We humans have exceptionally effective and sensitive physiology and organs for detecting smells and flavors. Our noses and mouths have very accurate sensors for detecting chemicals that our brain translates into aroma, flavor, and feel sensations. Most of that precision and range is so we can avoid things that will harm us but it can also provide very pleasant experiences. We don’t usually think about that. We just know when something tastes or smells good, or bad, or reminds us of some past experience. We have both exceptional detection and memories of odors and flavors that are related to past experience. This affects what we like and don’t like, and what we pursue and what we avoid. Some people love broccoli and others don’t. Some people crave fresh fish and others are disgusted by seafood. Taste is very personal and that is why we always talk in terms of your personal perfect cup of amazing coffee and why there is so much variety in coffee and brewing.
We generally think of our mouth and tongue as the organs that do flavors and our nose as the sensory organ for smells. Actually, it turns out that most of our flavor detection is done in our brains and our nose provides most of the input for flavor. Our mouth and tongue sensors provide the input for detecting sensations like tartness, bitterness, and texture. Our brain processes all these inputs, including vision, and creates an experience. Remember Green Eggs and Ham? Color and texture are also important to our overall taste experience.
We are continuously bombarded by a complex mix of smells and tastes. There are hundreds of compounds in coffee that create aroma, flavor, and other sensations. Some of these can be detected in tiny concentrations and others require higher concentrations. This depends on many factors like density, solubility, and how easily they are diffused in air. These factors are also affected by things like temperature. Our coffee selection and brewing will yield a complex mix of these various compounds and the resulting aromas, flavors, and sensations. This sensitivity to various factors is why very slight changes in coffee and brewing can make a big difference in our tasting experience. So how do we sort all this out so we can make adjustments and produce the perfect brew? We will break our taste experience down into some separate key components and this will simplify our taste profiling and comparison.
Coffee Flavor Profiles
When we are working to optimize our coffee selection and brewing, we will need to create a tasting “Profile” for each coffee. Since the characteristics are so numerous and complex we will examine the coffee along several categories of the experience so they can be compared from coffee to coffee and brewing process to brewing process. We will characterize the coffee using these categories in the experience:
We will also make note of other characteristics like balance, sweetness, and “cleanliness”. There are many others but for our purposes, this will give us a very good start and probably plenty to get to our amazing personal profile.
Profiling is a process of describing the coffee experiences in a consistent way so that they can be compared. In this process, the goal is to identify the characteristics by category that appeal to you and those that are less appealing so that you can look for coffees and adjust your brewing methodology to match your favorite personal flavor profiles.
Finding your personal flavor profile for coffee will require some increased awareness and perhaps some skill development to identify specific elements and sensations that you like and dislike so you can select and adjust accordingly. This may sound like we need a lot of work and specialized skill training and we just want to brew a great cup of coffee. The good news is that there is an entire field of science and industry segments dedicated to this so most of this has already been figured out for us. We can skip ahead to the fun part – smelling and tasting things.
How to smell and taste for specific aromas, flavors and sensations
You might be thinking to yourself that you know what you like and don’t like but you do not have the discriminating palate to be a “taster” and profiler. Statistically, there is a 99% chance you are wrong. It is almost certain that you have a very discriminating palate unless you have a very rare disorder of some sort. Some folks may be more sensitive than others, but almost all of us can distinguish aromas and flavors to the level needed for coffee profiling. All of us do “tasting” many times a day, every day, and it is continuous and natural for us. What we don’t normally do is analyze it down to specific elements and “notes” and assign labels to it. We may not be able to explain why we like or don’t like something, but we do know the answer.
There are people that do this for a living and have years of specialized training and practice. We are not at that level but we can do a pretty good job with what we already know with just a few hints and tips. Let’s look at each category and see what we need to do to profile for each one.
If you like coffee, you know coffee smells good both before you brew it and afterwards. These are actually categorized separately as Fragrance (dry ground coffee) and Aroma (brewed coffee) when doing official tasting. Coffee contains over 800 compounds that produce aromas so to characterize coffee fragrance and aroma in a useful, comparable way we need something between “smells good” and hundreds of individual fragrances and aromas.
