Tasting, Palate Development, and ways to compare coffee
As coffee professionals, we tend to have more developed palates — therefore different preference in flavor profile. As a coffee consumer, you might not have the same access to drinking single origin coffees side by side. Something a barista might prefer could seem sour and not reminiscent of the full bodied cup you are looking for. To bring some context to what a coffee professional defines as a flavor profile, it is important to break down the barrier of words.
Typically, flavor components are broken down in to three to six separate categories. To cover these categories in a broad sense, we tend to talk mainly about acidity, sweetness, and mouthfeel. The combination of these flavor components can create many different profiles and experiences. Unifying these components in balance is what typically defines a “good” coffee to a wide variety of tasters.
Acidity is defined as "an effervescence that occurs, typically, on the front of the tongue to the sides of the tongue". Acidity is often times the first aspect in coffee that we perceive. Like natural growing fruit, coffee articulates acidity in different ways depending on climate, elevation, and varietal.
Acetic — (vinegar) A sharp, astringent ( a chemical compound that tends to shrink or constrict body tissues i.e. imagine your taste buds contracting) form of acidity that often times signifies a defect in a coffee. However, mild acetic acidity might balance a heavily bodied coffee.
Citric — (lemon, orange) Well rounded but often times described as sour. Citric acidity can range from sharp notes to more bitter, pithy notes. Floral acidity can also fall under this category.
Lactic — (sour dough, yogurt) Not typically used to describe a flavor profile, but completely valid.
Malic — (apple, pear, rhubarb) Sharpness and bitterness tend to balance here. Malic acidity tends to pair well with sweetness. It can often times be described as a “sparkling” acidity (think apple cider)
Tartaric — (wine, bananas) Tartaric acidity is also associated with bitterness or dryness. Tannins (particulate that exists in coffee. Extracted in the range above 22%) can create a wine-like acidity and bitterness.
Chemical, not just flavor (from Sweet Maria’s) —
Quinic Acid— These are the bad guys, and these are indeed responsible for the sour stomach. Quinic acids increase in production the more and more the coffee degrades. Dark roasted coffees are hight in this while low in other flavor contributing acids, and also stale coffees, either coffees that were roasted a good while ago or that were brewed a long time ago (especially if left on a hot plate).
Chlorogenic Acid — Responsible for a good deal of percieved acidity in the cup. For a long time it was simply said that roast level was responsible for the breaking down of some of these acids, but more accurately it is exposure time to the heat during the roasting. Prolonged exposure time can result in a reduced perception of acidity even if the final roast level is fairly light.
Roasting and brewing are processes that aim to caramelize and break down sugars. Sweetness is a direct reflection of this process. Arguable, most coffees should have perceivable sweetness (it does come from a fruit) even when savory flavor attributes may be more prominent. Consider the type of sweetness when tasting in comparison to the coffees acidity. (i.e. under ripe plum, ripe plum, over ripe plum, or plum jam?).
Oil and sediment content help to create mouthfeel. This sensation is literally how the liquid itself sits on your tongue and in your mouth. Descriptors like viscous, thin, buttery, and round communicate tactile sensation in a way that can easily be tied back to acidity and sweetness.
Balance is an attribute that most high quality coffee should exhibit (as long as the roasting and brewing process are completed correctly) The unison of these tasting characteristics will ultimately help the taster determine his or her preferences and to understand how origin, varietal, and washing processes impact the final product that we serve.
Ways to Taste
Although many consumers and coffee professionals like to focus on the mystery and interaction that goes along with cupping coffee, there are actually better ways to taste and compare coffees side by side. Cupping is a necessary practice that allows growers and green buyers to distinguish good from bad, excellent from great. Tasting a large number of coffees (which may be intentionally similar or different) is much easier and calculated with a cupping. Tasters know that the coffee should brew at the same rate, over the same time, with the same amount of water, at the same temperature. Consistency in the brew is vital, especially when comparing coffees that might simply be from different lots on the same farm.
Tasting coffee in a cupping at a farm or with an importer is a fantastic way to predict a coffees potential. Flavor notes and tasting components are absolutely present during a cupping, however, tasting coffees side by side that have been intentionally roasted and carefully brewed can be an experience that allows the taster to notice distinct differences in origin, process and even varietal. Brewing different coffee on the same device or the same coffee on two different devices (try Wahana Rasuna on Chemex and Clever!) brings perspective to the complexity and potential of the coffees in comparison.
Reference the top resources to see what a palate development as an exercise can look like!