means you'll know what kind of flavour profiles to expect when brewing the coffee yourself.
Learning to enjoy coffee takes time and practice. It’s not something you can just “get,” but the more you taste and learn about different types of coffees from around the world, the better experience you will have when drinking your morning cup or evening espresso. Ready to start tasting better coffee at home? Try a coffee tasting gift pack or pick your favourite coffee from our selection.