When you smell coffee, the approach is to look for specific components. A good way to do that is to ask yourself what this smell reminds you of that you already know. Pick the top three to four most characteristic notes. If it doesn’t jump right out at you, then think through some categories of aromas like those listed in the Aromas and Flavors box and see if you can check off at least 3 of them. Smell and profile both the coffee freshly ground and then brewed. Try to determine how the fragrance of the dry coffee translated to the aroma of the brewed coffee.
Aromas and Flavors
Categories and examples commonly found in coffee
Chamomile, Rose, Jasmine, black tea, orange blossoms
Blueberry, raspberry, strawberry, orange, grapefruit, lime, pear, pear, apple, cherry, coconut, pomegranate, pineapple
Nutty / Chocolatey
Chocolate, dark chocolate, almond, hazelnut, peanuts
Clove, cinnamon, nutmeg, anise, peppers
Smokey / Roasty
Toasted grains, burnt, tobacco
Vanilla, brown sugar, honey, maple syrup
Sour / Fermented
Creamy / Buttery
Green / Earthy
Another recommendation that has really helped me is to taste and profile two or three coffees at the same time and compare them. Good specialty coffees will be very distinctive and unique and comparing aromas and flavors will really help to identify the distinguishing characteristics between them.
Flavor represents the coffee's principal character. Interestingly smell and olfactory sense create a significant part of the flavor perception so that’s why we can use the same list of flavor categories.
When tasting for flavor, it is important to taste with all possible senses and especially both olfactory (mouth to nose) and gustatory (mouth + tongue) senses. With some awareness and practice you will discover that different parts of the profile present themselves at different parts of the mouth, tongue, and nose. That will help you distinguish more subtle notes. If you watch people “cupping” and rating coffee professionally, there will be lots of noisy slurping and sucking. This is to help breakdown the various sensations and extract as much of the flavor profile as possible from each sip and distribute it across the palate and lower nasal areas.
As you are tasting, you should also note the relative intensity and clarity of each flavor you detect. Also note the taste over time from the first impression to the aftertaste. You will notice the profile will change slightly over a relatively short period of time.
If you are like me, you will identify flavors that are distinctive and memorable but sometimes you just can’t quite remember what they were. After feeling rather senile a few times because I couldn’t remember how I recognized some very distinctive aromas and flavors, I started trying foods and spices and making note of flavors. Walk through the fresh fruit sections and spice isles of a market and note the aromas. When you eat meals, pick out the different flavors and make notes. After a while you will have a pretty good repertoire of aromas and flavors that you can discern and name easily. If you really want to become a flavor nerd, you can buy tasting kits that provide samples to practice and train with for most of the aromas and flavors on the official tasting wheels.
The next sensation to profile is acidity which is often described as "brightness", “crispness”, and “tartness” when favorable or "sour" when unfavorable. This is usually perceived on the tips and edges of the tongue. At its best, acidity contributes to a coffee's liveliness, sweetness, and fresh fruit character and is almost immediately experienced when the coffee is first sipped. Acidity that is overly intense or dominating may be unpleasant and even bitter. The level and type of acidity in the flavor profile is based on origin characteristics of the coffee and other factors such as the process method and roasting level. Coffees that are typically high in the right types of acidity, such as a good Kenyan coffee, are normally described as floral and fruity and the acidity described as “refined” or “balanced”. Coffees that are typically low in acidity, such as a good Honduran coffee, can be equally high quality in preference scores although their acidity intensity will be quite different.
In case you are curious, here are some acids that contribute to the flavor and sensation profiles in coffee.
Citric Acid: Lemon, orange, grapefruit notes.
Phosphoric Acid: Tastes sweeter than most acids; can turn sour-tasting grapefruit to sweet.
Malic Acid: Notes of stone fruit, apple or pear.
Chlorogenic Acid: Largely responsible for “perceived acidity”. High levels in light roasts make them taste “bright”.
