Sensory - Approaching and developing taste in specialty coffee
Updated: Jan 25
What do we mean when we say ‘tasting’, and how important is it for specialty coffee?
Understanding tasting is one of the most interesting journeys I have ever been on. Developing the ability to taste and understand coffee has helped to not only become better at what I do, but to gain a better perspective of the world of coffee and the potential we have to improve quality.
Everyone has an ability to taste. Taste helps us to define what is edible and if goods are expired or inedible, or even poisonous.These areas of the tongue can be developed differently with each person but what is clear is that we all have the ability to taste.
In the below, I want to talk about how we taste, how we can develop our tasting skills and why it is so important for specialty coffee.
How do we taste?
In a very rudimentary understanding, our tongue can taste five basic flavours - sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. Umami is especially important as it helps us to define textures, combined flavours and aftertaste.
Our tongue is made up of several different areas, all of which are sensitive to different tastes and sensations. The below image is a bit deceptive - it isn’t the case that only the tip of the tongue tastes sweetness; it’s more that this area is the most sensitive to sweetness. Our entire tongue is able to identify and experience different sensations.
What is difficult is that modern food and new ingredients compromise our ability to differentiate between certain flavours. Salt and sugar are typically used in very high concentrations in most pre-made groceries and drinks. These high concentrations desensitise our natural taste buds and if we then drink anything sour or bitter, the experience we have is out of proportion.
This is why most people find it difficult to taste sweetness, particularly in coffee. We’ve all had that customer who has tasted a sweet espresso and said “Ugh, this is bitter!” It is more likely the case that they are used to such concentrated levels of sweetness (say, in a can of Coca-cola) that their perception of sweetness is desensitised.
Acidity and bitterness are usually quite dominating, and get mixed up a lot to the point that consumers don’t even know if their taste actually is bitter or sour - they just know its not sweet enough for their taste.
The base of tasting is learning to appreciate food and drinks without additives or concentrations of one particular sensation, such as sweetness. I had the luxury to get my food knowledge from scratch, because I did a chef's apprenticeship and learned a lot about taste and flavour during this time. I learned to smell ingredients very actively, to take time to soak up everything a dish had to offer, to understand what boiling or heat in general does to it and how it changes the experience.
Smelling is just as important as tasting as it helps you to identify flavours. It also helps our brain to memorise, create neural pathways to identify sensations, and to connect certain emotions to taste, all of which is very important to help remembering taste profiles. Even if we commonly distinguish taste as one sense and smell as another, they work together to create the perception of flavour.
If you’re looking to develop your tasting skills, the first step is to avoid pre-made, artificial products or additives. The key to learn more about tasting and even to taste more is to strip back and eat and drink more pure. Put down that lemonade, and instead try to smell and taste a fresh lemon! Go to the local farmers’ market and smell the difference between varieties of tomatoes, or taste the difference in acidity between a red apple and a green apple.
Learning about taste isn’t just great for your skills in coffee - it’s a delicious journey!
Why is taste so important for experiencing coffee?
Coffee is a very complex beverage and has an overwhelming amount of different flavours that can be tasted simultaneously, as well as followed by each other. It also changes its flavour drastically with temperature. Only a few degrees can change your taste from chocolate at 68 degrees to red apple at 60 degrees.
Because these flavours are so delicate and volatile, tasting the fine differences is difficult; however, once you understand them a whole world of flavour will open its doors. There are many great resources you can use in order to help guide your journey in tasting - I highly recommend the SCA flavour wheel, as well as its explanation in the sensory lexicon by the World Coffee Research team.
Once you read through those flavours it gets easier to understand what ‘vegetative’ means, what exactly we mean when we say ‘fresh’ or ‘stale’, and what we can refer to in other ingredients.
The most important training part is to constantly repeat and continue tasting - in coffee, this means actively analysing the coffee every day. I use my dial-in sheets every day that I work behind the bar to measure the sweetness, acidity and texture of the coffees I am preparing, and make sure to add tasting notes as I go. In my opinion, that is the only way you can practically develop your taste buds and understand differences in coffees, particularly when you are working behind a bar.
