This post is really for coffee consumers who want to develop their palates, which leads to coffee becoming more enjoyable.
I had been in coffee well over a year before I really began to develop my vocabulary and descriptive skills, and that is probably more embarrassing as I had done some work in wine beforehand.
What does the coffee professional have access to, that the consumer doesn’t, that allows them to progress so fast? It isn’t cupping bowls, or spoons. It isn’t scoresheets, or large amounts of data about where the coffee is from. It is regular opportunities for comparative tasting.
I know I just said that it wasn’t about cupping bowls and spoons, though most industry tasting is through the cupping process. I strongly believe that the rituals and practices of cupping and were not created with the primary goal of tasting the coffee better. Most of cupping’s routine is about searching for potential defect, looking for consistency, and trying to discern as much about the raw material as possible before purchase. It isn’t a better way to develop your palate. Where the cupper gains a quiet advantage is by going through a process of focused, conscious tasting. You can do this at home very easily, though before you begin I’d advise you to watch Tom Owens’ video on Drinking Vs Tasting. After that it is pretty simple:
1). Buy two very different coffees. It doesn’t hurt to ask your local roaster/shop for guidance on this.
2). Buy two small french presses. As small as you can get really.
3). Brew two small cups of each coffee. You could obviously do this with bigger presses and bigger cups, but I hate the idea of wasting good coffee or promoting overconsumption.
4). Let them cool a little bit. It is much easier to discern the flavours when coffee has cooled a little bit.
5). Start to taste them alternately. Take a couple of sips of one coffee before moving on. Start to think about how the coffee tastes compared to the other. Without a point of reference this is incredibly difficult.
6). Focus on textures first. To start with focus on things like the mouthfeel of the two coffees. Does one feel heavier than the other? Is one sweeter than the other? Does one have a cleaner acidity than the other?
7). Don’t read the labels as you taste. Instead note down a handful of words about each coffee. When you are done compare what you have to the roaster’s descriptions. Can you see now what they are trying to communicate about the coffee?
8). Don’t worry about flavours. ‘Worry’ is the key word here. Flavours are the most intimidating part of tasting, as well as the most frustrating. Roasters use flavours not only to describe particular notes – such as “nutty” or “floral” – but also to convey a wide range of sensations. Describing a coffee as having “ripe apple” notes also communicates expectations of sweetness and acidity. If you do identify individual flavours – great! Note it down! If not then don’t worry. Any words or phrases that describe what you are tasting qualify as being useful – random words or flavours.
Often upon reading the label you’ll have your frustration relieved as you find the word to describe what you tasted that you just couldn’t pull out from the back of your brain. It suddenly seems so obvious! This is part of building a coffee specific vocabulary of flavours – aromas and tastes that you initially find out of context in coffee become what I describe as “coffee versions of…”.
I can’t stress enough how important the comparative part of this is. Tasting one coffee at a time means that you can focus all you want, but without something to compare it too you are working based on your memory of previous coffee which is unfortunately patchy, flawed and innaccurate.
How often should you do this? Whenever you get the chance and have some time to relax and enjoy coffee. Soon you’ll find describing coffees gets easier and easier, though this is something even industry veterans still work on.
One final note on comparative tasting: The context, unfortunately, remains everything. Even the best coffee tasters in the world – let’s take Cup of Excellence judges as an example – cannot score coffees accurately outside of context. A jury member might score a coffee in El Salvador 92, then score a coffee in Guatemala 93. These are not comparable scores, because the context of those scores has changed so much. Within the individual competitions those scores matter, but outside they don’t.