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A comprehensive guide on coffee tasting

When it comes to the taste of coffee, there are some basic & general realizations one needs to keep in mind prior to engaging in reading about each and every one separately:

The coffee flavor you get to taste in your cup, is the result of every single step taken between the time the coffee was harvested to the time you opened the pack and brewed it (including the brewing process).

The taste(s) is perceived via the taste buds. Each and every one of us perceives them slightly differently due to many factors & habits that affect our taste buds (smoking, drinking, type of food we normally consume, etc). The basic 5 tastes everyone tends to be able to perceive are: bitterness, acidity, sweetness, saltiness and body.

Bitterness, the taste most people associate coffee with. The truth is that coffee has some bitter components (caffeine for starters) and the melanoidins that get created during the roasting process, but keep in mind that coffee if roasted & brewed properly does not have to be bitter.

Acidity – the taste that makes coffee have a certain vividness or sparkle. Acidity is what makes coffee to not taste flat. Acidity is the element that makes the coffee have a hint of lemon, wine, or even pineapple & fruity taste.

Sweetness as well as saltiness can be the sugary or salty taste which you know from normal sugar & salt. Both these tastes could appear in very different levels, prompting you to perceive them merely as hints. 

The body or mouth feel is definitely not a flavor but most probably a sensation. It refers to the texture and heaviness of the coffee on your tongue and mouth. It’s a feeling rather than anything else you get with the 1st sip of coffee.

The elements that affect coffee taste

Coffee reveals a vast amount of aromas & an even greater number of different tastes. This being the case, one could easily end up asking what is the flavor that makes coffee tastes like coffee?. The answer is not an easy one but most probably one could venture it the following way: The coffee taste is a mixture of different tastes and aromas that deliver a distinct flavor like no other.

Clearly, this answer delivers no definite understanding and this is exactly where the thirst for knowledge stems from. How could we possibly identify where all these flavors, aromas tastes come from? What affects them, what enhances them?

A) Location

What affect the soil within a specific location has on a grape that ends up becoming wine? Many wine drinkers will end up answering: massive affect. Why? The conditions that surround the coffee tree (altitude, close to sea or mountains, types of trees close by, etc) are directly linked to the way the tree delivers this red, soft berry that holds the two coffee beans within.           

B) Variety

There are mainly two varieties of coffee bean trees: the Arabica and the Robusta tree. Each and every variety, has a series of sub-varieties as well. Each variety and sub-variety has its own unique characteristics and nearly its own behavior when processed.

C) Harvesting, processing & storing practices

The way the coffee bean gets harvested, the way it gets washed and separated from the inner two coffee beans, the way these two coffee beans get dried and stored, affect dramatically the coffee’s flavor, aroma & taste.

D) Roasting

The roasting process is the stage where every single element becomes the end product. The roasting level (light, medium, medium dark, dark) as well as the timing behind reaching the desired roasting level, effect dramatically the taste, flavor and aroma of the coffee.

Light roasts are light brown in color, with a light body and no oil on the surface of the beans. They tend to have a toasted grain taste and pronounced acidity. The origin flavors of the bean are retained to a greater extent than in darker roasted coffees. Light roasts also retain most of the caffeine from the coffee bean. Light roasted beans generally reach an internal temperature of 180°C – 205°C. At or around 205°C, the beans pop or crack and expand in size. This is known as the “first crack”. So a light roast generally means a coffee that has not been roasted beyond the first crack.

Medium roasted coffees are medium brown in color with more body than light roasts. Like the lighter roasts, they have no oil on the bean surfaces. However, medium roasts lack the grainy taste of the light roasts, exhibiting more balanced flavor, aroma, and acidity. Caffeine is somewhat decreased, but there is more caffeine than in darker roasts. Medium roasts reach internal temperatures between 210°C and 220°C — between the end of the first crack and just before the beginning of the second crack.

Medium-dark roasts have a richer, darker color with some oil beginning to show on the surface of the beans. A medium-dark roast has a heavy body in comparison with the lighter or medium roasts. The beans are roasted to the beginning or middle of the second crack — about 225°C or 230°C. The flavors and aromas of the roasting process become noticeable, and the taste of the coffee may be somewhat spicy.

Dark roasted coffees are dark brown in color, like chocolate, or sometimes almost black. They have a hint of oil on the surface, which is usually evident in the cup when the dark roast coffee is brewed. The coffee’s origin flavors are eclipsed by the flavors of the roasting process. The coffee will generally have a bitter and smoky or even burnt taste. The amount of caffeine is substantially decreased. To reach the level of a dark roast, coffee beans are roasted to an internal temperature of 240°C — about the end of the second crack — or beyond. They are seldom roasted to a temperature exceeding 250°C, at which point the body of the beans is thin and the taste is characterized by flavors of tar and charcoal.

E) Freshness

How long was the bag of coffee you just purchased was sitting on the super market shelve? All though today’s packaging (especially for coffee) is of imperial quality providing an absolute oxygen barrier, the law of freshness is always going to be there: the fresher the better.

Attempting to describe coffee

Humans – especially inexperienced with tasting processes – are better off trying to identify & perceive one taste at a time. With experience, their ability to perceive more gets enhanced. Many flavors are the result of the interaction between aromas and tastes and cannot really be picked up separately, but do not get despondent about it. Start by attempting to identify one element at a time, with every sip you take. Jotter your findings down as you go along.

A) Fragrance

Start by smelling the coffee you’ve just grinded (prior to brewing it) and attempt to pick up any fruity, floral or herbal notes. Once you pick up that the coffee you are dealing with reveals one of these notes, try to identify it (for example fruity note that of a peach or an orange / floral note that of a rose or green freshly cut grass).

B) Aroma

While the brewing process takes place, the coffee’s aroma will start traveling in the room (the cause of this is a series of reactions that happen when the hot water hits the freshly grinded coffee beans). What you are looking for there, is an aroma that reveals most commonly nutty, caramel or coco notes. Once again, try to identify these notes (almond, peanut, etc).

C) Sweetness

Once you take the 1st sip (some people slurp rather than sip when tasting coffee), try to perceive the element of sweetness. In order to do so, stay focused in searching for sweetness alone – no other element. It is common for this element to reveal itself as a hint of candy or fruity like sweetness.

D) Acidity

Take another sip of coffee – but this time – roll the coffee in your mouth. Try to feel if there is any brightness and if there at what level. Thereafter, try to feel if your tongue starts to salivate and if it does, try to pick the possible taste this salivating process could be stemming from (for example, is it similar to the salivation your tongue generates when bighting on a green apple, on a slice of pineapple, when sipping wine).

E) Body

Taking the next sip, focus on the texture the coffee you are sipping appears to be having. Let the coffee land on your tongue and then swirl the coffee around your tongue. The texture you might pick up could be thick, velvety, watery, heavy, rugged or even no texture at all (not a very common scenario).  

F) After taste

The final step involves you taking 4 to 5 sips one after the other, swirling the coffee in your mouth & swallowing every sip in a fast pace. Allow for 10 seconds to pass after your last sip and focus on the sensation this process left behind in your mouth, throat and stomach. Is there anything left behind? Do you still have a hint of the coffee taste in your mouth? How does your throat & stomach feels like?

Read more articles:
A comprehensive guide on coffee tasting
How to judge and choose the right roast for you
9 Healthy reasons to indulge in your coffee cravings

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