Updated: Aug 20, 2021
5 Steps to understand your palate and identify flavors in coffee
If only recognizing the flavors of coffee were as simple as distinguishing the sounds of your favorite music.
The good thing about this sensory dilemma is that you don't need to be an expert to build confidence in your palate. All it takes is observation, a love for coffee, and a little patience to hone your practice.
Here are a few tips to help you get familiar with your palate and learn to interpret flavors better to articulate the language and love you have for coffee.
1. Start with the essentials
Success for this journey starts with a few essentials—clean water, proper temperature, consistent grind, and of course, fresh beans. No matter the brewing method, these four things are a priority when beginning your coffee tasting practice.
We encourage a low-key pour-over, and if you're new to manual brewing methods, we assure you, it doesn't require a ton of fuss. Check out our guide on mastering your cup!
2. Prioritize smell
Without smell, our sense of taste is quite minimal. Approximately 80%-90% of what we taste is an aroma.
Think of using your nose like a warm-up for your brain to understand what it's about to taste.
Smell the coffee beans before you grind, after you grind, as it blooms in the vessel, and once more, right before you sip.
There are a few specific aromatic categories you can look for with each sniff.
Floral, vegetal, or fruit-like aromas are expressions of the coffee's natural enzymatic properties. After all, coffee does come from the seed of a fruit! The fun part is noting how these aromas differ from region to region—a true testament to the terroir in coffee.
Toasted nuts, pastries, or cocoa are all notes you distinguish from the chemical reaction of heat exposure to amino acids and sugar. Different coffees produce different levels of sugar browning during the roasting process.
Wood, leather, and tobacco are unique and expressive aromatics created through the roasting process. Dry distillation happens when the fibers of the coffee bean burn. So the darker the roast, the stronger these scents will emanate.
Tip: Keep an observation notebook to write down what you smell at each level of this process. Compare notes on these three categories and their aromas side by side when trying coffees from different regions and different roasting levels.
3. Don't just sip, slurp
To optimize your tasting ability, be sure to slurp after you sip. Slurping aerates the coffee so that it covers the entire surface area of your tongue, hitting on all sensory receptors, sweet, salty, bitter, umami.
Tip: Taste the coffee at different times to observe changes in flavor at different temperatures. The best coffees are layered and complex and offer a range of flavors that can taste completely different from hot to cool.
4. Mindfully observe
There are five essential elements to observe when tasting coffee. Take note of these and ask yourself a few questions to begin fine-tuning your palate.
Typically, the better the coffee, the sweeter it tastes. Look for arabica coffees to better detect this particular element. When you identify sweetness, ask yourself what kind of sweetness you're tasting. Is it a fruity sweetness, or rather honey, caramel, or sugar? If it's fruity, is it more berry-like, melon, or citrus? Does it resemble more brown sugar than white? More butterscotch than chocolate? Is it dark chocolate or milk chocolate?
The roast level disrupts our perception of acidity. Commonly detected more in lighter and medium roasts, acidity is a quality in coffee perceived through the juicy notes of fruit. The darker the roast, the more difficult these can be to identify. Are you examining more zest from lime as opposed to the tartness of a lemon? Or is there more tang like that of a melon?
The body speaks to the weight of coffee on your tongue. Is it heavy like whole milk or lighter and tea-like?
Tip: Take note of your brewing method and coffee to water ratio when comparing a difference in the body. Try the same coffee in a couple of different brewing methods to see how the textures can change.
Since you've primed your palate by smelling and noting the aromas of the coffee, you've probably identified expectations for how it should taste. Do these notes come through on the palate as much as they did on the nose? Are there other flavors you didn't identify with a smell that you can list after tasting?
Tip: Start a flavor and aroma library. Grocery shopping is a great time to start adding things to the mental directory. Pick up different fruits and spices to smell and make mental notes of them for future reference. Do this when you dine out or find yourself cooking a meal. The more you slow down and observe what you're smelling, the more you'll remember the nuance of them later on.
Take a sip, take a slurp, and as you're writing down these observations from the elements above, a few minutes should pass. How did the coffee finish? Can you still taste it? Does it linger, or did it dissipate quickly? Did you notice the texture? Was it smooth and velvety or rough and wooly? Did you enjoy the sip or indifferent on a lasting impression?
5. Practice, persistence, and passion
The most significant part of understanding your palate is practice. It doesn't take an expert to pull these flavors out of a cup, but it does require persistence. Keep it light and fun! Host a coffee hour with a few new specialties to try with friends. Take notes, speak your mind, and never feel embarrassed to make a bold statement in the quest to express flavor because there's simply never a wrong answer, just methodical and mindful observations.
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