The Lab

The Basics: Tasting Coffee

RNY Colombia Microlot Cupping Event

At the core of the coffee industry is tasting. At the end of the day whether you are a farmer, miller, exporter, importer, roaster, barista or a consumer, we are all just trying to produce a something that tastes wonderful. Defining what ‘tastes wonderful’ means is often the hard part. We are faced with this challenge, whether tasting as a form of assessing quality, making purchasing decisions, checking roast profiles, dialing in or just enjoying your morning cup. Coming up with vocabulary beyond ‘wonderful or not’ for what you are experiencing when tasting is even more challenging. We hope this post will help shed some light on what goes on when tasting coffee (flavor-related anatomy), as well as give you some pointers on what to look for.

Flavor-Related Anatomy

AROMA:

One of the reasons ‘tasting’ can be so difficult is that the sense of ‘smell’ which is the primary sense used when observing the flavor of a given coffee is one of the trickiest and most elusive of senses…

The path from where an aroma is observed, whether it be through our noses (orthonasal olfaction) or through our mouths and up to the back of our nose (retronasal olfaction) is a challenging path with many twists and turns.

Aromas, when first observed, are drawn to the top of our noses, to the olfactory cleft, where they are dissolved in a layer of mucus membrane (the olfactory epithelium.) For this to be effective, air must be drawn in with the aroma to help it on the journey through your olfactory system. We do this by taking multiple sniffs or slurping a coffee. The aromas then attach to hair-like structures (cillia,) where they travel to receptor cells, which will then create and send a signal to our brain as to what the aroma is. These signals, then travel another long journey through nerve fibres (axons) to finally arrive in the frontal lobe of our brain (specifically, the olfactory bulb.) Then our olfactory bulb scrolls through the rolodex of our experiences with different aromas to find something that matches the signal it has received.

The journey an aroma takes to be identified is not a simple one

The good news is that the average human, although not quite as adept as dogs in their ability to smell, can identify several thousand different aromas. The challenge being developing a vocabulary to connect to the signal your olfactory bulb is receiving. This is just like any other skill, and is just a matter of practicing. We practice by actively analyzing the things we smell and taste, and therefore, creating rolodex cards for them in your brain.

TASTE:

The less complicated sense used in the perception of flavor in a given coffee is taste. Taste is perceived on the tongue, and is limited to the intensity and identification of the five basic tastes – Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter and Umami. We perceive it through our papillae, which contain our taste buds. We have three basic papillae types that relate to taste.

Fungiform papillae are mushroom shaped and are usually found near the front of the tongue and contain three to five taste buds each. These aide most in the perception of sweetness.

Circumvallate papillae are dome shaped and usually found near the back of the tongue and contain more than a hundred taste buds. These aide most in the perception of bitterness.

Foliate papillae are short vertical folds located on the sides of the tongue and also contain more than a hundred taste buds. These aide most in the perception of sourness.

Each taste bud contains thirty to a hundred taster cells. Although certain papillae are more prone to perceiving certain tastes, none of them are limited to just that taste. One of the greater challenges in a person’s perception is the mixup that happens between bitterness and acidity (or sourness.) This is because our brain registers intense amounts of either of these as not good for us, like a flashing ‘warning light’ in our brains telling us to ‘ABORT – DANGEROUS.’ But having an awareness of where a given taste is most perceived on the tongue can help in distinguishing the difference between the two, which is vital in assessing the quality of a given coffee.

Each kind of papillae is shaped and works slightly differently, but the gist is that when you drink or slurp coffee and it coats your palate, it binds to these taster cells within the taste buds, and then passes through specific channels which send a signal to the brain as to the taste you are perceiving. See? A much simpler a journey than aroma. Being limited to five options compared to thousands also makes this an easier attribute to assess.

Cross Section of a Papillae

Now, that we have gotten the basic science of tasting out of the way (yes that was basic in terms of how flavor is perceived!) It is time to figure out how we use these basic senses, as well as our other ones (touch and sight) to assess the character and/or quality of a given coffee.

Tasting Coffee:

The primary method or process that we use to taste coffee is cupping. Feel free to check out our previous blog for more details on the method.

Whether you are tasting coffee through cupping though, or just tasting your morning brew, there are a few key components to consider when evaluating the cup.

