In all honesty, learning to taste coffee isn’t easy (at least for most of us). It’s a remarkably complex beverage. According to World Coffee Research, “coffee is one of the most chemically complex things we consume, with subtleties of aroma, texture and flavor rivaled by almost no other food.” Wine is the obvious “other food,” rivaling coffee’s complexity, but, in fact, the jury is still out on which of the two is more complex. Regardless, it can take years of dedicated training to become a certified professional taster, either as a sommelier if you’re in wine or as a Q grader for specialty coffee.
Of course, we’re not saying that everyone tasting coffee or wine needs to become a sommelier or a Q grader, but it does put into perspective just how much is going on every time you take a sip of your favorite brew. With careful practice though, you, too, can hone your palate to pick up on all the nuances of flavor that coffee has to offer.
Getting better at tasting isn’t just about knocking back cup after cup of coffee, however. While you will indeed need to taste a lot of coffee if you want to improve your palate, there are certainly smarter ways to practice. Whether you’re just starting out or have a few cuppings under your belt, read on for some of our best tips that will help you get the most out of each cupping session.
Follow your nose
As much as 80-95% of what we taste can be attributed to our sense of smell. Without our nose, we’d only be able to perceive the basic components of taste: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. You probably know this intuitively: whenever you have a cold or a stuffy nose, most foods tend to taste like bland mush. Our sense of smell is really what allows us to experience the entire spectrum of flavor and pickup on the even subtlest of notes.
Next time you’re cupping, slow down and take your time when evaluating dry fragrance and wet aroma. If there are flavors that jump out at you when you’re smelling, make sure to jot them down; there’s a good chance that what you smell is what you’ll taste.
Pay extra attention to ”retronasal olfaction” or the flavors and aromas that you can detect on your palate after you’ve swallowed your sip of coffee. Take a deep breath through your nose after each sip: this is when a coffee’s flavor profile can really shine and when flavors become most pronounced.
Pro-tip: make sure where you’re cupping is free of any strong scents (e.g don’t cup in the kitchen after whipping some stir-fry), and be careful not to wear perfumes, colognes or scented lotions. \
Taste a new coffee every cupping
This should go without saying, but if you want to get better at tasting coffees, you’ll need to try as many different kinds of coffees as possible. Make it a goal to include at least one new coffee on the cupping table every time you cup.
And by “new” we don’t necessarily mean just a new origin. It could be a combination of different factors, from variety to processing and roast style. Anaerobic processing, for example, has become increasingly popular among coffee producers around the world over the last few years. It would be relatively easy to find anaerobically processed coffees from different countries to compare alongside each other. After that, perhaps find anaerobic processed coffees of different varieties, of more or less developed roasts, etc. The possibilities are truly endless.
Coffee triangulation is one of the best ways to train your palate. If you’ve ever had difficulty distinguishing coffees from one another, or found it hard to pinpoint a specific flavor in a coffee, this could be the exercise for you.
The setup is simple: arrange five stations of three cupping bowls each. Two of the bowls at each station will be filled with the same coffee, while one will be different (it should be the same two coffees used at each station). Your task is to identify the odd one out! If you can get a 5/5, you probably have a good idea of what you’re tasting.
Start easy by choosing coffees that should be clearly distinguishable, for example a light-roast, washed Kenyan, which should be strikingly bright and floral, against a medium or dark-roast Brazil, which will have far less acidity and much more body. From there, you can work your way up to a triangulation of coffees that share more similarities, like a medium-roast washed Guatemalan against a similarly processed and roasted Colombian.
Cup your coffees blind
Blind coffee cupping is another super effective way to train your palate, and is something you should be doing regularly. Cupping your coffees blind helps to remove any biases or expectations you might have about the coffees that you’re about to taste. Blind cupping forces you to cup more honestly, enabling you to focus on what you’re actually tasting instead of what you think you should be tasting. Your preconceptions about how a coffee is “supposed” to taste can significantly alter your actual perception of flavor. The mind is truly a powerful thing.
For example, say you’re not a fan of coffees from Brazil—for whatever reason. Perhaps you've had a couple less than stellar brews in the past or maybe you’ve been told that pulped natural processing results in a coffee that’s less “clean.” Regardless, if you knew that the coffee you were about to taste was a Brazilian coffee, you might already be looking to taste for negative traits and not giving the coffee a fair assessment.
It works the other way, too. If you adore natural Ethiopian coffees for their ripe blueberry notes, you might be trying to “look” for that one flavor rather than trying to taste what’s actually present.
By cupping blindly, you’re allowing yourself the chance to be taken by surprise and challenge what you thought certain coffees could taste like. A style of coffee you thought you disliked could end up being a new favorite!
Cup with others
This is perhaps the most important piece of advice: cup with other people. We all taste coffees in our own ways, and seeing what others pick up on can be a huge help as you develop your own palate. Cupping with more experienced cuppers can help you better understand different coffees’ flavor expressions and learn how to describe profiles more clearly.
If you can, try to cup with coffee people from different backgrounds. Depending on what your role is in the industry, the way you approach cupping and how you perceive flavor can vary widely. A roaster is cupping coffee with different goals in mind versus a barista or a producer, for example. Checkout this blogpost on this topic to learn more!
Tastify was designed to make coffee cupping with friends and colleagues seamless and intuitive—whether you’re together in the lab, or cupping remotely! Our guest cupper functionality allows everyone to join the same cupping session, where you can easily see everyone’s notes and scoring. At the end of each session, you’ll get a detailed report of each coffee cupped using all of the information from everyone’s scoresheets, so you’ll have a clear idea of how each coffee performed. You can use the report to inform your next cupping session, and see areas where you can improve.
Let us know which of these tips you found the most useful!