Learning to taste coffee and developing the sensitive taste buds to discern potential flavors from coffee beans is an art that can take years and years to finely hone. Evaluating the flavor of a bean from a specific region involves several senses including taste, touch and smell.
The actual feel of the coffee in the mouth is the strength, or body, of the coffee. Coffee ranges in body from light to heavy, with variations in between, such as medium-heavy or light-medium. Here’s how to determine the body of the coffee:
Learn the feel of the different viscosities. Viscosity, or thickness, of the coffee will determine whether the coffee is light- or heavy-bodied. Think of the thickness not so much as something solid, but of different thicknesses in fluid. For example, water has an incredibly light viscosity whereas whole milk has a very thick viscosity.
Feel the weight of the coffee in the mouth. Let a little coffee sit on your tongue and rub your tongue against the roof of your mouth. Pay attention to the texture and weight as you are rubbing the two together. Is there very little texture or is it thick? A very high viscosity (thick texture) denotes a heavy body.
When in doubt, add milk. If you are having trouble determining the body of the coffee, add a little milk. The taste of the heavier bodied coffees will linger even after being diluted with milk.
Our taste buds are remarkably sensitive organs and give a little tingle whenever they are stimulated. The four basic tastes are sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Learning where the tongue is stimulated will give you an idea of the basic taste profile of the coffee. Refer to the diagram and instructions below when identifying which areas are stimulated.
Pay attention to the tingles. Those tingles are your taste buds being stimulated. Paying attention to where they are on your tongue will tell you what the primary taste profile is. For example, if the taste buds on the tip of your tongue start to buzz, the taste is sweet, even though it may not taste like a piece of candy.
Ignore the bitter taste buds. These will likely be stimulated with every sip because coffee is, by nature, a bitter food. The bitter taste buds are on the back of the tongue, so try and pay attention to what the front and center of your tongue tells you.
Salty tastes are neutral or soft. When the middle, flat part of the tongue is stimulated, that means the coffee has a salty taste. There are two types of saltiness: soft or neutral. When you discover a coffee that makes your salty taste buds tingle, try a second sip. Pay attention to whether the tingle lingers on for a minute or two, or if it disappears fairly quickly. If the taste lingers, it is described as soft. If it diminishes quickly, it is called neutral.
Sour tastes are called winey tastes. Just like a good glass of wine will cause a little pucker on the sides of your mouth, a sour coffee will give you the same puckery feeling. If you pay close attention, you will even be able to tell the difference between a bold, winey taste and a dry, winey taste.
Now comes the part when the individual hints of unique flavors surface. Adjectives such as flowery, nutty and spicy are used to describe the very subtle notes in the coffee bean.
Smell with your nose and your mouth. Smell is highly linked to emotion, so many times the smell of a certain coffee will produce a gut reaction, but you will not be able to give it a word. Let the taste of the coffee work its way up to the roof of the mouth and let the very subtle aftertaste linger in that area. It is possible to both smell and taste the aroma in this area.
Use essential oils and spice canisters. Oftentimes, a smell is very familiar, but it is impossible to place a finger on it. Setting essential oils of the particular aroma out next to the coffee can help narrow in your sense and be able to smell the very specific aromas in the coffee. For example, for a coffee with notes of nutmeg, grab the nutmeg dredge off the shelf, smell deeply and then sip the coffee.
Select coffee with distinct aromatics. There are over 800 aromatic compounds that make up the flavor of coffee, three times more than what is found in wine. Be patient as you pick through several bold aromas. It takes years upon years to be able to train the senses to pick up on all of the aromas in one variety of coffee. Try and hone in on one particular aroma for each coffee varietal.
Once you have tasted, smelled and felt the texture of the coffee, you will be able to put together a flavor profile. For example, you can have a floral coffee with notes of jasmine. This would indicate that the taste sensation was sweet, but not sugary sweet. This is a musky sweet smell, more akin to the smell of jasmine, less citric in flavor. The taste buds will take time to become trained to these tastes, but the more often you taste coffee and evaluate it, the better you will become at identifying the flavors.
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