A Beginner’s Guide to Coffee Tasting
The simple art of focusing on what’s in front of you
This coffee tastes like Thai basil and yellow peach.
This coffee tastes like being shaken by the collar and thrown into a New York snowbank.
This coffee is substantial, without being inelegant.
You might have heard people describe the taste of coffee like this before. And you might have found these descriptions intimidating, because they're interpreting coffee's most complex feature: its flavor.
Despite this complexity, I’m here to tell you that there are only two prerequisites for tasting coffee: You must have functional tastebuds, and you must be curious.
As a part of our training at Blue Bottle, we focus on simply getting people comfortable with talking about coffee. This takes time and continuous practice. Before they ever serve their first cup of coffee to a guest, our new baristas have spent time thinking about how every coffee tastes. Tasting something thoughtfully is a simple practice that brings a great deal of joy, but it's also a skill that most of us need time to develop.
Tasting as a Reflexive Practice
So, how do you cultivate this practice? In a perfect world, you could taste coffee in a quiet space with no distractions, because the best way to begin tasting is simply to slow down and pay attention to what’s right in front of you — in our case, a cup of coffee — not email, not the news, not the many methods of distraction we’ve devised for ourselves. This is about you, your coffee, and these questions: How does this taste? Why do I like it, or why don’t I?
Write down your answers, or don’t. The goal is to notice things you didn’t notice before and develop your own sensory spectrum, as well as your own methods for keeping track of it.
There’s no wrong answer to these questions, but there are some useful concepts and a vocabulary to help you create a more specific answer. In our training labs, we break the tasting experience into five categories: sweetness, body, acidity, flavor, and finish.
Ways of Coffee Tasting
When you start out tasting coffee, I recommend choosing one of these five categories and paying close attention to how a particular coffee expresses itself through it. Below, I briefly define the categories, and suggest some simple exercises you can try at home to deepen your understanding of them.
Sweetness: This is an easy one to start with. How much do you detect a sugary quality in the coffee? What kind of sugar does it remind you of? Is it a maple sugar sweetness, or a hard-candy sweetness? If you have sweeteners at home — molasses, honey, brown sugar, or white sugar, for example — try tasting them in sequence, and think about what makes them different. They’re all sweet, but in their own ways.
Body: This category is for pondering the weight and feeling of the coffee on your tongue. If you’re a beer drinker, you might notice a difference between the heavier body of a stout and the lighter body of a pilsner. Milk is also a helpful example for thinking about body. Take sips of whole milk, skim milk, and nonfat milk, and notice how they feel heavier or lighter, thicker or thinner, in your mouth.
Acidity: Acidity has many common associations, and not all of them are positive for most people. But a complex acidity, or “brightness," is a hallmark of some of the most sought-after coffees. Practice thinking about acidity’s spectrum of positive qualities by comparing grapefruit with lemon and lime. Yogurt also has acidity—that tangy sensation of lactic acid on your tongue.
Flavor: Here’s where you let your imagination run wild. The key thing is to build up a library of flavor references. Try wines. Taste chocolates. Pick up strange-looking produce at the farmers market. Take notes on memories that certain foods and smells evoke for you. If a taste reminds you of the frosting on a birthday cake you had as a kid, or of your grandfather’s smoky motorcycle jacket, you’re doing great.
Finish: This category is a question of what happens after your sip of coffee is “done.” What taste or feeling lingers in your mouth? What’s your last impression of it? I like to compare a shot of Hayes Valley espresso with a shot of Opascope espresso: Hayes Valley ends with a sweet note, while Opascope dissipates quickly. Practice thinking about finish with dark chocolate and milk chocolate. Which one has a long, coating finish? Which one leaves a dry feeling?
Go Deeper with Quality and Intensity
Each of these five categories is represented in every cup, and within each category we can also assess how present and pleasant they are. Not all sweetness is enjoyable, and not all acidity is unenjoyable. Asking yourself whether a characteristic you’ve observed is positive or negative — and to what degree — is a powerful part of tasting.
Paying Attention and Falling in Love
The best part about these five categories is you can apply them to anything you can taste. Honey. Olive oil. Apples. Fried chicken. It’s about figuring out what works for you and putting it into words. Now, the next time you’re in a cafe, you’ll be ready to tell the barista what you like, and they’ll be able to make a new recommendation for you and help you find the next coffee you love. That’s one of the beauties of coffee: The more you pay attention and learn about what makes you love something, the more you discover to love.