Brittany Amell, One of the Traders at Royal New York

Fragrance: Observed after grinding and before water is poured.  This can be a great indicator of what a coffee has to offer. How intense is the fragrance? Is it pleasant? Is it complex or does it just smell like coffee? The SCA Flavor Wheel can be a very helpful reference for this.  When using the wheel, start from the inside (or the simpler/broader terms and work outwards.  (i.e. Is this Fruity?  Yes.  Is it Citrus?  No.  Berry?  Yes.  Is it Blackberry? Raspberry?  Blueberry or Cherry?)  Sometimes words will come to mind that are not on the flavor wheel those are fine too! There are thousands of different aromas found in coffee, and they can not all be encapsulated on a single flavor wheel. Keep in mind, often this ortho-nasal observation is the hardest for people. So don’t be too tough on yourself.

Aroma: Aroma is the smell of the coffee once the water is added. When cupping this is observed twice, once immediately after the water is added and once during the ‘break.’  This also can be quite difficult for newer coffee tasters.  Both aroma and fragrance can inform the overall experience with a coffee but do not define it.  So, if nothing comes to mind, don’t stress it.

The SCA Flavor Wheel

Flavor: Flavor is defined by both the taste (sweet, sour, sweet, salty, umami) as well as the perceived aroma (retronasal olfactation.)  Some things to keep in mind when writing down flavor descriptors or tasting notes are: How sweet is this coffee?  Is it salty?  Does the flavor remind you of something? How intense is the coffee? How complex? Are there lots of flavors or only one or two present? Are they all pleasant? Or are there off-putting ones?

Aftertaste: Two major things are considered with aftertaste – How long does the flavor last? And is it pleasant?  Coffees with a pleasant and long lasting aftertaste are the most rewarded.  One approach to deciding whether an aftertaste is pleasant or not is asking yourself “do I feel like I need water after I slurp or am I continuing to enjoy this experience?” Always take a step back between tasting coffees to consider your overall experience, and the aftertaste specifically.

Acidity: This can be one of the biggest challenges of all! Acidity is often confused with overall intensity or bitterness (as mentioned earlier) due to the effect it has on your palate.  To define this a little better for yourself, imagine the way your cheeks and tongue would feel when biting into a lemon.  Do you feel the increase in salvation?  The way your cheeks pucker a bit?  That is acidity.  It is perceived at the beginning of the experience and is an almost instantaneous reaction.  Unlike bitterness, which leads to a drying feeling in your mouth and is perceived near the end of a tasting experience.  Pay attention to the intensity of the acidity as well as how pleasant it is.  Acidity needs to be both the right kind (think green apple versus vinegar,) as well as have enough supporting sweetness to be pleasant.  Think lemons versus lemonade.

Body: Body is the way we describe the tactile sensation of a given coffee.  It is gauged by the pleasantness, as well as the overall weight.  At the Lab, we often talk about the mouthfeel of heavy cream, whole milk and skim milk.  They all have the same flavor, but the way they coat your mouth is different.  Some common descriptors are: juicy, tea-like, round, or velvety. Take a sip or slurp and think about how the coffee feels in your mouth. Maybe even chew the coffee a bit when tasting (the liquid, not the beans!) Does it feel like it is coating your tongue? or is it just like water passing over your palate?

Overall Impression: This one is simple.  Do you like this coffee?  Does it all work together?  This is just your interpretation and preference.  Honestly, this is the most important thing. Do you like this coffee? Does it meet a given target? Does it just work? You can even give it a personality descriptor like: Lively, Mild, Funky, Exciting, Blah etc.  Say what you would like! This is your space to be really creative!

We know, this is a lot. The good news is, you don’t have to think about this all at once. We recommend approaching a coffee in phases and revisiting it a few times as it cools. Using a form (or a notebook) to jot down your notes on the experience can be quite helpful, especially when comparing coffees! You can find a basic RNY cupping form here for added guidance.

Our basic RNY Cupping Form

This is all just a starting place. Coffee and Sensory Analysis (Tasting) is a vast subject. There are a variety of cupping forms, methodologies, flavor wheels and techniques. There are different ways to grade or assess quality in a given coffee or come up with language to communicate about coffee. Stay tuned to the RNY Blog for more posts on the Cupping Form and the individual attributes that make up the character of a coffee. Cheers!

Zoey Thorson

Coffee Pro/Veteran Educator. Over 10+ years of teaching a wide variety of coffee disciplines to a diverse student base around the world. Q-Grader and SCA Authorized Specialty Trainer. In 2019 Zoey became the Director of Education for The Lab by Royal NY. Zoey is friendly, approachable and informative with a vast knowledge base...come take a class at The Lab and see for yourself.