For me, the exploration of flavour potential has become more and more exciting the longer I have been involved in coffee. However a challenge I have faced throughout my development as a coffee professional has been developing my sensory skills, which is a prerequisite to an in-depth coffee exploration.

Coffee is very much like wine in the way that it displays a broad range of flavours and textures. Therefore treating our approach to coffee tasting can be treated by baristas in a similar way to that of sommeliers – with practice and training, we can further develop our skills and learn more about the product we are selling. But how does someone start training themselves to improve their coffee tasting? Here are a few tips that can help.

Broaden your horizons
Broaden the range of foods you consume on a regular basis. Without being exposed to guava for example, it is very difficult to properly experience guava as a flavour note in coffee. Fruit flavours are the most common attributes in specialty coffee so try to buy a broader range of fruits to eat each week.

Conscious Eating
Instead of just eating or drinking foods as usual while focusing on something else, take 15 seconds to focus on the aroma of foods and then be aware of how that food sits on your palate. Is the acidity sharp or round, is it sweet, sour or bitter and how does it leave your palate feeling once its finished? Don’t limit this practise to only fruit, try small amounts of different types of sugars or sweet ingredients, try vinegars when cooking, any of these can come up during coffee tasting so being exposed to them will only help you understand coffee flavour more.

This can involve setting up cupping nights or even tasting espresso’s or other coffees with other people in your workplace. These can be big sessions of just casual tasting note calibration and it doesn’t have to be just with coffee, run a ‘fruit cupping’ blind tasting different fruits. A good way to do this is picking a category such as citrus, taste multiple types of citrus with other people and talk about how this tastes and how they compare. Juice these fruits and blind taste them to guess which is which, and to make it harder start blending two fruits together and try to identify each fruit in the mix.

Expand your circle
Try to taste with people outside your own circle. It is very easy to think a coffee tastes a certain way because the people you work with all agree it does. The risk of tasting in closed circles is that its easy for influence to take over. In barista competition every year we identify new attributes positive and negative in our coffees that we didn’t realise were so prominent. Sometimes it takes an outside palate to point something out, then it becomes very obvious. What we thought was medium weight and velvety in the broader circle of tasters may be light and juicy. Getting outside your own circle can really help your skills in accurately identifying characteristics in coffee.

Breaking it down
Attempt to break down tasting different things into different attributes. World Barista or Brewers Championship scoresheets can really help break down and structure your tasting. For example when tasting an espresso I will often focus on certain elements exclusively while blocking out others. It can be more difficult to taste flavours in coffee when you are focusing on identifying the weight and texture of that coffee. Becoming more experienced in breaking down just the tactile qualities of a coffee requires sharp focus on just that attribute. Similar to a cupping score sheet it is helpful to have a structure to tasting given there are several characteristics one can focus on.

In cupping I judge sweetness, flavour and balance initially, before moving onto other characteristics. This way I don’t get as overwhelmed by all the complexities of a coffee. Just remember everyone has their own way of tasting so talk to people about how they approach this and you can find new ways of thinking that can help you taste better.

Utilise tools
Utilise the tools that can help develop sensory skills. Try tasting different acid solutions such as citric, tartaric and malic acids. Aroma kits can help connect aroma and flavour together, just ensure the aromas aren’t too artificial and don’t rely on these kits to completely develop your sense of smell. Trying all of these methods putting yourself out there without fear of being wrong is the only way to improve. If you don’t test yourself or are not prepared to look inexperienced your mind deep down knows the information isn’t important to you and its harder to retain information.

Once you are more comfortable tasting different characteristics in coffee, you can begin to apply this knowledge to the way you prepare and sell coffee. However, remember that most of your customers haven’t been through the same process. The worst thing that you can do is spit a list of tasting notes at them that they’ll never properly experience.

I usually start with a colour spectrum of fruit which helps them picture a narrower range of fruits within a colour spectrum and a tactile characteristic. So a natural Ethiopian pourover may be described as “purple fruit, like blackcurrant and a rich creamy mouthfeel”. Focus on the most prominent characteristics – it is best not to draw too much attention to slight hints of tropical fruits, citrus, florals and other flavours so that you don’t confuse the customer. This makes characteristics so much easier to identify and therefore to enjoy for a broader range of people. 

Hopefully these tips will help you with furthering your coffee knowledge and improving your interpretation of the different flavour profiles in the coffee world!

Hugh Kelly 
ONA Coffee