Acetic Acid: Found in vinegar. Low levels are pleasant, but high levels can create a bitter “bite”.
Tartaric Acid: Grape or wine-like at low levels, sour if concentration is too high.
Quinic Acid: Can give coffee a clean finish, but too much can taste sour and highly astringent.
Body is based on the perceived tactile feeling in the mouth or what some people call “mouth feel”. This is usually perceived between the tongue and roof of the mouth. Coffee with a “heavy” body may have some perceived “weight” to it due to fine particles and sugars in the brew. Some coffees will be described as “creamy” and others with a lighter body may also have a pleasant feeling in the mouth but for different reasons such as “lightness”. Coffees with a heavy or full body and coffees with a lighter body may both score high in taste tests but for different reasons. Again this is a matter of personal presence.
Complexity and Balance – Complexity refers to the range of aromas, flavors, and sensations. Better coffees typically have a wider range. Well-balanced coffee will allow all of the aromas, tastes and sensations in the profile to come through to create an overall experience. No one note or sensation is overwhelming to the point that it masks or detracts from the others. A complex and well-balanced coffee will fill the senses and spread the experience over the full mouth and aroma.
If the coffee is lacking some expected aroma or taste notes or if some attributes are overpowering, it is considered less balanced. Normally we are seeking a balanced flavor profile but perceived balance and preference can vary by person.
Sweetness - Coffee has naturally occurring carbohydrates that give the sensation of sweetness and these vary from coffee to coffee. You will find that the coffee variety, origin, processing method, and roast level will contribute significantly to sweetness level. The opposite of sweetness includes sour and musky or green/earthy flavors. When coffee is roasted, carbohydrates are converted to various sugars. Under-roasted coffee will have more musky or green/earthy notes, light-medium roasts tend to balance sweetness with acidity, medium-dark roasts tend have more “sweetness” notes, but if over-roasted those notes can turn bitter or burned.
Cleanliness and defects – A clean cup is one that does not have notable bad tasting or unpleasant elements that detract from the overall taste experience. This may be characteristic of the coffee or result from the brewing process. Some "defects" in the coffee are visible before you grind it. If there are light colored beans (aka "Quakers") it means that some of the beans were picked green or prematurely. These will yield a musky taste defect. These are actually very common in cheap, mass-produced coffee. Other visible defects like deformed or hollow beans or inconsistencies in the skin or parchment will likely indicate other defects. Some defects are not visible and will only show up in the tasting. These may be the result of issues or inconsistency in the coffee, the processing of ripe cherry to dry green bean, or storage. A good specialty coffee will be picked in a consistent manner at the peak of ripeness, processed correctly and consistently, stored correctly, and have few or no visible and taste defects.
One more note on tasting is that the taste profile will change over time and as the coffee cools and the chemistry in your mouth balances out. When profiling the coffee, taste it at intervals until it reaches body temperature and note the changes in the flavor profile. Your mouth has a lot of complex chemistry going on so those initial reactions you get on the first sip will change and balance out over the cup and time.
Your Personal Profile
After you have tried a variety of coffees, experimented with various brewing methods, tweaked them to your satisfaction, and profiled them, you will know a lot more about what you like and don’t like and how to identify the specific characteristics. Then, when looking for coffees, you can start selecting the coffee by the characteristics you personally enjoy and know how to make a brew to your liking for each one. You may notice that some days you nail it. You brew that amazing cup of coffee that you want to do an Instagram post about. On other days, or with that new coffee your ordered to try, its, well, not awful. In the final part of this series, we will talk about how to optimize and adjust the “not awful” brews to make them amazing. In the meantime, I recommend brewing and profiling a batch before going on to Part 5. This is, after all, about enjoying coffee to its fullest potential.
Summary: Coffee tasting includes assessing the primary characteristics of coffee including aroma, flavor, acidity, and body. Coffee tasting is important to assess and adjust the coffee and your brewing methods. Almost everyone can be a good coffee taster with some practice and experience.