The idea of coffee tasting like citrus fruits, hazelnuts, baking spices, or, well, anything other than coffee is not one that most of us grow up with. So it can be intimidating to see complex flavor notes on a bag and hard to be confident in yourself to taste nuanced differences between coffees. But the last thing should be is intimidating. So here are a few exercises to help you flex your tasting and smelling muscles and have more fun drinking coffee.
The Lemon Slice
Of the five basic tastes (that’s sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami), sour and bitter are the two that folks have the most trouble telling apart, especially when it comes to coffee.
Luckily, a lemon presents an easy opportunity to dissect those tastes. By tasting the lemon pulp and lemon rind separately, you’ll have two shots at recognizably lemon flavor (the combo of taste and aroma), with recognizably different basic tastes.
- A lemon
- A knife
- Cut off a slice of a lemon
- Cut that slice into four pieces
- Using a knife, separate the fruit of the lemon from the white pith
- Wash the pith, so that there’s no lemon juice on it
- Bite into the pith and rind
- Bite into the fruit of the lemon
Both bites will, in their own way, taste like lemon. But the pith and rind will taste bitter, while the fruit will taste slightly sweet, but mostly sour. Next time you’re tasting a coffee, think about this exercise and whether or not the sharper flavors you’re tasting are more bitter or sour.
Both are part of the flavor balance of almost any coffee, and figuring out how they're balanced in your cup can not only make you understand the coffee better, but understand what adjustments to make while brewing it.
Jelly Bean Exercise
This exercise is adapted from Barb Stuckey’s excellent book _ Taste What You’re Missing_, which we highly recommend if you’re at all interested in what you’re tasting (and, if you’re reading this, we have a feeling you are).
Aroma is super-important to flavor, and, maybe surprisingly, we still get tons of aromatic information as we’re chewing and drinking. Aromas shoot up through our retronasal cavity and tell our brains that what we’re tasting isn’t just “sweet” or “salty” but “honey” or “soy sauce.” Jelly beans perfectly illustrate this point, because they’re flavored with aromatics that only reveal themselves once you bite in.
- Assorted jelly beans
- Take a jelly bean — ideally one you don’t know the flavor of
- Hold your nose (really!) and place the jelly bean in your mouth
- Bite into the jelly bean, without letting go of your nose, notice the sweetness and sourness
- Let go of your nose, notice all those aromas that help you actually identify the flavor
Home Coffee Cupping
I think one reason that people underestimate their ability to critically taste coffee is that most people very rarely taste different coffees side by side — or even in the same tasting session.
When we evaluate coffees here at Trade, we taste them through a process called cupping. One of the main advantages of that process is that it makes brewing a bunch of different coffees at the same time much faster. And you can do a pretty decent version of a cupping at home without much in the way of special equipment.
- Two (or more) similarly sized mugs
- An extra mug or bowl filled with hot water
- Two soup spoons
- 18 grams of two different coffees, ground medium-coarse
Note: These amounts assume your mugs are around 10 oz. Use a little more or less coffee if your cups are larger or smaller (but really, as long as you’re using the same amount of coffee and water in each cup you’re totally fine).
- Boil water
- Put freshly ground coffee in each cup
- Smell the coffee grounds, see if you can smell any differences
- Start a timer and pour water to the top of the cups (it should be around 200 degrees, but as long as you wait long enough that it’s no longer at a rolling boil, you should be good)
- After four minutes, break the crust that has formed on the coffee grounds with the back of your spoon — use this as another opportunity to smell the coffee
- Use your spoons to scoop the grinds off of the top of the coffee (it helps to hold one in each hand and join them in the middle)
- After 10 minutes or so, the coffee should be cool enough to taste
- Take a little bit of coffee from the first cup, and loudly slurp it in
- Rinse the spoon out in the cup of water, and repeat with your second coffee.
- As you go, feel free to take notes on how the coffees taste on their own, or compare how they taste against each other
- Keep tasting each coffee as they cool; different flavor notes will reveal themselves