At first listening to coffee tasters talking coffee borders on the absurd…
“Full bodied, intense and chocolatey, with a long finish. Light and bright with a sharp grapefruit overtone. Rounded tobacco smoke comfort with hints of cedar sweetness….”
What are they talking about?! It’s coffee right?!
When it comes to coffee you quickly learn that there is tasting, and then there is “Tasting”. When you read the label on a bag of coffee the words can be more than a little confusing. A high quality Kenyan coffee may describe itself with a barely pronounceable regional name followed by the letters AA, then note that it is naturally processed and has tasting notes of citrus with blackcurrant, what does all this mean? Are you really going to taste blackcurrants in your coffee? If so, is that a good thing? In this article am going to try and help you make some sense of all of this, and maybe offload some excess complexity and pretension along the way.
Stage Zero: Should You Bother at all?
No, I’m not joking, this is actually a very important question. You see it’s easy as a passionate coffee expert, for me to hear someone ask what to look for in a good coffee, and launch into a world of flavours, processing methods and high brow non-sense (from their perspective). I can very easily miss that what they actually want, is just to find a good day to day coffee that they enjoy drinking. If that’s what you are looking for, then find a brewing method that you like using, seek out a few coffees that work with it, and taste them. Do you enjoy one more than the other? If so there is your winner. It really can be that simple.
If you actually want to delve deeper and into the world of “Coffee Tasting with the big T” then the rest of this article may help you to find your way. It’s my attempt to help those new to coffee, or even veterans, roasters and baristas just wanting to increase their understanding of flavour profiles, to decipher the Rosetta Stone of the coffee tasting world. Hopefully avoiding some of the confusion, and dare I say intimidation that can come from trying to fathom it all on your own.
Many moons ago when I first got into coffee tasting, I remember a lot of confusion as I nervously inched my way through the world of expanding flavours, new words and concepts. Like a traveler venturing into a huge forest, I wandered around finding things I liked and others that I regretted discovering. All along the way I felt more than a little overwhelmed by the immensity of it all. Eventually I came to hear of the (seemingly) almighty “Flavour Wheel”, the tool of the true coffee taster. Being genuinely interested in the concept of identifying good coffee by taste, I duly got a hold of one of these magical things and expected to have all become clear. How very surprised I was to discover a whirling list of tastes and aromas that left me frankly even more lost than I had been before. My journey into coffee tasting took years (and is still ongoing), I was fortunate enough to connect up with some amazing people along the way, and over time I have come to know this forest of knowledge and flavours pretty well. Like many explorers who love a place, my greatest desire is to share my passion, to make the world of coffee more open and available to anyone who wants to spend some time in it. Thats pretty much Bear Essentials Coffee in a sentence as it goes. So lets chat about all this tasting stuff…
What is a Flavour Wheel? Should I Carry One Around?
The flavour wheel is essentially a diagram of flavours and aromas associated with coffee, set up as a circular expanding chart. The idea is beautifully simple and once understood, immensely user friendly. You begin in the centre of the wheel by identifying the word that closest suits the taste or smell you are experiencing, then by following the branching descriptions moving outward from the centre you can refine the specific taste or smell to a greater or lesser extent.
It’s a well thought out and excellently designed tool which can be utterly indispensable, to the right person. But in your authors humble opinion a risky one to use without forethought and guidance. Think of it like a mason’s hammer and chisel or a carpenter’s lathe, in the hands of a skilled user these tools allow for some breathtaking results. But when picked up by a novice DIYer or hobbyist the early results can be a great deal less than amazing. I am often asked how to go about tasting coffee in more depth, and I regularly advise against starting with a flavour wheel.
So How do I Start Then?
The first piece of advice I would offer is ignore the packaging. While most coffees have an ostensibly handy set of tasting notes attached, it’s all too easy to get distracted by them. If I am hosting a beginners coffee exploration evening I will generally have three coffees to taste and some note sheets for the guests, the coffees will be unmarked and served without description. Each guest is encouraged to sample them blind and jot down whatever they make of them in their own words. Then we will all sit down and talk about some of the words used by folks to describe what they tasted. This can lead to a lot of nervousness and laughter, after all it can be quite intimidating to lay bare your own simple views, especially if there is someone in the room who knows what you are trying to talk about really well. But in my experience, once you get over the nerves, it’s inevitably a eureka moment for some if not all guests, the realisation that coffee does taste very different to different people. This round table chat is a perfect lead-in to why the flavour wheel is relevant and even essential in tasting within the industry.
You see, the level of difference in the perceptions from individual palate can make for a confusing conversation when a group of people try to discuss coffee. After all if one person describes the taste as intense and fruity but another as acidic and over sweet, while still a third is struggling to get beyond thats just vile, consensus is a long way away. In a relaxed tasting group this sort of discussion is actually really positive, after all it’s all about individuals finding coffee that they like. However in the industry we need a little more structure, a way for roasters, coffee shop owners and customers alike to have some idea of what they are about to get. This is enabled by the use of not only the flavour wheel, but also structured tasting sheets like the one pictured below, which allow coffee tasters (called Cuppers) to record numerical values of specific aspects of a coffee. The process is complex, involved, and frankly not massively useful for a day to day enthusiast.