If you have the opportunity to do this several times a day, you will notice how the flavour of coffee can change ever within a day as a result of temperature, humidity and exposure to oxygen.
How can we use tasting for dialling in?
For dialling in coffees I have a very simple rule. The coffee should be as ‘sour’ as it is ‘bitter’. If the coffee is balanced in the middle of these two sensations and neither of them is too overpowering, we can focus on finer tasting notes like certain fruits, chocolates or flowers. If your coffee gets too salty it is often worth checking the water quality.
If you want you and your whole team to get better at tasting and also to get calibrated I would recommend the following steps:
Dial your coffee in together every day. Whenever I am at the coffee machine, I dial in one Coffee just for regular milk beverages, one different coffee for oatmilk ( the oat milk blend is usually more chocolaty and a bit heavier) and then we have an espresso that is served without milk. On top of that we have a batch brew, that changes every day.
Taste how the espresso tastes together with the milk. It’s no use tasting an espresso by itself if you’re planning to serve it with milk, as the sweetness and fat of the milk will shift the balance you’ve achieved with the espresso. Ask yourself questions like, ‘How much milk weight do I use?’, ‘Is the espresso more intense with 38g out or with 40g?’, or ‘Is 100g milk enough or should I go up to 110g?’
Once I’ve hit the sweet spot with my dialling in, I am writing these parameters down on dial-in sheets (located at the end of this blog post). Kind of like this:
Coffee: Sinfonia Age: 18 days Dose in: 19 g Dose out: 38g Seconds: 26 sec
Flavour notes: Milk chocolate, super sweet, dulce de leche
Those little dial in cards are attached to all grinders in the shop so that everyone knows the dial in of each coffee. They are laminated, and I can write on them with a white board marker. This way, I can clean them after the shift and write a new recipe on them the next day (which is not only convenient, but saves you wasting paper every day).
For the Batch brew it is quite similar:
Coffee: Chelchele Ethiopia natural Age" 14 days Dose in: 105 g Water / Temperature 1.6L / 95 degrees Grind Size: EK 14.75 Flavour notes: Clean, apricot, peach, creamy candy
Why is this important? So any person, even the ones that aren’t that experienced in tasting coffees yet, have a guideline on not just how to make this coffee but also what to tell the customers. It is important to learn that taste changes and that dialling in can be quite fragile and emphasise on different expressions of this coffee every single time.
Tasting and dialling in together
Once I have dialled the coffees in, all the people working in the cafe taste them together.
It is important to start with the filter coffee/ batch brew, because it will probably taste the lightest and you need a fresh and clean pallet before trying it.
After we all agree on the flavours we jump over to espresso. It is very important to stir the crema in the espresso to get a round taste experience! I usually stir my espresso 5-10 times before trying it in three sips. This way I realised I get the most out of the coffee and also can taste light unpleasantries better and can correct them afterwards.
Our next taster is the milk beverage, in our case a classic cappuccino with a single shot of espresso and usually around 110g of steamed milk. Usually we get overwhelmed by the sweetness of this coffee and even if I usually don’t drink milk and it is perfectly fine to use a spit cup and not drink it, I think I realised how important it is to really dial in your milk coffees.
These are the most consumed drinks at a coffee bar, so just focusing on serving a brilliant hand-filter twice a day is not going to be enough. If we want to be top notch we have to give the same attention to all our drinks.
The last coffee we try is the oat milk coffee, as this alternative milk gets ordered nearly as much as normal milk and to be honest, I am really very proud that our oat milk coffees taste just so amazing. We have actively decided that the normal milk blend isn’t the right fit for the oat milk and tried many many different single origins and blends to come up with a perfect fit for our oat milk drinks. They usually taste like hazelnut buttercream candy and I just love it.
