Our quick guide to opening up your coffee palate, and really learning how to appreciate a great cup.
If you head over to any half decent cafe and order up a fancy espresso drink, you'll end up spending roughly $50/pound for the actual amount coffee that's used. In our minds, if you're going to pony up big for great coffee, at least on a per-pound basis, make sure that spend is ALL about getting the best beans possible.
Over the past few years, we've featured a few coffees that are truly stand out, including a super rare Panama Gesha, a $100/pound coffee of which we literally purchased a full 25% of the world supply! In fact, one of my fondest memories from our first year in business was finding myself running through downtown Seattle, having just picked up 25 pounds of a similar(ly costly) roast, trying to avoid a parking ticket; about a block in, I quickly did the math and realized that I was running with three bags of coffee worth over $1500, and I could so easily see myself tripping and spilling all of it on the sidewalk. So, yes, I immediately slowed to an anxious walk!
We're often asked by customers how they should think about enjoying super rare, exotic, expensive or otherwise standout coffees, and answer is pretty simple: use the same approach for tasting any coffee you care about. Here's a quick primer on how to open up your taste buds, expand your palate, and start to really appreciate the delights of tasting fresh coffee.
1. Brew Method Likely Doesn't Matter
For professionals, coffee tasting is a well-specified technical procedure called a cupping. We avoid this, and so should you, unless you're planning on becoming a coffee bean grader or coffee roaster. Not only is it a ton of overhead, but it can be overwhelming to taste so much of the raw flavor of the beans (the advantage of the cupping method). Worse, it's just not a great way to enjoy your coffee!
If you're a purist, do a pour over. We almost always brew this way in the Beanery, and it can be an inexpensive, low-tech, simple way to bring out the best flavors in a coffee. If you're new to pourovers, check out our step-by-step guide to making pour over coffee.
Or, if you're really wed to some other method like an aeropress or french press, stick to that method. We always say that the brew method is secondary when you consider the real impact of a) clean water, b) fresh beans, and c) a consistent grind on a great cup of coffee.
2. Involve Your Nose
Taste isn't just about your tongue. The perception of flavor is the result of our body's chemosensation system, in which olfactory and gustatory (smell and taste) inputs converge. You'll automatically engage your sense of smell when you drink, but we recommend speficially pausing to "smell the roses" at a few specific moments:
Smell the whole beans
Smell again post grind
If you're doing a pour over, inhale the bloom (first wetting of the grounds)
Prior to your first sip, tilt your cup over the bridge of your nose and inhale
All of these will smell slightly differently, but they'll warm up your brain to get a much fuller set of sensations from the coffee.
3. Evaluate Your Sips
There are a few agreed-upon ways to look for what's going on in your cup of coffee. Although there are roughly double the number of taste-influencing compounds in coffee as in wine, identifying flavor doesn't require any kind of special license! Just look for the following:
Sweetness. Can you perceive specific kinds of sweet tastes, such as brown sugar, molasses, honey, or caramel?
Acidity. Also known as "brightness", look for tasts like citrus, blueberry, lemon, strawberry, or even flavors like watermelon and tomato. Note that acidity isn't the same as acidic, which is a measure of pH, and not a question of taste.
Body. While brew method often bears on the weight of a coffee in your mouth, different beans and roast profiles definitely feel differently in the mouth. Does the coffee feel rich and heavy, light, watery, smooth?
Cleanliness. A really under-appreciated aspect of taste is what happens after you swallow. Harsh coffees can linger, often with a singular flavor (which can be acidic, bitter, smokey, etc.), while cleaner coffees leave your palate feeling neutral. The latter is a prized aspect of great coffee, and can often be directly influenced by the roasting method.
In the end, taste is highly personal, but by starting to think about what you're drinking, it should help you get a better feel for quality, and point you in the right direction for what you love. Remember that this can change over time! I used to go crazy for fruit-forward Ethiopian and Kenyan roasts, but have since become a sucker for any medium roast with caramel notes.
4. The Signature of a Great Cup
When we evaluate the quality of a roast, there are a few things we look for, especially in coffees that are rare, exotic, or just plan costly.
Is there a complex layering of flavor? Are there taste notes that play well with one another in harmony? Think about the complementary interplay between baker's chocolate and caramel, versus an earthy background with odd hints of citrus, as two counter examples.
What's the timing of the tastes? In my experience, great coffees often have a sequence of two or three sets of flavors. A one note coffee can be tasty, but truly great coffees, like great stories, will often have a compelling beginning, middle and end.
For me personally, the single greatest marker of a great coffee is what happens to the flavor over time, as temperature changes. Great coffees invariably get more and more interesting--and tasty--as they cool. If you lose a few degrees and start to taste bitter, you're not in a good place. In fact, people often shy away from cold coffee for two reasons, both appropriate for drinking stale or bad coffee: when a drink is super hot, our palate literally can't taste as much (this hides defects like tar, bitter, or sour tastes), and as it cools, the flavors get ever less appealing.
All of this has got me excited to exercise my own palate, so I'm off to sample a bit of Gesha (a super rare, prized bean varietal) we just got in. Happy tasting!