Education: Tasting Coffee
WHEN THINKING ABOUT THE FLAVOR OF COFFEE, THE FOLLOWING CATEGORIES MAY HELP YOU ANALYZE FLAVOR NOTES: TASTE, AROMA, FRAGRANCE, BODY AND AFTERTASTE.
In general, coffee professionals use these categories (and a few more) to judge and evaluate coffee, but they also use a method of tasting called "cupping". Cupping is a deliberate, specific, analytical way to evaluate coffee for quality control and analyzing flavor profiles. Cuppers typically use the SCAA Cupping Form, Protocol and the Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel, but there are variations. You can choose to use the cupping method to taste your coffee, but it requires a bit of time and equipment. If you just want to evaluate your brewed coffee, simply use the following flavor categories while referencing the flavor wheels for help.
The SCAA's Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel
This flavor wheel was updated in 2016 in collaboration with World Coffee Research (WCR) and the work of dozens of professional sensory panelists, scientists, coffee buyers, and roasting companies collaborating via WCR and SCAA.
Older version of the flavor wheel
Originally published in 1995, the Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel—one of the most iconic resources in the coffee industry—has been the industry standard for over two decades. Helps visualize the difference between aromas (nose/retro nasal) and tastes (tongue) as well as the progression of the aromas in a roasted coffee from enzymatic to dry distillation.
The definition of Flavor: The combined sense of taste, aroma, fragrance, body, and aftertaste—the whole experience.
Refers only to that which is perceived by the tongue (Bitter, Sour, Salty, Sweet). Pay attention to where on your tongue you are sensing the taste to help you determine what it is you're tasting (i.e. if it is hitting the back, front, sides of your tongue).
Bitter: harsh or pungent, alkaline, caustic, phenolic or creosol
Salt: bland or sharp, soft, neutral, rough or astringent
Sweet: acidy or mellow, piquant, nippy, milk or delicate
Sour: winey or soury, acrid, hard, tart, or tangy
Umami—a new one that refers to savory
2. AROMA & FRAGRANCE:
Aromas and fragrances are perceived by your nose and retro nasal passages otherwise known as your olfactory system. Aroma refers to the smell of wet coffee or brewed coffee. Fragrances refers specifically to the smell of fresh ground coffee before brewing (dry coffee grounds).
Common coffee fragrances/aromas: Jasmine, Blackberry, Wintergreen, Cardamom, Caraway, Basil, Anise, Lemon, Tangerine, Raspberry, Onion, Garlic, Cabbage, Alfalfa, Peanut, Almond, Corn, Barley, Toffee, Praline, Honey, Molasses, Dutch Chocolate, Bakers Chocolate, Swiss, Vanilla, Custardy, Vanilla, Piney, Balsamic, Nutmeg, Pepper, Clove, Thyme, Tobaccoy, Burnt, Charred
Acidity in coffee is a result of the many organic acids (like citric acid in lemon), giving it fruit and floral flavors. Acidity in coffee is often misunderstood, because it does not necessarily refer to pH level and it is commonly confused with bitterness. Fresh, high quality coffees should have pleasant acidity, giving the coffee sweetness and brightness. Usually the acidity is best evaluated once the coffee has cooled slightly to a warm/lukewarm temperature. Determining what kind of acidity you are tasting can help diagnose brewing and storage temperature problems.
Common Terms: Delicate, Vibrant, Mild, Nippy, Hard, Piquant, Acrid, Sweet, Soft, Tangy, Sour, Tart, Berry, Lemon, Winey, Bright, Snappy, Flat, Dull, Mellow, Bland, Rough, Round, Bitter, Harsh
***NOTE: Referring to coffee as “acidic” is not a useful descriptive term, because when something is acidic it is usually referring to the pH level.
Described as the weight, heaviness and texture in the mouth. Think non-fat vs. half and half to compare heaviness or sandy vs smooth to compare texture.
Common Terms: Buttery, Dry, Creamy, Chalky, Rich, Velvety, Astringent, Watery, Metallic, Oily
The taste left in your mouth after the coffee has been swallowed. Ideal finish is clean, sweet, and refreshing that lingers without becoming undesirable.