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A Beginner’s Guide To Tasting Coffee

Published by: Chef Braam Botha • Updated: October 20, 2023 • Checked By: Chef Matty Riedel

My obsession with coffee has destroyed my ability to drink instant coffee. Who in their right mind would opt for a cup of freeze-dried coffee-flavoured granules when they could have an amazing cup of Liberica or Excelsa? If this sounds like a Harry Potter spell, I would love to introduce you to the world of coffee! If you want to know more about the four different types of coffee beans, you can read my article here. If you are a coffee lover, you might have realised that the world of coffee is an incredibly deep rabbit hole, and we must dive in head first! One of the first things to cover on the topic would have to be coffee tasting, so strap yourselves in. Here is my Coffee Tasting Guide.

A Beginner’s Guide To Tasting Coffee

As with all the fine things in life, once you understand how to identify the different subtleties between the styles and flavours of different coffees, you will truly appreciate all the hard work that goes into your favourite hot beverage. The best way to train your senses would be to have at least two cups of coffee and compare their subtle differences. Once you have two brews, follow this four-step process to taste coffee like a pro.

Step 1: Smell

Your sense of smell is arguably the most important factor that influences taste; therefore, it is essential that you smell your brew and carefully analyse the aromas before you even consider taking a sip. Smell the aromas of both cups and compare them. I highly recommend writing down whatever comes to mind as you follow these steps. Rest assured that you do not have to denote every aroma or taste down to the finest details; write down whatever your thoughts are. 

bespectacled man smelling a glass of coffee

The aromas will form and move through the air as soon as the hot water hits the freshly ground coffee. Take note of the smells, and try to identify the different smells. Ask yourself questions such as what does this smell like? What does this remind me of? Write your answers down and try to name the smells as close as possible to a certain smell, such as chocolates or nuts — if possible, try to refine your answers to a more accurate one, like pecan nuts or caramel. Do not worry about it if you can’t define the exact smell yet. Practice makes perfect. Compare the two different cups’ smells and try and locate a few distinct differences between them. By comparing a few coffees with each other, you will find it easier to differentiate between certain characteristics. 

I generally like to rate smell on two different scales, one for intensity and one for pleasantness. Some coffees may be pungent and give off a very intense smell and deliver a really pleasant smell, while others might not have an intense smell but may give off an unpleasant smell. After I have rated them on these scales, I will try and smell them for specific characteristics.

Some common aromas you might pick up may include toffee, caramel, cocoa, fruity, nutty, or earthy. Write your findings down so you can compare the smells with the tastes.

Step 2: Sip

By this time, your mouth is probably watering a lot, and you cannot wait to take the first sip. Here it is! Take a sip of the coffee, and swirl it around your mouth before swallowing so you can expose the coffee to, as many taste receptors as possible. Again, take a sip of each coffee and try to identify and describe the differences. In this stage of the tasting process, there is an overwhelming number of factors to consider, acidity, body, flavour, sweetness, mouthfeel etc. Do not get discouraged. You don’t have to identify all of these correctly, and even more, so you don’t have to sound like one of those people who wears a cardigan and loafers, spewing a ton of pompous words at wine tastings. Remember, this is all about you and what you perceive and enjoy! Here are the main areas to consider when taking a sip of the coffee.

man sipping a cup on coffee while sitting on a couch with a black cat

Acidity

On the sides and the tip of your tongue, you will experience a tangy taste. It may remind you of the same sensation you get from eating citrus fruits. Low-acidity coffees may be described as smooth, and the sensation may linger in your mouth. On the other hand, high-acidity coffees are usually described as crisp and bright. Some people might confuse the tartness of some acidic coffees with a bitter taste.

Body

If you had to compare a sip of whole milk with a sip of low or non-fat milk, you will notice that non-fat milk tends to feel more watery and lighter in your mouth compared to the heavier and silkier feeling from whole milk. That same idea applies to coffee. Full-bodied coffees will feel heavier on the tongue and will result in the flavour lingering much longer, whereas light-bodied coffee won’t linger and will feel much lighter.

white jug pouring milk into a coffee cup from a great height!

Flavour

Trying to note the flavour of the coffee is usually where I can get very irritated. Some people (cardigan and loafer-wearing country club type of people) tend to be very pretentious when tasting coffee and judge you if you don’t taste the same ‘twice blessed Amazonian smoked beechwood beetle droppings’ that they taste in their brew. No! You should not participate in this. Coffee is to be enjoyed and not made a mockery of. If you taste chocolate in the coffee, who am I to tell you that you are wrong? Okay, rant over…

When sipping your coffee, try to write down whatever comes to mind, even if it is negative. If you don’t like the fact that the coffee tastes earthy or woody, mention it and think about it. This will help you to gain a better understanding of what you like. Compare the two coffees, write down what you taste in each, and then try to pinpoint obvious differences. One might taste fruitier than the other. Try to explain these differences.

Some common flavours people usually taste might include caramel, toffee, chocolate, fresh and cooked fruits, and earthy or dusty fruits.

Step 3: Savour The Moment

This step is arguably the most important part, where you analyse the lingering taste. Tastes usually linger for a little while, leaving an after-taste that might be pleasant or, in some cases, unpleasant. I have had some coffees that tasted amazing while sipping but left a terrible aftertaste and vice versa. Try to locate where the tastes are lingering in your mouth, and define what the textures in your mouth feel like while the taste lingers. Compare this to the other coffee and try to describe the differences; the one might feel slightly heavier than the other, or they might both leave a fruity aftertaste.

woman, standing outside with a forest in the background,holding a white cup of coffee

Step 4: Describe

After taking a few sips of each, compare your notes. Try to describe each coffee individually, using these notes, then describe what you liked and disliked about them. You can describe the coffee in any way you see fit. After all, it is YOUR opinion, and no one can say you are wrong. Once you have described both coffees, you must describe their similarities and differences, and after doing so, decide which was your favourite and move on to the next.


Coffee Tasting Guide: Summing Up

After following these steps and a bit of practice, you can throw on a cardigan and some loafers and join those people at the country club to pompously describe a variety of coffees. This tasting method can be applied to almost anything: wine, whiskey, beer, chocolate, olive oil, etc. The more you pay attention and apply this method, the more you will fall in love with coffee (or whatever it is you are tasting). This method will not only make you an expert taster, but it also will enable you to appreciate the finer things in life. All you must do is smell, sip, savour and describe.

Chef Braam Botha