How to Taste Coffee

Posted on January 15, 2011

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Earlier this week, while Nathan and Philip and I were brainstorming and hoping that little red roaster wouldn’t get hurt in the bed of the truck, I mentioned the idea of printing out little postcard-sized handouts with helpful hints on how to taste coffee.  At the time, we were thinking of ways to set ourselves apart as a coffee shop, ways to help customers experience what we have for them.

Of course, hermitudinous.com being what it is, I sincerely doubt that there are oodles of Quills Coffee customers who read it on a regular basis… or even an irregular basis, for that matter.  I’m presuming here, but I think that most of the readership is comprised of a smattering of friends, a good handful of fellow coffee professionals, and a random selection of folks I’ve never met.  Thus, I think a post with some basic, practical tips on how to taste experience coffee is in order.

Here they are, in no particular order:

  • Chew.  Get that coffee in your mouth, close your mouth, and chew with your molars.  This sounds a little weird, and maybe even potentially embarrassing for those who fear looking like a lip-smacking infant, but trust me, chew.  What the chewing action does is spread the coffee all over your palate, and that’s a very, very important thing.
  • Breathe out.  While chewing with your mouth closed, breathe out through your nose.  There are a couple of tiny receptors somewhere in your throat between the back of your mouth and nose, and what this breathing out does is it forces those coffee aromas over those receptors.  If you do this correctly, you’ll be getting your retro-nasal on.
  • Wait.  Yes, wait.  What does waiting do?  It lets a coffee cool to a temperature much better suited to displaying all of its wonderful charms.  I know that many of you want your coffee hot, even scalding.  I heard one old sage inform me that coffee never loses its flavor, so long as it’s reheated.  He’s absolutely wrong, of course, but… well… only kind of.  Wait, what?  You see, if coffee is going to “open up” and give off more of its inherent flavor the most at, say, 140° F, it stands to reason that horrible coffee tastes better if it’s much, much hotter, as the extra heat serves to mask the horrors.  Conversely, delicious coffee is going to change and evolve throughout the entire temperature spectrum — but it will do so deliciously, no masking required.  So yes, wait.  The coffee will reward your patience.
  • Don’t be intimidated.  Sometimes, in an effort to make coffees sound better, we coffee professionals reference flavors and aromas and experiences that, quite frankly, we have no business using.  I cannot honestly recall ever tasting a hazelnut, but I have tasted many, many  lychees, and a few times, I was surprised by some star anise my dad put in a roast.  I point these out because the anise is the only one I can undoubtedly say I’ve tasted in a coffee, even though I’ve used all three as flavor descriptors.  See what I’m getting at?  Even if no one else will ever admit it, I’m saying it here:  I make up descriptors even though I try not to, and you shouldn’t take my word for it.  Taste the coffee for yourself.  Take your time.  Trust your senses.
  • Your mouth has taste buds all over it.  Tongue?  Yes.  Cheeks?  Yup.  Roof of the mouth?  Aye.  By the same token, different parts of your mouth may — or may not, depending upon whom you’re taking advice from — have greater or lesser sensitivities to different types of flavors, i.e., sweet, sour, bitter, salty, etc.  Pay attention to all of these.  This goes right along with that bit about chewing.
  • Drink it black, but only if you can.  Feel absolutely no pressure to muscle down a cup of coffee if it’s so nasty and bitter that you fear it’ll cause hairs to sprout not just from your chest, but your back, too.  I mean, if it’s gross, it’s gross… kill the gross with cream and sugar.  On the other hand, if you normally take your coffee with cream and sugar, try it black — you might be pleasantly surprised.
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Posted in: Coffee