How to Talk About What You're Tasting
Anybody can learn to describe their sensory experiences—but most people haven’t spent much time doing it in any formal way. Learning how to describe coffee taste is just like tasting wine, beer, cheese, or chocolate. The goal is to be able to objectively describe taste, mouthfeel, and aroma in a way that other people can understand.
To that end, coffee people like us utilize visual aids like the SCA Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel, learning kits like Le Nez du Cafe (36 isolated essences so you can learn what common compounds in coffee smell like), and lots and lots of cuppings with proficient, calibrated cuppers.
The main thing, really, is just to practice! Talk about the coffee you drink in the morning. Name what you taste. There are no wrong answers. If you taste it, it is there.
Another really important learning tool is blind comparison. This is how you know what your tasting is real and not the result of preconceived notions about brand or origin.
I also really like this extremely simple flavor wheel from Belgian roaster Cuperus. It’s really all the home coffee drinker will ever need:
And here’s part of a handout from all our classes. It breaks down the basic categories a cupper examines:
TASTING AND DESCRIBING
Fragrance/Aroma refer to the smell of the coffee. Fragrance is the word for dry grounds; aroma for wet.
Flavor refers to the overall impression of a coffee’s characteristics, including the basic sapid tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty (and, controversially, umami), origin characteristics, and roast flavors. Might sound something like, “Sweet, with chocolate roast notes.”
Acidity is a desirable quality of taste which gives good coffees depth and interest. It is described with words like bright, clear, dry, winey, or tangy. Coffees lacking in acidity can be dull or flat.
Body is the weight or thickness of the beverage on the tongue. Does a coffee feel more like apple juice or olive oil?
Aftertaste/Finish is what happens after the coffee leaves your palate.
Balance is your opinion of how well a coffee’s flavor, aroma, acidity, and body work together. Connotes a certain aesthetic harmony. Sometimes the most interesting and delicious coffees lack balance.
Now go forth and talk about coffee!
PS: If you want to dive in further and learn more terms to describe coffee, see the Coffee Lexicon (PDF). According to the folks at World Coffee Research, it’s “the largest collaborative research project on coffee's flavors and aromas ever done.”