Last week I talked about flavor in coffee and where it comes from. That’s cool and all, but what about the flavors themselves? That snooty guy sitting next to you is going on and on about how his cup has hints of dried violet petals and wafts of a far-away orange grove, what’s the deal with that?
Let’s get one thing straight – we’re all tasting the same coffee with the same flavors, how we verbalize it is the biggest difference. Developing one’s palate is at least great simply being able to distinguish individual flavors from the whole profile and finding a way to describe it with words. Two people may describe the same cup of coffee differently – that doesn’t make one of them right and the other wrong, it mostly just means that they haven’t figured out how to objectively define the flavors they taste. Don’t let Mr. Snooty over there intimidate you with his seemingly profound taste buds, he’s probably just trying to impress his date ;)
So, let’s take a crash course in coffee cupping 101
Coffee cupping is a way to profile coffee in its most pure form. Freshly ground coffee in a cup is smelled dry, had hot water poured in it brew, smelled again and finally tasted. Tasting involves slurping incredibly obnoxiously from a spoon, exactly the way Mom told you not to eat tomato soup at the dinner table. Make as much noise as possible slurping and sipping from your spoon, this allows the entirety of the inside of your mouth to get coated with coffee to completely envelop your taste buds in flavor. These flavors can span a huge variety of qualities, but for now we’ll focus on a few basic and easily identifiable ones that can evolve into much more intricate and complex profiles.
Chocolate. One of the most widely common flavors in coffee that is usually one of the first strong flavors one can take from a cup of coffee. Of course, there are different types of chocolate; milk, dark, semi-sweet, baking, cacao etcetera. Does this coffee taste like chocolate? If so, what kind?
Nuts. Nutty coffees give chocolaty ones a run for their money and can offer some incredible strong suggestions in a cup of coffee from Central America. Like chocolate, nuts come in a variety of their own. Does this coffee taste nutty? What kind?
Fruit. Fruitiness is where things can get a bit trickier as there exists a lot more distinct types of fruit than their does chocolate or nuts. The first tip to determine fruitiness is often the type of sweetness or juiciness a coffee displays, it can often be described as some sort of fruit. A good practice is to separate big categories apart and work your way down – try thinking of fruits as either dark, light or citrus. Darker fruit flavors exist in things like cherries, berries, currants and other ‘darker’ tasting fruits. Lighter fruits I categorize with things like apples and pears, peaches, white cranberries and other ‘lighter’ tasting fruits. Citrus is a bit more obvious to pick out, as they usually have a distinct zip or acidity to their and can range from lemons and limes to blood oranges and grapefruits.
Earth. Earthy flavors are most often the densest flavors you will taste in a cup of darkly roasted coffee, and if the coffee has been over-roasted will appear overpowering compared to everything else I just mentioned. Earthy flavors can include organic flavors like carbon, wood, tobacco, dirt and ash. When a dark roast is taken care of, these notes can smell and taste like sweet pipe tobacco or fresh soil. When improperly handled, they can compare more easily to ashtrays and dark basements L
These four categories are not nearly all of the categories a flavor can fall into, but they are a great place to start thinking about when you take the first few sips of your next cup of coffee. Slurp and swish and ponder these categories, break the flavors down and figure out what it is on you taste buds. If you think something doesn’t fit into these four categories, start thinking about other ones – spices, herbs, florals, pretty much anything is on the table! Don’t feel like you can’t have a trained palate because these flavors may not be obvious to you all at once, it can take a lot of coffee tasting to figure out what everything is! Thankfully I know of a really cool place with a lot of great coffee and friendly, educative staff you can go to get a jump start on your rejuvenated coffee addiction ;)
Stay cool people!
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