Notes of citrus. Chocolate undertones. Floral hints. If the language of coffee flavour profiles sometimes leaves you a bit cold – or makes you interested in learning more – then fear not. You don’t have to be a fully trained Q Grader to get to grips with coffee ‘cupping’. All you need is couple of cups, a spoon and a decent slurping technique. Here’s our easy guide to how to taste coffee.
What you’ll need
- Some cups or small bowls that hold around 250ml
- A kettle
- A soup spoon
- Some different coffees to taste
- A coffee grinder – if you’re using beans
- If you’re using beans, grind the coffee to a medium grind – go very slightly finer than cafetière grind, about the consistency of caster sugar(?)
- Add the same amount of ground coffee to each cup or bowl – between 14g and 17g.
- Fill the kettle with freshly drawn water, then boil it and wait a minute or so to let the water drop to between 92 and 96C.
- Pour 250ml of freshly boiled water into each cup or bowl.
- Wait four minutes, after which a lovely coffee crust will have formed on top.
Breaking the crust
- This is the first part of tasting. Get your face close to the cup and break the crust with the spoon. You’ll be able to pick up some aromas at this point, so have a good sniff and give them a bit of attention.
- Skim off any left over coffee and crust from the surface with a spoon (leaving any that sinks to the bottom of the cup).
- VERY IMPORTANT – wait for it to cool so you don’t burn your tongue.
- To taste coffee you need to slurp it up with a big, audible sound – trying to take in a powerful little rush of air at the same time as the coffee. This is really important, because the force of the slurp sprays the coffee all over your tongue and that air helps the receptors in your nose to pick up some of the flavours too. It will seem decidedly weird – and possibly embarrassing – the first time you try it, but you’ll get the hang of it over time.
- Now try the next coffee. And move between them to try and spot the differences.
What to look for
- The flavour itself – it can be hard to pin down the flavour of a single coffee, but comparing more than one can help you spot which one is sweeter, or more fruity, or more acidic, or tastes more roasted. You might be able to find flavour notes in there, like chocolate, berries or nuts. If it’s easy to pick descriptors for the coffee you are tasting, then it’s a good coffee. Are the smells interesting? If so, that’s also a good sign.
- The aftertaste – what lingers on after the first hit of flavour.
- Acidity – a good coffee should taste clean rather than sour.
- Balance – do the flavours work together or is one standing out too much?
- Body – does one of the coffees have more body than another? Think of this one in terms of milk: skimmed milk has a light body, whole milk has a full body.
So there you have it! Give it a go if it sounds like fun – and perhaps if you really take to it, you might find a path as a professional coffee taster. It takes about two years of constant tasting and development (and some very intensive exams) to become a Q Grader, but wherever you end up, it all starts with cupping.