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What to Taste For in a Cup of Coffee

What to Taste For in a Cup of Coffee

If you are a discerning coffee drinker, it is very interesting and enjoyable to attend a cupping session to explore the various coffees and roasts that best suit your tastes, and to learn what to look for in a coffee bean. The innate characteristics of any crop of coffee beans are the flavor, the body, and the acidity. Combined, these three characteristics create the specific taste for each coffee bean. To a large extent, the roast will then work to highlight the latent aromas that are buried within the taste.

“Flavor” can be an ambiguous concept in capturing the essence of a coffee when the word is used by itself. Aroma, body, and acidity all have something to do with flavor. Some coffees have a full flavor while others have an acidity tag. We can also talk about distinctively flavored coffees that have very clear and identifiable taste associations that will stand out. Many feel that the Yemen Mocha is one of the most distinctive coffees, while the Sumatran coffees may be the richest. Mexican coffees tend to be the least distinctive and most generic.

Because our noses are much more sensitive than our palates, “taste” is actually a much simpler sensation than “aroma.” In fact the nose, sensing aroma, gives advance warning to the brain, which factors the aroma in very heavily as part of the perceived “taste,” which we naturally (and incorrectly) tend to think of as coming directly from the tongue.

If you attend a cupping session, you should freely explore the various taste and aroma associations that the components of a coffee elicit from your life experience. To get you started, the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) has proposed generic templates of some of the most common associations that tend to be elicited by coffees. The tree diagram below is the SCAA’s initial breakdown of the sensation that we call taste.

SCAA Taste Classification

The spectrum of tastes given in the table is hardly an exhaustive one. If you attend a cupping session, don’t think of this particular list as a “limitation” on what you should be tasting. Instead, merely think of it as a starting point. There are bound to be other associations that the flavors in particular coffees will elicit in you: licorice, honeysuckle, bergamot, saffron, and peppermint.

The high notes that a coffee hits on the surface of your tongue, and the dryness that a coffee may leave beneath your tongue are attributes of acidity. Acidity is obvious in most Mexican coffees, while it tends to be more sublte and slightly rich in the Sumatran coffees. Acidity is overwhelming in the Yemen Mochas.

Aged coffees and low-grown coffees have low acidity, which makes them taste a bit on the sweet side. Some coffees will leave a distinctively winey aftertaste on your palate. This is a very clear characteristic of the (aforementioned) Yemen Mochas. Note that in many coffee brochures, “winey” is sometimes described as “fruity.”

The concept of “aftertaste” is one that captures the sensations of the brewed coffee vapors. Aftertastes may be described as carbony, chocolaty, spicy, or turpeny, just to name just a few.

The “body” of a coffee is also called its “mouth feel.” Body refers to the sense of richness and heaviness that is left near the back of your tongue after you taste the coffee. The Mexican coffees have the lightest bodies, while the Sumatran coffees tend to have the heaviest bodies – so much so, that you can almost “chew” them.

Yemen Mocha lies somewhere in the middle on the “body” scale. An easy way to clearly discern “body” is by pouring milk into the coffee. The flavor of the Sumatran coffee carries through the milk, while the flavor of the Mexican coffee dies. Note also that cold milk will tend to overwhelm a coffee much moreso than heated milk; which is why cappuccino and latte were created in the first place.

So if you like your coffee with milk, then you should use a heavy-bodied coffee. But if you like your coffee black, you might be happier with a light-bodied coffee.

The “aroma” of a coffee should be considered in juxtaposition to its acidity and flavor. Floral notes in coffees may sometimes only be experienced within the context of the aroma. A distinct fresh floral note can easily be distinguished in the aroma of the Yemen Mocha. Colombian and Konan coffees are well known for their floral aromas.

We had mentioned that aroma was more complex than taste because the nose is much more sensitive than the palate. The SCAA has also put forward a breakdown of coffee aromas. Since there are so many more aromas than tastes, the SCAA aroma breakdowns require four charts to list them all.

SCAA Initial Breakdown of Aroma

The SCAA has separated aroma into three generic categories: Enzymatic; Sugar Browning; and Dry Distillation. These basic categories are broken down further in the tree diagrams below. Again, this set of categorizations should not be used to limit what you experience when you savor the aroma of a coffee. Instead, use them as a starting point in forming your own associations.

”Breakdown Breakdown of Sugar Aromas Breakdown of Distillation Aromas

Brazilian coffees tend to have soft bodies with medium acidity, while their flavors are sweet - sometimes with vanilla overtones. By and large, Colombian coffees have light to medium bodies with medium aromatic flavors (except for those that are more on the floral side). Costa Rican coffees tend to have medium bodies with neutral (unpronounced) flavors, while Ethiopian Mochas have medium bodies with floral undertones. The Java coffees have a medium acidity with a medium to heavy body, and intense flavors. Kenyan coffees generally have high acidity, full body, and medium flavor.

You should try different coffees to first find and identify the characteristics of coffee that most appeal to you. Once you have identified these, you should then experiment with different coffees, different coffee blends, and different roasts to find the coffees having the characteristics that you have identified.

The main purpose of a cupping session is to taste contrasting coffees so that these various characteristics stand out by the very nature of that contrast. This will help you to narrow your focus on the characteristics that appeal to you much more rapidly.

...written by your friends at The Coffee Brewers