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How to taste coffee

Practice. We tend to believe that our taste is a sense that stays the same, and although physically that may be true to an extent, there are ways of getting better at tasting. Firstly we need to understand what influences our taste.

“The first taste is with the eyes”, how food or drink is presented has a huge effect on how we taste it. Often people will see a meal that is amazingly presented and have the preconception that the taste of the food will meet the standard of its appearance and as a result, decide the food tastes great without having listened to their tongue.

Taste and aesthetics are separate and appearance should try to be forgotten about when attempting to taste something. An example of how influential appearance is on taste was demonstrated in a study in which scientists dyed a white wine, red and had a panel of wine connoisseurs describe the wine. The result showed that the experts described the wine using descriptors typical of a red wine. This demonstrates that the colour of the wine was the determining factor of how the experts “tasted” the wine. Another study was carried out by UKBC Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood and sensory scientist Prof. Charles Spence that investigated the effect latte art had on customers, the results showed that customers assumed that the coffee with latte art had a much higher value, were prepared to pay more for it and were likely to consider it “better” than the coffee without the art.

Drinking a coffee is a multisensory experience, you create a preconception of how the coffee will taste due to its appearance and then with the combination of taste and aroma you ascertain the flavour and overall experience of the coffee. Many people would assume that the tongue is the most important instrument in identifying the flavour of a coffee but surprisingly Professor Charles Spence says “The aroma of coffee is the most important sense when it comes to driving flavour experiences” and other sources say that 80%-95% of flavour experience is delivered by the nose.

So what does the tongue do? Our tongues tastes. The sensation of taste can be categorised into 5 basic tastes, sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness and umami. Flavour is the product of taste and aroma. When drinking a coffee, your tongue can detect whether its sweet, salty, sour, savoury or bitter but that’s about it, all of the complex tasting notes you find will be coming from the nose as there are an infinite amount of aromatic compounds you can recognise compared to 5 components that the tongue picks up. Additionally the tongue senses heat and when something is hot you cannot taste it because the heat overrides the taste, so when people say they only like extra hot coffee, they mean that they enjoy the sensation of heat on the tongue, not the taste of the coffee.

All of that information may be educational/boring but not very practical.

How to improve at tasting:

  1. Familiarise yourself with the 5 categories of taste by tasting the extreme of that category: Sour, lemon juice. Bitter, 100% cocoa. Salty, olives. Sweet, sugar in water. Umami, miso.
  2. Cupping. By comparing 2 coffees back to back, you find yourself distinguishing the differences between the coffees and not thinking “that just tastes like coffee”. Comparison is key to separating characteristics in a coffee.
  3. Breathing. Inhaling and exhaling through the nose will help to identify the flavours. Also by breathing, chances are, you’re slowing the process of consumption, and by letting the mouthful move around your mouth you have a chance to think about the flavours it’s offering.
  4. Practice. My taste developed exponentially when my job at Colonna and Hunter made me taste 4 speciality coffees and 6 craft beers every day. Practice doesn’t mean tasting lots of products, it means tasting those products with a conscious effort to think about the taste.

Taste is the least appreciated and the most ignored sense we have. In order to improve your taste, you need to listen to what your tongue is telling you, be patient and open minded. Coffee is an extremely complex drink and offers a huge variety of flavour. Don’t just drink it, taste it!

This post by Theo Garcia, founder of fullfbeanscoffees.com (launching soon). Follow him on Instagram.

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