If you are to take anything away from the above, it should be this:
Write everything down and make it easy to access for everyone working with you. This will improve the quality and consistency of coffee not just for you, but for your whole team
Taste everything together and talk about what you taste. It can be intimidating to express your opinion in a room full of people when it comes to taste - however, the more you do it, the less scary it will become. It will also help you to learn how other people taste, allow you to calibrate and to share knowledge with your team.
Use tools and guides. Taste something familiar, but you can’t quite put your finger on what it is? Sometimes it is helpful to think in colours as our brain associates colours more easily with flavour: “This espresso tastes light red, with an orange finish.” This is where flavour wheels are so helpful - it can help you to associate these colours with flavours!
How does temperature affect taste experience?
When we are tasting espresso and especially filter brews, we should always consider that coffee is extremely organic and it reacts extremely well to temperature changes. For other products, it isn’t always the case; beverages like Cola or beer taste best at a preferred drinking temperature. Coffee, however, can change its expression as the temperature changes, without compromising on quality, and can develop different qualities when it cools down.
On my dial-in sheets, I include hot, medium and cold drinking temperatures. There are very few customers who will drink an entire coffee when it’s freshly made and hot, so it’s important to understand how they will experience their coffee as it cools. Make sure to taste coffee not only when it’s freshly made, but to taste the development and change in flavours as the temperature changes. Realising how the flavour changes will help you adjust your brewing temperatures and understand different coffees better.
For example, I recently made an Ethiopian natural filter coffee with 91 degrees (Celsius) hot water. I tasted lots of chocolate notes when it was hot, but cooling down it developed a beautiful stone fruit quality which ended cold in peach and cream. Imagine you’re a customer and the barista tells you not only initial tasting notes, but how the coffee will taste and change over 10 minutes! You would feel like you are learning something, that the barista not just knows their stuff but is also concerned about your taste experience. If I was that customer, I would be in heaven.
Why are tasting skills important in the long term?
I am releasing more and more how important it is to be calibrated with your team so you can push together in the right direction or at least in the same direction and build up a brand flavour.
It is also crucial to understand what you are actually selling. A barista that never tries their own drinks is driving blindfolded, and will not be able to relate to any customer feedback.
Once we start really putting our focus on the flavours that we consume, we will elevate not just our tongue but our mindset on what flavour can be and what I can do with it. A good example is when I am training for competitions and I have to make up recipes for example for coffee cocktails. These recipes can only be made if you understand how your flavours work together and what they are based on.
Another very important part in working with coffee is sourcing and deciding which coffees you want to offer. And it is as easy as this: if you don’t taste the coffee that is on the market and that other roasters offer, you don’t know what’s trending. I am constantly ordering coffee from all over the world to stay updated and this way I can go into a cupping session and tell the importers very clearly what I am looking for.
How can I improve my tasting abilities?
By taking yourself time to actively analyse taste and aroma and to write it down. In addition to our dial in sheets, we have a coffee diary in which we record recipes that we’ve used - that way, if I have trouble with one coffee I can look back at the dial from last week and see what a co-worker has done, or I can ask the roaster if they have changed anything. Often it happens that they then say “Ah yes, we had to change the ratio” or “We have a new crop for this blend”. This helps me learn and realise what I have to change with this coffee now. Maybe the dose, maybe the temperature.
I know I’ve already said it, but smell is just as important as tasting with your mouth - so smell whatever surrounds you! Smell the vegetables in the supermarket, the fruits at the market, drink natural wine and compare that to beer, or even just do small experiments with your brews. Does stirring change my flavour experience? Is this coffee different hot or cold? How does appreciating the aroma change the overall experience of taste?
Unfortunately, taste is where most people working in coffee struggle (at least, in my experience). They want to know how coffee works and how it tastes, but haven’t gone out of their way to develop their sense of taste. Stay curious, question yourself and find other ways, write everything down and then start again with a new coffee.
I hope you found this article useful. It was so much fun writing it and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to message me. If you really liked my words, feel free to share this article with your colleagues and friends.
Happy tasting, Nicole