How to describe what coffee tastes like
The phenomenon of tasting notes is a funny one. We use them at jute, of course: you’ll find brief notes on our bags and more in-depth ones on our site’s product pages. But really they’re an odd thing, because while they come across as self-assuredly exact and concise, in reality their chances of resonating 100% with the person buying and then drinking the coffee can be pretty low. Why is it unlikely that many drinkers will experience a coffee in all the ways the tasting notes suggest?
Well, because while we try our best when writing our own tasting notes to dance that fine line between specificity – otherwise, what’s the point? – and a broadness that accounts for individual palates (e.g. ‘chocolate’ not ‘milk chocolate’ or ‘bitter cocoa’), there are so many variables that we can’t account for: the quality and temperature of the water used to brew the coffee, the method used (e.g. cafétiere or V60, etc) and, of course, the way the person tasting the coffee perceives and then describes flavour.
So to help you find the words to differentiate one coffee from another, we thought we’d give a few pointers on how to describe what’s happening in your mouth when you take a sip. Top tip: don’t take it too seriously!
Don’t edit yourself.
When you taste, allow yourself to just say (or think) the words that try to come into your head. A stream of semi-descriptive gobbledygook is fine: at this stage it’s about getting used to crystallising those fleeting sensations in words. You might also hit on a point of reference that’s likely only to be meaningful to yourself – that microwaved Mars Bar sauce, all treacly and nougat-y, that you used to make to put on ice-cream when you were a kid, say. That’s also fine.
Make yourself two very different coffees.
Appreciating just how different one coffee can be from another gives you a feel for the size of the coffee flavour universe. And the most impactful way of doing that is in the moment (rather than comparing today’s coffee to a fading memory of one from last month). So brew up, say, a natural Ethiopian and a washed Honduran or semi-washed Indonesian and compare sips. The reason that washed coffee is often described as ‘bright’ and natural coffee as ‘earthy’ will become much more apparent when they’re experienced side by side. Now when you have a new-to-you cup at a café, you can plot it on your mental map.
Remember your AAABF.
Try to keep the following five categories in mind when you taste a coffee: aroma, acidity, aftertaste, body and flavour. Rather than feeling you have to come up with poetic, nuanced descriptions for each of the categories, a good way to start out is simply to ‘rank’ them against each other for any given coffee. So you might have something like ‘The aroma really lingered and seemed to merge with the flavour’ or ‘I didn’t get much of an aftertaste but there was a really obvious body to this one’. (If you’re not sure what is meant by ‘body’, try thinking of it – if you can bear to – as ‘mouthfeel’.)
What you notice most often when tasting might well be an indication of what you look for in a coffee. For instance, if you find yourself picking out acidity, that could well be because it’s the cleaner, brighter coffees that speak to you.
Try different brew methods and temperatures.
We’re really getting into geeky territory now, but you might brew your new bag of single-origin jute using different apparatus. Using a cafétiere retains more of the coffee’s oils, for instance, so you’re likely to detect more body and less acidity than if you were using a V60. Something else to bear in mind is that a cup of just-brewed coffee left for a minute or two can be like an unfolding flower bud, in terms of the release of aromas. (In fact, some people think that if a coffee doesn’t taste good cold, it’s not a good coffee.)