Articles From Whole Latte Love

Basics of Coffee Tasting

Posted: 09/08/03
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Experienced tasters follow a strict routine ritual when tasting.

They deliberately slurp coffee and swirl it all around the surface of the tongue and mouth. They want to obtain the full experience of the taste, the unique combination of sensations in the nose and on the tongue.

Note to Readers: The taste profiles and characteristics discussed in this article apply to drip coffee. Flavor characteristics and descriptions will change with alternate brewing processes.


Taste grid

For all intents and purposes, our sense of smell and sense of taste are inseparable. Without our sense of smell, our taste sensations are limited. The tongue detects 4 basic sensations: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Most of what we experience as taste depends upon our sense of smell.

The tasting experience begins before you brew – with the grinding. When you smell ground coffee, you experience the first impression of its flavor – its Fragrance.

Aroma refers to your first encounter with a coffee when it’s brewed – literally, the first contact of water and coffee.

Lastly, there’s a coffee’s Nose. Take a sip of coffee. As soon as it reaches your tongue, it stimulates taste and simultaneously releases aromas inside the mouth.

Follow the lead of the experts: allow your sense of taste and smell to mingle. Enjoy the tactile feel of the coffee on your tongue.

Now that you’ve taken a good whiff and your first sip, it’s time to let your tongue do the talking. Of all the facets of coffee, Taste is the most complex to discuss.

Most experts concentrate on three elements Body, Acidity, & Balance.

Body: A coffee’s lipid or “oily” quality creates the tactile sensation of Body or “mouthfeel.”

Acidity: Naturally occurring acids in the beans combine with natural sugars that produce a sweetness that gives certain coffees a sharp pleasing tang or piquancy.

Balance: Think of Balance as a harmony of the many sensations yielded by a fine coffee. A “balanced” coffee is one whose flavor characteristics are all at the proper level for that variety.

A quick note on Acidity: Don’t let the term scare you. Acidity does NOT refer to pH levels discussed in high school chemistry class. It is not like hydrochloric acid or stomach acid. Instead, it is a basic taste sensation in coffee, especially those coffees grown in higher altitudes. You’ll notice a coffee’s acidity at every facet of tasting, but especially in a tingling sensation on your tongue. Acidity produces some of the pleasurable and distinctive sensations we enjoy when tasting coffee.

Now, back to our brew!

After a sip is swallowed, the mouth and tongue retain a minute residue of coffee. This sensation produces the Aftertaste, the sensation that lingers on the palate. It is similar to the concept of “finish” in wine tasting. Aftertaste can vary considerably according to the coffee’s body

We mentioned Body as a primary characteristic. You appreciate a coffee’s Body on the tongue and the roof of your mouth. It is a distinctly tactile sensation, and is sometimes called simply “mouth feel.” Another comparison to wine is helpful. Burgundies are sometimes said to be “heavier” than most other reds and whites. The difference is not weight. Rather, Body is the texture and consistency, the thickness or slipperiness of the coffee.

A good cup of coffee represents the collaboration of many highly trained artisans – growers, professional tasters and roasters all working together to create a fine product.

So, let all your senses work together to enjoy the fruits of their collaboration!

One good turn: about the coffee wheel.
Much as wine tasters have created a wine tasting wheel to use an agreed upon terminology, professional coffee tasters use the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel to grade coffees. This flavor wheel is designed for the trained palate of a professional. Professional "cuppers" use this guide when buying coffee and for creating "taste characteristic profiles" of the coffees. Most of us are much better off using our "Flavor Characteristics" chart. The Flavor Characteristics chart is for use by the average "joe". It is a simplified method of charting your favorite java’s characteristics. The flavor descriptions that are most commonly used are defined below.

Know thyself: what flavors appeal to you?
Here are some specific desirable flavor characteristics of coffee and the types of coffee that are associated with those characteristics.

Bright, Dry, Sharp, or Snappy - typical of Costa Rican, Guatemalan, Kenyan.

Caramelly - candy like or syrupy, typical of Colombian Supremo.

Chocolaty - an aftertaste similar to unsweetened chocolate or vanilla. Typical of Costa Rican, Colombian Supremo and the House Blend.

Delicate - a subtle flavor perceived on the tip of the tongue.

Earthy - a soily characteristic, typical of Sumatran.

Fragrant - an aromatic characteristic ranging from floral to spicy, typical of Costa Rican , Sumatra Mandheling and Kenyan.

Fruity - an aromatic characteristic reminiscent of berries or citrus.

Mellow - a round, smooth taste, typically lacking acid, typical of Colombian, Sumatra Mandheling, Whole Latta Java and Orgainc Mexican.

Nutty - an aftertaste similar to roasted nuts, typical of Colombian and Orgainc Mexican.

Spicy - a flavor and aroma reminiscent of spices typical of Guatemala Huehuetenango.

Syrupy - strong, and rich, typical of Sumatran.

Sweet - free of harshness, typical of Colombian.

Wildness - an unusual, gamey flavor, typical of Sumatran.

Winey - an aftertaste reminiscent of well-matured wine, typical of Kenyan, Guatemalan.

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