Blog | Coffee Tasting 101

Category: Learning

Published: April 15, 2022

Imagine you’re painting your living room green.

You head over to the enormous hardware-slash-home-goods superstore to pick out a new color. You look at one shade of green by itself, and it may appear to be a light or dark or bluish green, but you think to yourself, OK, that’s the green I want; I’ll take it. Then, you compare it to another shade of green, then entire palettes of similar greens. You slowly come to realize that you can now differentiate between every single shade of green that could ever be imagined; you overthink whether it would look good in the lighting on your walls, and you start asking yourself where green ends and blue or yellow begins. Suddenly, you look up, and the lights are turning off around you. Apartment Depot is closed.

Our goal as coffee tasters is to get stuck in the paint aisle not just overnight, but forever—to build a house in the paint aisle and sleep on a bed of paint swatches.

Coffee cupping has a high barrier to entry for a lot of people, especially those who can taste only a few shades.

Retraining your perception is a tricky investment—just getting your palate to align with your brain, and then with a list of flavor notes, takes a lot of practice, mental rewiring, and coffee.

Three cupping bowls with coffee grounds inside.

There is a staggering number of coffee varieties, brew methods, and recipes in the world; there is an ocean of terminology (it honestly took me about two years to figure out what “astringent” meant). The SCA Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel is a helpful reference tool, but it can be hard to know where to start. World Coffee Research’s Sensory Lexicon is a thorough way to build your tasting vocabulary, but requires a lot of work and resources to put together. Retraining your perception is a tricky investment—just getting your palate to align with your brain, and then with a list of flavor notes, takes a lot of practice, mental rewiring, and coffee.

To learn to taste actively, it’s important to have something to compare to. This situates the notes in your coffee within a swatch of other notes, to help your brain differentiate between different flavors within your cup.

Three cupping bowls with coffee steeping inside.

  • If you manually brew coffee, make multiple cups of the same coffee at the same time and taste to compare.
  • If you like espresso, order two separate shots to taste side-by-side.
  • Try two coffees from different continents, prepared the same way, at the same time.
  • If you don’t know where to start, try our own Deconstructed Latte: a tasting flight designed to introduce your brain to flavor differences in espresso and milk. It presents the component flavors of a latte separately (a shot of espresso, a shot of steamed milk) and then together, allowing the taster to use the separate flavors as guideposts for understanding more complex and muted notes in the latte. The goal is to get you to taste with as much intent as possible, so that your perception is strengthened.

Like wine, specialty coffee prides itself on complexity, originality, and simple, high-quality ingredients. But also like wine, coffee can be difficult to transform from something you drink to something you taste.

Adopt other habits to retrain your palate like limiting strong and dominant flavors such as salt and sugar in your daily life, and focusing on fresh herbs, spices, and other flavors with nuance. While drinking or eating, cleanse your palate throughout with sparkling water or simple bread, respectively. Savor your drinks and food over long periods of time. Learn to perfect your slurp—this distributes coffee molecules throughout the sensory receptors in your mouth and nasal passageways, to give you a full taste snapshot. Note smells, textures, mouthfeels, and aftertastes, and try to find descriptive language to communicate your experience (this is where the SCA Flavor Wheel becomes handy). Take notes in a coffee journal or discuss your thoughts with a friend, since an effective way to improve your palate is to connect it to your memory through language

Three cupping bowls with coffee ready to taste.

Like wine, specialty coffee prides itself on complexity, originality, and simple, high-quality ingredients. But also like wine, coffee can be difficult to transform from something you drink to something you taste. 

No one is born a Q grader or a sommelier; they need to constantly taste new things, take notes, and practice. It takes work to build a discerning palate, so try not to feel intimidated. Everyone has to start somewhere and, despite its pretense of complexity, coffee is much more simple than it appears.

If you want to take the full coffee tasting plunge, try out our Coffee Tasting Intensive or the SCA Intro to Coffee classes at our training lab.

