With so many different varieties and subtle nuances, coffee tasting is a lot like wine tasting. Some of the attributes and terminology can seem unfamiliar at first, but it’s an experience worth savoring for tasters of all levels. Your tasting skills can also be enhanced with a little guidance, some context around flavor characteristics, and regular practice. This overview is a great way to start, but join us for a free tasting event offered at your local Peet's to learn more if you're serious about honing your palate.
Taste in Steps
Before you ever take a sip, breathe in the coffee's aroma. Start by smelling the fresh grounds, and then compare that fragrance to the bouquet of the brew. Beyond the unmistakable smell of coffee, you’ll probably notice other recognizable scents — wood, berries, earth, spices. Keep an open mind about what these smells evoke for you.
Now take a long, slow taste. Let the coffee envelop your entire tongue and all its taste buds. Slurp freely. Don't worry about the sound; that means you're doing it right. Try tasting several different coffees in the same session, making sure to prepare each sample the same way. The more you taste, the more sophisticated your palate will become.
Understand the Landscape
Although every coffee has its own unique flavors and qualities, there are a few fundamental concepts and known regional profiles it's helpful to be familiar with when starting out. The common traits compose a good framework to keep in mind while tasting.
Basic Coffee Characteristics:
The tastes and aromas of coffee are as varied as those of wine. These subtleties you pick up in its fragrance and on your tongue — chocolate, fruit, flowers, nuts, soil, spice — are the heart and soul of the experience.
A coffee's body is the way it feels in your mouth. The best way to evaluate body is to take a small sip and let it rest on your tongue to get an impression of its weight and texture.
It sounds unappealing, but acidity is actually a desirable quality in coffee. Unrelated to pH levels, palate acidity indicates the liveliness or brightness of flavor. Without it, coffee tastes flat and dull.
Regional Flavor Profiles:
The Americas grow coffees known for their clean mouthfeel and slightly sweet, lively acidity. In some, the acidity sparkles clearly above all else; in others, it provides a subtle but crisp accent.
Africa & Arabia produce coffees that exhibit a wide range of flavors, from mellow and wine-like to zesty with citrus notes. They often have a sweetness reminiscent of fresh fruit, which is sometimes balanced by a tart acidity.
Indo-Pacific coffees tend to taste more rustic and earthy. They're generally rich and full-bodied, with nutty, smoky, or herbal flavors. Most varieties from this region are smooth in acidity with a slightly dry finish.
Talk the Talk
Coffee buyers and tasters commonly use these terms to describe what their palates pick up. But the world of coffee is full of complex flavors — go with what your taste buds tell you.
A distinctive, pleasantly "old" or "cellared" aroma common to aged coffees; also referred to as musty.
A sweet berry or citrus flavor.
A prominent aspect of very dark-roasted coffee, some bitterness adds to the fullness of coffee's flavor but can also be unpleasant if too pronounced — especially from over-extraction. It's one of the four basic tastes, detected on the back of the tongue.
Full-bodied with an oily and rich mouthfeel.
A sweet, syrupy note reminiscent of sugar cooked until it's browned but not burned.
An aromatic roasted or burnt taste that's found in very dark-roasted coffees.
A bittersweet flavor reminiscent of unsweetened chocolate or cocoa powder.
Coffee with a clear and refined texture in the mouth; the opposite of dry.
A taste or aroma with many components, as opposed to a single dominant aspect.
Coffee with a parching or drying finish; also called astringent.
An aromatic quality of fresh soil or wet earth.
A coffee with exceptionally impressive acidity, body, or flavor attributes.
Coffee that's lifeless and completely lacking in acidity.
A perfume-like aroma or taste that’s reminiscent of flowers.
A prominent sweetness that calls to mind berries, citrus, or other fruits.
An indicator of strong character that can apply to acidity, body, or the range of a coffee's flavors.
An aroma similar to the smell of grass, dried herbs, or fresh foliage.
Coffee with high palate acidity and bright, clean flavors.
Rounded and balanced, sometimes with acidity or sweetness, but always without pungent or dry flavors.
Reminiscent of freshly roasted peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, etc.
A strong and penetrating effect on the palate.
Coffee with depth and complexity of flavor, a full body, and an overall satisfying taste.
The bittersweet smoky or carbony flavor created by dark-roasting coffee. It's sometimes defined as the taste of the roast method, rather than an inherent quality of the bean.
An unpleasantly bitter or acrid taste caused by brewing coffee with boiling water.
A naturally occurring aroma of wood smoke; synonymous with roasty.
Coffee that is low in palate acidity.
Well-rounded, mellow flavor that's lacking any harshness or acidity.
An aroma suggesting spices such as cinnamon or allspice; also, a slightly "hot" sensation in the finish.
The ratio of ground coffee to water.
Coffee that's mild, with fruity caramelly, or chocolaty flavors.
A sweet, rich, and viscous mouthfeel.
A savory combination of sweetness and sour acidity.
Pleasantly pungent and sour.
A coffee with flavors that vary from cup to cup, or one with oddly gamey, tangy nuances.