There was recently a segment on the Today show that did a blind taste test between what they called ‘cheap deli coffee’ and ‘fancy gourmet coffee.’ Their finding? 67% of participants preferred the cheap stuff. It has prompted some negativity from those interested in craft coffee, and for good reasons (what coffees are they using? how are they roasted? how are they brewed? how long did they sit around before being served? how does ‘dozens’ constitute any kind of meaningful sample size?), but there might be something to what they’re saying. Mostly being: maybe most people aren’t able to tell what they’re drinking when they have coffee. They just taste coffee.
There’s nothing wrong with just tasting coffee: it is what you’re drinking after all. But there’s more going on, and for those of you who are already drinking the ‘fancy gourmet coffee’ it might be worthwhile to take a moment to appreciate what you’re drinking since you’re already paying a premium. That of course begs the question, what is there? We’ve mentioned before that coffee is a complex thing, and when you’re talking about single origin coffees, that’s especially true. So how do you break it down?
Start broad and go back to the basic flavors: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter*. You don’t usually encounter any salty flavors in coffee (not that it doesn’t happen), so you already only have three to focus on. Bitter is easy to recognize, and though it's present to some degree in every cup of coffee, if it stands out it usually means you have bad cup of coffee. So assuming you have something quality in your hands, you’re looking mostly at sweet and sour flavors. Sweet might make sense to some, but sour is an odd flavor to have in coffee and probably means someone royally messed up your coffee, right? Not necessarily. If you have a coffee and instantly think, ‘this is sour,’ that’s an issue. But a balanced sourness is what we call brightness. It makes a cup lighter and crisper, like tart fruit. Of course this is just a simple break down, a start to a longer (and much more enjoyable) journey.
May I present the official coffee taster’s wheel?
This wheel offers a great starting point after you start to pay attention to the basic flavors, it provides a language for you to start connecting to, working from the inside out. Maybe all you’ll be able to notice is that the coffee is sweet, or fruity, or tastes like chocolate. But if you start thinking about it enough you’ll start to recognize that sometimes that fruity flavor is a little more like citrus, and sometimes it’s a little more like a berry. Sometimes that citrus is more like a lemon and sometimes more like an orange. It takes time, but with practice it’s something anyone can start to notice!
We find the wheels help because you don’t have to create your own words for the flavors, you get to see some common terms and find something you connect with. Of course flavor is subjective, so a dozen different people could taste the same exact cup of coffee and taste a dozen different things. But most people will at least agree on the inner wheels, and that’s a great place to start.
Now that you have the basic tools, the next time you go out and grab a cup of coffee, take a moment to taste your coffee and think about it, even if it's 'cheap deli coffee'. And if you really like tasting coffee, keep an eye out for coffee cuppings, we've got some plans in the works!
*So tongue diagrams aren't that accurate, and there is a fifth flavor, umami, but mostly I wanted to keep this flavor discussion simple, rather than getting into the current debates over the science of taste.