Last night, I thought about high school for a moment. It has been a while. What brought high school to mind was that I considered how I could improve my learning. I’ve decided that I want to take a more structured approach to my coffee education so that I can stay on-track.
Today, I sat down to watch a video on YouTube about how to taste coffee by James Hoffman. I enjoy watching videos because I can take notes as I go about the most important points. I’m going to spend this post talking about what I have learned about how to taste coffee.
There are five factors that are part of tasting coffee: acidity, sweetness, body, finish, and flavor.
Aroma is considered part of the tasting experience. I enjoy the smell of a freshly brewed cup of coffee. The single origin I am presently brewing smells of cherries when it is brewing. I enjoy this smell. Whenever I walk into my room after having brewed a cup, the entire room smells like chocolate and cherries.
I learned that aroma is not considered in as much depth as other factors. Aroma is important but it does not matter if I cannot figure out what an aroma is. I evaluate aroma because it gives me something to think about before I can taste the coffee. Like any good taster, I wait a few minutes before I take my first sip. This lets me ensure the coffee is at the optimal temperature for flavors to be released before I drink.
I’m still building a picture of acidity in my mind. People in the coffee industry love to talk about, and taste, acidity. I love acidic flavors in coffee, although I am put off by high levels of acidity. An acidity tastes good when it is accompanied by a sweetness, like a cherry or a forest fruit. I do not like acidity when it overpowers other components of a coffee.
Acidity can be good in coffee. Yes. Acidity is a good factor in a cup of coffee. Acidity, in constrast to bitterness, is felt on the sides of your tongue. When I next taste a cup of coffee, I’m going to look out for this effect. Acidity is detected by all of your taste buds but the ones on the sides of the tongue pick up acidic flavors more effectively.
Acidity is not bitterness. The first coffee I tried, when I look back, was bitter. It was a good coffee but I didn’t really know much about specialty coffee at the time. I would not buy that blend again. There are too many other coffees out there for me to try.
Sweetness in coffee is not like a sugary sweetness. I’ve picked up on this. Sometimes I feel like a coffee tastes like demorara sugar or has a deeper sweetness. I do not think that coffee tastes like table sugar. The video said that I should try to add a small amount of sugar to a coffee and I’ll see that sweetness is not table sugar. I am reducing my sugar intake so I’m not going to try that, but I believe it to be true.
Sweetness is complicated. Sweetness is often accompanied by an acidity. This is because acidity and sweetness are complementary flavors. Strawberries are somewhat acidic. They are also incredibly sweet. This applies to most “fresh” fruits. Sweetness especially comes from riper fruits.
Body is another word for mouthfeel. I no longer need to think I’m looking for something separate when I think about body and mouthfeel. They are both the same.
I have learned to think about body like milk. Skimmed milk is different to whole milk. Skimmed milk is ligher and more watery. Whole milk is full and heavy. This effect is similar in coconut milk and almond milk. Coconut milk is lighter and more watery. Almond milk is heavier. Still, in contrast to whole milk, almond milk is significantly lighter.
A light body is more like tea. A heavy body is something that feels almost chewy. When I taste coffee, I like flavors like caramel and chocolate. These generally come with a heavier body. These flavors are delicious and make the coffee feel, well, heavier.
Finish is what comes after I have had a sip of coffee. I admit that I often do not think about finish. Finish needs to be evaluated after the cup has been consumed. I often go on to do something else. I should ask myself what is left after I swallow coffee more often.
I’ve noticed that some coffees I have last in my mouth. A flat white I had yesterday lasted in my mouth for a while. The coffee I am drinking at home lasts in my mouth for a while. I have had other coffees whose taste disappears within a few minutes after drinking. Some coffees do not even leave a finish.
Finish is a reminder for me to take my time when I am tasting. I do not need to rush, even if I have two cups of coffee that I want to evaluate using the cupping technique. I can taste coffees until they are about room temperature, after which point their flavors become less distinct.
You may have noticed I did not talk about flavor. Flavor is incredibly exciting. It’s what I spend most of my time thinking about. There is too much to discuss. From the video I watched, I took notes on fruits, caramelization, and general tasting notes. I’ll keep this post focused and talk about flavors another time.
Coffee tasting is a craft. I am just about to try using a cupping scorecard to measure what I taste. This will mark a milestone where I am no longer just scribbling notes. I’m going to use some structure. Tasting is about finding what I do and do not like. What a tasty ride this will be.