Coffee Tasting Notes: How To Taste Coffee Like A Roastmaster
Coffee has been the muse of countless artists. Poems, plays, and paintings have been inspired by its dark and roasty allure. But what words can we use to adequately describe all the complexities and nuances of our beloved brew?
In this post we'll explore how coffee professionals and roastmasters identify coffee tasting notes for each bean, blend, and brew they produce. And we'll also explain how you can start developing these skills yourself.
What Are Coffee Tasting Notes?
Coffee beans go through a long process before they reach your cup, and each of the steps in this process plays a part in how a coffee tastes.
Tasting notes are a way for coffee tasters to communicate their impressions of the flavor and character of a particular coffee.
Although they can be difficult to understand at first, tasting notes provide a helpful guide for distinguishing between different coffees.
Flavor vs Characteristics
Tasting notes describe both the flavor of a coffee as well as its character. Let’s dive into the difference between character and flavor.
Consider this description of one our Signature Coffees, Roastmaster's Blend:
"Citrus Acidity, Spicy Body, Chocolatey Sweetness..."
The first two phrases describe the coffee's character, or how the coffee feels as you experience it. Whereas the last phrase describes the flavors you might recognize.
Elements of Coffee Flavor
The exact science behind how our bodies sense flavor is both extraordinarily complex and fascinating, but at the most basic level it is a combination of our olfactory senses (smells) and our gustatory senses (tastes).
Aroma + Taste = Flavor
We give equal importance to both when developing our own coffee tasting notes.
Smells are flavors that are attached to memories and filtered through creativity. We experience coffee with our noses long before we even try a sip, which surely isn't a surprise to anyone who has woken up to the delicious smell of coffee wafting from the kitchen.
You don’t have to wait until your coffee is brewed to smell it. Try and describe what your coffee beans smell like before they are ground and then again after grinding. What new aromas are present that you may not have noticed previously?
Once the coffee is brewed, do you smell any aromas that trigger memories of previous foods or beverages? How about different objects, places, or things?
The more you can build up a memory bank of scents to call upon, the more accurately you'll be able to describe what you are tasting.
The World Coffee Research Organization has developed a dedicated vocabulary for 24 different attributes found in coffee, and that lexicon was then used to build the Coffee Tasters Wheel.
The WCRO lexicon and wheel were both built with the goal of helping tasters more accurately describe the 5 basic types of tastes we can distinguish with our tongue, which are:
- Savory (also known as Umami)
We are going to focus on the first four from that list, as they are the most important when it comes to coffee.
As we share details about how each basic taste is most commonly represented in coffee, please keep in mind that tastes are a spectrum similar to a rainbow.
Just as the color aqua lies somewhere between blue and green, the taste sensation of fruity lies somewhere between sweet and sour (which is why the wheel is such an effective tool).
In coffee, sweetness can refer to the taste of caramelization, a chemical reaction that takes place during roasting. This process can produce tones of 'dark' sweetness, some of which are reminiscent of honey, molasses, or caramelized sugars. It's worth noting that not all coffees will have a strong sweet flavor, some may be mild or not present at all.
Coffee beans are full of natural acids and the level to which they are noticeable in as tastes are dependent upon both the beans natural qualities as well as the level to which it was roasted.
Fruity flavors are often used to describe coffees with a sweet-like level or tartness, whereas on the opposite end of the sour spectrum we may encounter flavors that are overripe and fermented.
Deep rich savory flavors like cocoa, nuts, and spices, add so much depth and warmth to coffee. Nothing quite compares to notes of chocolate and hazelnut dancing on your tongue.
Bitter flavors are naturally present in nearly all coffee roasts. This is partially due to the fact that caffeine itself is bitter, and also partly due to the flavors imparted by the roasting process. For some foods and beverages calling something bitter would be an insult, but that is the opposite of the case with coffee. In fact, bitterness is what helps to balance out the other flavors and round out the profile.
Defining a Coffee's Character
When we drink coffee we don't just smell it and taste it. We consume it. We sense what it feels like in our mouth and what sensations we experience in the moments after we swallow.
Let's explore the 4 most common ways we describe a coffee's character: acidity, body, balance, and finish.
If you find the brew to be sour, acidic, or have a tartness to it, then it is considered acidic. What we are discussing is the perceived level of acidity you feel, which is in contrast to the actual pH level of coffee, which is fairly consistently hovering around 5.
Body refers to the texture of the coffee or how it feels in your mouth. Does it feel syrupy or creamy? Or maybe it is more a light and watery sensation? Coffee roasters use a wide range of phrases such as delicate, buttery, full, spicy, smooth, or thin.
Balance is used to describe how the different elements present themselves. Is this a solo act where one voice is heard loud and clear? Or, is the coffee more a cohesive harmony with hints of acidity, sweetness, and smoke all singing together?
The aftertaste of your coffee is really the last thing you remember about it. Is it smooth and drinkable or perhaps a bit rough and harder to swallow. Does the flavor linger or does it make a quick exit? A long, satisfying finish that allows them to slowly savor their brew is what most drinkers are seeking.
How to Perform a Coffee Tasting at Home
No matter the setting or situation, we encourage you to try and describe your experience each time you enjoy a coffee.
But if you're looking to try a more formal tasting at home let's get you off on the right foot!
Coffee Cupping vs Coffee Tasting
Coffee cupping is a standardized evaluation system we use as premium coffee roasters to assess the quality of the green coffees we source, as well as to test the quality of our roasts. This is done in a controlled environment, with a very specific protocol, and without the use of a coffee filter.
Coffee tasting on the other hand, refers to the evaluation of flavors after coffee was prepared in a brewing method. To put it another way, a cupping is focused on the quality of the bean and roast and a tasting is focused on the quality of the brew.
As coffee roasters, we perform both cuppings and tastings as a way to get a full view of our coffee's sensory properties.
Even though you can, and should, attempt to assign tasting notes to your coffee whenever or wherever you drink it, by taking a more scientific approach to a home tasting you'll be able to better assess the distinct notes.
Use Great Coffee
We obviously may be a little partial here but why waste all this effort with low qualify beans? All of our premium coffees are for sale online and in our cafes, so pick our your favorite signature blend or
Try to perform your tastings in a clean, quiet area, with as few other aromas present as possible. If your kitchen is full of smells, then maybe your den or dining room would be a better choice.
When comparing multiple coffees at once, be as consistent with your process as possible. Use the same brewing method each time, attempt to use similar coffee-to-water ratios, and heat your water to the same temperature each time.
Use Your Nose
Smell before you taste. For that matter, smell before you brew and before you grind the coffee beans.
We know that flavors are a function of both smell and taste so don't overlook this aspect. Close your eyes and allow the aromas time to work their way through the library of smells locked in your brain.
Analyze Each Sip
Allow the coffee to coat your entire mouth and linger before swallowing. How does it feel? Do you notice different flavors on your third sip that you didn't notice on your first?
Pay attention to how it tastes as it cools too. Some flavors will be more present piping hot and others as it loses steam.