As much as I love the brewing process, I am always looking forward to tasting the coffee I am brewing. I find pleasure in coffee brewing because I know that the resultant taste of the coffee is in large part a result of my efforts. Everyone from the roaster to the farmer plays their role but it is my duty to make sure I turn the beans they have processed into a delicious brew.
I am not pretentious about how I taste my coffee. I heard James Hoffman say in one of his YouTube videos that there was no need to be too detailed when you are writing tasting notes. All that matters is that you enjoy your brew. I have been thinking about this ever since. I do take somewhat comprehensive notes but I often miss out aspects of taste. That’s fine.
For this article, I’m going to focus on how I taste coffee for my reviews. I do not use this process every time I am drinking a cup of coffee. Often, all the tasting I will do will be a result of sitting and appreciating the brew. I may think about the taste but I’ll not be as detailed as I would be if I were writing a review.
What I Consider
There are five words I write in my journal before I taste a new coffee: body, sweetness, acidity, finish, and flavors. I learned these words from Blue Bottle. I use these five words as a guide throughout my tasting process. These words are clear and easy for me to refer to when I am drinking a brew.
Flavor takes over most of my evaluation. Before I taste a cup of coffee, I like to read the tasting notes. I use them to help me discover new flavors and decide whether a cup is likely to be something I will enjoy. I often do not buy a coffee based on what is on the tasting notes. If I know I do not like something, I’m not going to actively seek it out in a brew. I read the tasting notes and keep them in mind as I sip.
I like to compare what I taste to the tasting notes. Often, I end up tasting what is on the notes. This makes me feel good because I know that I’m having the same experience the roaster had when they roasted their coffee. But, this is not always the case. I often write down notes that are not on the packets. I usually end up with five or six words to describe the flavor of a coffee.
Body refers to the weight of the coffee. I like a coffee with a medium to heavy body. I learned how to describe body by referring to the Coffee Flavor Wheel. Light coffee is described as, among other things, “juicy.” Medium-bodied coffee is “syrupy.” Full-bodied coffee is “heavy.” I do not often drink coffees with light bodies. I find that a heavy body goes especially well with a chocolatey or forest fruit flavor profile.
Acidity is the “bite” in a coffee. It refers to the thirty or so acids that can appear in a roasted coffee bean. Each acid gives a different taste. A malic acid makes a coffee taste like apple whereas citric acid makes a coffee resemble citrus fruits like lemon. Some coffee professionals call acidic coffees “bright.” I detect acidity as a bite at the top parts of the left and right sides of my tongue.
I do like an acidic coffee. I find acidity pairs particularly well with a fruity flavor, especially forest fruits and fresh berries. This is because fruity coffees tend to be sweeter and I find acidic and sweet attributes pair well with each other.
Depending on the processing method used, coffee can be sweet to varying degrees. Honey processed coffees are generally sweeter because more mucilage is left on the bean while the coffees are drying. The mucilage gives the coffee a lot of its natural sweetness. Dry processed coffees are similarly sweet because the fruit is left on the seeds longer so the seeds have more time to absorb the sweetness of the bean.
Finish is what comes at the end of a brew. It is what “finishes off” the coffee. I like a coffee with quite a lingering finish. A long finish lets me taste a coffee minutes after I’ve finished the brew. I find some finishes can last for ten minutes or longer after I’ve consumed a coffee, albeit getting fainter over time.
How I Taste Coffee
For my reviews, I do not follow the industry-recognized method of cupping. Instead, I brew a cup of coffee using the Aeropress, my preferred brewing method. I do this because I like to have a full cup of coffee to drink and I find the Aeropress produces a clear brew with lots of flavor. I try to use the same Aeropress method as I used for my last cup of coffee so that the only change is the beans.
I start sipping my coffee a few minutes after it is ready. I do not have a good indicator for temperature other than the heat coming from my mug and the steam. If a coffee feels really warm or looks really steamy, I usually give it a few minutes. I cannot taste coffee well that is really hot. But, I do like to taste coffee when it is hot but not too hot. This is because the taste of coffee changes as the temperature of the cup changes.
It takes me a few minutes to drink a cup of coffee on an ordinary day. When I am tasting, I like to take a little bit more time so I can see how the brew changes. I find that my tasting notes change toward the end of a brew, allowing me to uncover new aspects of a brew that I was not able to appreciate earlier.
I like to write my coffee notes in a notebook and then type them up. This reduces my exposure to all of the distractions I could find by using my computer to take notes while drinking my coffee. I do try my best to write detailed notes but sometimes I only detect a few flavors. This is fine because I often have a second cup before I publish a review. I’ll have more if I still do not feel comfortable with my notes. More cups means more opportunities to detect flavor.
With that in mind, I do like to have tasting notes nearby. They often come on a card with the coffee. Or, at the very least, I’ll try to remember them before the brew. This makes me feel less intimidated when I taste. I do like the idea of tasting a coffee blind but it is hard to do. I prefer having a few reference notes and then using my instincts to see whether what I taste is similar or different to those notes.
I only taste one coffee every week at the most so I try to cherish every opportunity. It’s nice trying new coffees because I can build a profile of flavors in my mind. I know more about the coffees I like and do not like. I like a nutty coffee. I like a really fruity coffee with lots of berry flavors. I do not like coffees with a light body and a subtle flavor profile. I’ll never be able to try all the coffees out there but I like trying new ones when I run out.