Imagine you’re painting your living room green.

You head over to the enormous hardware-slash-home-goods superstore to pick out a new color. You look at one shade of green by itself, and it may appear to be a light or dark or bluish green, but you think to yourself, OK, that’s the green I want; I’ll take it. Then, you compare it to another shade of green, then entire palettes of similar greens. You slowly come to realize that you can now differentiate between every single shade of green that could ever be imagined; you overthink whether it would look good in the lighting on your walls, and you start asking yourself where green ends and blue or yellow begins. Suddenly, you look up, and the lights are turning off around you. Apartment Depot is closed.

Our goal as coffee tasters is to get stuck in the paint aisle not just overnight, but forever—to build a house in the paint aisle and sleep on a bed of paint swatches.

Three cupping bowls with coffee grounds inside.

Coffee cupping has a high barrier to entry for a lot of people, especially those who can taste only a few shades.

Retraining your perception is a tricky investment—just getting your palate to align with your brain, and then with a list of flavor notes, takes a lot of practice, mental rewiring, and coffee.

There is a staggering number of coffee varieties, brew methods, and recipes in the world; there is an ocean of terminology (it honestly took me about two years to figure out what “astringent” meant). The SCA Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel is a helpful reference tool, but it can be hard to know where to start. World Coffee Research’s Sensory Lexicon is a thorough way to build your tasting vocabulary, but requires a lot of work and resources to put together. Retraining your perception is a tricky investment—just getting your palate to align with your brain, and then with a list of flavor notes, takes a lot of practice, mental rewiring, and coffee.

Three cupping bowls with coffee steeping inside.

To learn to taste actively, it’s important to have something to compare to. This situates the notes in your coffee within a swatch of other notes, to help your brain differentiate between different flavors within your cup.

  • If you manually brew coffee, make multiple cups of the same coffee at the same time and taste to compare.
  • If you like espresso, order two separate shots to taste side-by-side.
  • Try two coffees from different continents, prepared the same way, at the same time.
  • If you don’t know where to start, try our own Deconstructed Latte: a tasting flight designed to introduce your brain to flavor differences in espresso and milk. It presents the component flavors of a latte separately (a shot of espresso, a shot of steamed milk) and then together, allowing the taster to use the separate flavors as guideposts for understanding more complex and muted notes in the latte. The goal is to get you to taste with as much intent as possible, so that your perception is strengthened.

Like wine, specialty coffee prides itself on complexity, originality, and simple, high-quality ingredients. But also like wine, coffee can be difficult to transform from something you drink to something you taste.

Adopt other habits to retrain your palate like limiting strong and dominant flavors such as salt and sugar in your daily life, and focusing on fresh herbs, spices, and other flavors with nuance. While drinking or eating, cleanse your palate throughout with sparkling water or simple bread, respectively. Savor your drinks and food over long periods of time. Learn to perfect your slurp—this distributes coffee molecules throughout the sensory receptors in your mouth and nasal passageways, to give you a full taste snapshot. Note smells, textures, mouthfeels, and aftertastes, and try to find descriptive language to communicate your experience (this is where the SCA Flavor Wheel becomes handy). Take notes in a coffee journal or discuss your thoughts with a friend, since an effective way to improve your palate is to connect it to your memory through language

Three cupping bowls with coffee ready to taste.

Like wine, specialty coffee prides itself on complexity, originality, and simple, high-quality ingredients. But also like wine, coffee can be difficult to transform from something you drink to something you taste. 

No one is born a Q grader or a sommelier; they need to constantly taste new things, take notes, and practice. It takes work to build a discerning palate, so try not to feel intimidated. Everyone has to start somewhere and, despite its pretense of complexity, coffee is much more simple than it appears.

If you want to take the full coffee tasting plunge, try out our Coffee Tasting Intensive or the SCA Intro to Coffee classes at our training lab.