As the lockdown around the world continues, with no end in sight, you might be sitting at home wishing you could travel to some exciting location. But, with just a coffee grinder, a mug, and some fresh filtered water you can be transported to Brazil, Colombia, or Vietnam. Enter: Coffee Tasting. Like wine tasting, this experience encourages you to dive deeper into the body and depth of the coffee, and learn how to taste its origins. This “travel” is available to almost everyone and can be done in the comfort of your own home. Coffee tasting is a wonderful way to take a pause and savor a moment to yourself, and here you can learn how to prepare your coffee, the different flavor profiles you can taste, and how to taste where your coffee originated.
Coffee tasting, or cupping as many industry professionals call it, only requires a few things to participate. Firstly, a coffee of your choice, preferably whole coffee beans, rather than ground coffee or instant coffee. Next, a freshly cleaned coffee grinder. You don’t want to have any remnants of the last coffee you ground remaining that could affect your tasting profile. You’ll also need fresh filtered water, a brewer, and a spoon. Lastly, you will need a ceramic mug. A ceramic mug is crucial because it doesn’t soak up any flavors, nor does it pass on any flavors into the coffee.
So how do you begin? After grinding and preparing your coffee, there are several steps involved in the coffee tasting. The starting steps involve your sense of smell. After pouring your cup, let it sit for around 4 minutes to let the flavors “bloom.” Once the 4 minutes are up, sniff your coffee by bringing your nose to the mug and inhaling, and note what you smell. You want to bring your nose to the coffee, rather than bringing the coffee to your nose so as to not disturb this top layer of smells. After this initial smell, take a spoon and dip it into the coffee, which releases another round of aromas. Take a sniff again and acknowledge the different notes you smell. Following these rounds of smelling comes your tasting. Get a spoonful of coffee and sip it, allowing it to coat your entire palate.
There are 3 questions you should ask yourself while you are tasting your coffee, according to Blue Bottle Coffee Lab: 1. How does this taste?
2. Why do I like it?
3. Or, why do I not like it?
Answering these questions each time you do a coffee tasting will help you develop your “sensory spectrum” and your palate. The more coffee tastings you do, the more you will be able to pick out the individual flavors. These flavor profiles fall into 5 categories:
Can you taste any sweetness or sugary-like quality in the coffee? Does it remind you of a specific type of sweet, like honey or syrup or vanilla? Or maybe it’s a type of sugar, like brown or white? Try and parse out what the sweetness is reminiscent of. You can even get out these different sweet products and taste them side-by-side with your coffee.
The body of the coffee is how “weighty” it feels in your mouth. Does the coffee feel thick or thin in consistency?
When you taste your coffee, does it taste bright? That is the level of acidity. It can be positive or negative depending on the person, so savor the taste and see if you like it. Compare that acidity to a lemon, a lime, or something else that is bright and sharp.
This is where you can really dive deep and compare the taste to different foods or drinks you have in your flavor memory. Is it florally like a rose? Is it fruity like a berry or citrus? Maybe it has a similar profile to a wine you’ve had or a liquor. There are so many different flavors that it can be difficult to sift through. That’s why The Specialty Coffee Association of America created a coffee wheel that breaks down the basic flavor you’re tasting and helps you narrow down the precise taste in your coffee.
This is the final impression the coffee gives you right as you swallow. Concentrate and see what type of flavor remains in your mouth. Is it sweet? Dry? Lingering? Process what is left.
As you taste coffee more and more, you will begin to discover the unique flavor profiles that come from the origin of the beans. There are many different components that influence the taste of your coffee, including whether it’s an Arabica or a Robusta species of coffee bean, the climate where it is grown, and how it is prepared after harvesting. All coffee is processed, but depending on the region, coffee is processed differently after the initial harvest. Some coffees allow the cherry that encases the bean to dry and shrivel before removing the bean. This leaves behind a sweet, complex flavor. Others wash the cherry off immediately because it is quicker, leaving a bright, acidic taste.
For example, a coffee from Central America is more acidic and has an apple profile because of the way it is processed, whereas Columbian coffees are less acidic, with more of a caramel sweetness. Brazilian coffees have a chocolate taste. Ethiopian coffees are the most difficult to identify because they use two different processes to prepare their coffee. In Ethiopia, If the cherry is dried around the bean before the bean is removed, then the coffee has a flavor reminiscent of a berry. If the cherry is immediately removed from the bean by washing it, the coffee is more jasmine-y and lighter. There are many more individual regions that produce coffee that you can try, but these regions are some of the biggest producers in the world, so it’s likely you will have a coffee from one of the places mentioned.
Hosting a coffee tasting or participating in one yourself can be a wonderful way to experience the unique tastes and flavor profiles of different regions in the world. Each region has its own processes that produce a specific and distinctive bean. One critical component to consider while doing a coffee tasting is whether your coffee is certified fair trade. Having the certification ensures that your coffee is coming from a farm that performs environmental sustainability and fair labor practices. There are so many resources out there that can help you continue to enhance your palate. The more you sample and analyze coffees, the easier it will become to identify individual tastes and flavors. Have fun cupping and traveling the world through your coffee!