Instead of seeking structure and rules I suggest looking to develop a flexible method of tasting and learning as you go. Think of it as traveling without a map and using a compass to plot a route as you go.
The Bear Essentials Tasting Guide: The Three E’s
Tasting coffee in depth, like any other learned skill, is best developed through a blend of Exploration, Experience, and Experimentation. These “Three E’s” are the heart of my approach to the coffee journey.
Try lots of coffees. This is perhaps the most crucial piece of advice I can offer, there are an extraordinary amount of coffees out there. Some you will like, some you will really not, but keep trying new ones. Over many years I have developed a good instinct for what I will like if I order it, which regions, methods and varietals of coffee bean suit my palate best, I am pretty good at what I do. Yet I regularly order coffees I am unsure of, or haven’t seen before, because I love to find something new and exciting, to venture out of my comfort zone and maybe find a new flavour I enjoy.
Coffee tasting skills take time to develop. Don’t rush yourself. If you expect to spend a few weeks reading, watching videos and listening to podcasts from experts, and then arrive at a coffee shop equipped to launch into a detailed analysis of the drink, you are going to be sadly disappointed. With around 800 individual flavour indicators on the palate, over 100 varietals of Coffea Arabica out there, and more brewing techniques than you can shake a very large stick at. Coffee is ever changing, constantly surprising and takes time to engage with. Patience really is a virtue, after two decades of tasting, I am still learning.
Try different ways of brewing your drink, not every coffee is at its best from the gleaming machine at the bar of your local shop. Some need a more subtle extraction, some offer tastes best experienced through unpressurised brewing, and some are great in different ways from different brewing methods. Give them all a go, you may find an unexpected favourite.
Back to that Wheel Again
So using the ethos above you can set off from base camp and explore the vast land of coffee, but I did say something about a compass and plotting a route right?
This is where we come full circle, here is what I consider to be the core use of a flavour wheel for the coffee enthusiast, barista, and coffee shop owner. When you are exploring it pays to check your position with a compass and draw a map, especially when you have so much ground to cover. I recommend doing just that, get a little notebook and stick a copy of the flavour wheel on the inside cover, or for all you modern types store an image on your mobile device or a put a document on your cloud.
As you become more comfortable tasting coffees try following the procedure I described above with the flavour wheel and recording what you find. Don’t be worried about how precise you are and don’t feel you have to get it perfect every time. Just make enough notes that you can remember the drinks you have had and how you felt about them. As your coffee map grows, chat to other enthusiasts and to baristas, coffee shop owners, or even me if you happen to spot me in York. Compare notes and see if they can offer you new ideas to try. If you find a coffee you like, go research it a little, ask the coffee shop where its from or take a look online, many specialty roasters have excellent websites where you can learn a lot about a coffee. There are plenty of sites out there that have people discussing coffee too, I recommend this one as a good start, but then I would…. There are of course many other excellent writers out there.
A Final Word
Overall it’s safe to say that the idea of coffee tasting may seem intimidating, the industry, in places, suffers from more pretension and elitism than I like to admit. But with a little help, I firmly believe anyone can find their way around flavours and share a love of good coffee. I have spent a lot of time over the years chatting to people from all walks of life, and with every possible level of experience, from non at all, through to years working in the industry. In all that time I have found that once you get right down to it, it is pretty simple to see the mystery ingredient in becoming a capable taster of coffee, good old fashioned love of the bean. The one thing that we all have in common is that we have a real interest in coffee it’s various flavours, and in the end thats all we need. A vast tool box and all the shiny tasting descriptors in the world, will never match the combination of passion for product and desire to learn.
As with so many things in life, if you have an interest, you are well on your way. Give it a go, be open minded and learn all you can. The rest will take care of itself.
I won’t overdo this part as there is a vast world of coffee information out there to take in. But I will point out a couple of my favourite places to find coffee knowledge.
The World Atlas of Coffee by James Hoffman offers a well structured “coffee table” read. With sections covering many aspects of the coffee world in a concise and approachable manner. Like many coffee “experts” I consider James’ work to be a first stop resource when I am looking into anything coffee related, and his excellently curated notes about production regions are indispensable at times.
Uncommon Grounds by Mark Pendergrast is my personal favourite book on the history of coffee. Mark covers the long and complex history of the bean and the industry around it in an engaging and entertaining read. Despite the inclusion of plenty of detail on the subject matter, it remains a book you can actually sit and read in a relaxed manner.
The Independent Coffee Guide produced by Salt Media in the UK is a superb starting point for your coffee journey. Each regional edition provides information on local cafes serving great coffee and on the roasters in your area. I almost always have the latest edition for the area I am in on me somewhere.
Perfect Daily Grind Is a great central resource for coffee information on the internet. While the vast array of articles and information can seem a little intimidating at first, once you dive in and look around you will often find yourself clicking on “one last article”. Be warned.
Coffee Research If you want to find out more about growing coffee, the varieties of coffee plant or if agronomics happens to be your bag, this is your first stop. The site provides access to plenty of useful data, and despite being valid for professional use, the presentation allows for more accessibility than you might think at first glance.
About Bear Essentials CoffeeIf you have enjoyed this or any of my writing please check out my Homepage to find out more about me and my work. Follow the blog and if you feel you can, drop a donation to support this project. Thanks, – Bear