Tasting, Scoring and Identifying Flavours in Coffee

As a coffee enthusiast I tend to judge every single cup I drink. Not in a pretentious kind of way. I genuinely just have an interest in what the coffee has to offer. For example, I prefer lightly roasted over darkly roasted coffee. If you are unfamiliar with the difference between the two, a quick analogy is if you prefer steak rare, medium or well done. However just because I prefer lightly roasted coffee, it doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy the occasional dark roast. It’s like if you prefer steak medium to rare and order a well done steak; you can’t walk out and complain the steak wasn’t nice because it was well done. You would have to try and judge the quality for what it was. So when I buy a dark roasted coffee, whether it’s from lack of choice or maybe I’m just in the mood for one at that time. I judge it for what it is. In this blog I will talk about how to prepare a coffee cupping, which is how coffee professionals usually taste and score coffee. I will also talk about how to start identifying flavours in the cup.

The universal way of tasting/sampling coffee is called cupping. Cupping is a very accessible way of tasting a lot of coffee in a short period of time. So to do this you need coffee, a kettle, weighing scales, water, some glasses/cups, a timer, a cupping spoon (soup type spoon) and a grinder (unless you buy the coffee ground). Firstly, you weigh out 10g of medium ground coffee in each glass. Boil your kettle. You then start the timer and pour 150 mL of boiling water into each glass. After a minute or so, a layer of coffee grounds also known as the crust settle at the top of the glass. After 4 minutes you are ready to “break the crust”. To do this you take your spoon, put it about 2 cm into the side of the glass that is closest to you. Slowly push back (away from you) the coffee bed using the underside of the spoon. As seen in the picture below.


While you do this you want to get your nose close to the glass and smell the coffee. The aromas will be the first impression you get. After you break the crust of each coffee, you need to remove it. Take a second spoon and just scoop out the foam type liquid from the top. Try not to disturb the coffee or take too much out. Now, leave the coffee for 10 minutes, leaving enough time it to cool. Then, we taste: dip your spoon in, take a little sample and slurp it up. The goal here is to slurp and make a loud noise. The reason you are told to do this is because if you are slurping you are aerating the coffee. This means it is being sufficiently spread across your palate and also this allows the nasal taste receptors to help out. The information is then sent to the brain where it works its magic. After you slurp the coffee you can then choose to spit or swallow. Most people spit as they don’t want to be high on caffeine. You want to do a few rounds of tasting the coffee because coffee flavour changes as it cools. Sometimes the change in flavour can be subtle, other times there can be an overwhelming difference. This is primarily because of our ability to taste being temperature dependent. In cupping it’s also due to the coffee is still extracting (if unfamiliar with this term see previous blog). Of course this isn’t the only way to taste coffee. But I feel it’s the best way to score it. Working in a coffee roastery, we also have to score coffees as we cup them. We cup and score coffees for a few reasons. When we are deciding what coffee we want to get in to roast, we will cup and pick our favourite. Another reason is for quality control. We cup every roast to ensure we a getting the desired and consistent results.

A basic score sheet in cupping may have the following headings: sweetness, acidity, body and how well balanced the cup is. If you are starting to taste coffee and want to start judging it, these headings would be a great place to do it. After you taste a lot of coffee, you will notice you can easily identify a sweet or/and acidic coffee. After you become more confident in your pallet, you can move onto identifying specific flavours in the cup, such as blackcurrant (which is a massive characteristic of Kenyan coffees). Below is the official score sheet of the Speciality Coffee Association of America (SCAA) which is similar to what I would use.


So the beginners guide to identifying flavours. Practice, practice and more practice. Same as almost everything in life. Another tip I can give you is that when you are eating: actually taste. Don’t just eat your food. Stop and appreciate the flavour. Try and remember the flavour, because that’s all identifying flavours in coffee is. Trying to remember back to where you’ve tasted this particular flavour before. So next time you sit down and have a bit of blackcurrant jam or some caramel, put it into the memory. If you don’t know what things taste like: how do you expect to identify them? A fun game to play is blind tasting. Get a friend/partner to feed you some food with your eyes closed and try guess what it is. It is deceptively hard! This is a challenge on Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen. Trained chefs do well to get 2 out of 3 correct!

In summary, if you would like to start trying to identify coffee flavours, I would recommend to start remembering flavours of food. In my opinion the best tip I can give is this; after you taste a coffee, try to narrow down the flavours by asking yourself questions. Try get yourself from the starting categories like acidity, sweetness or bitterness to a specific flavour by asking questions such as “is this coffee nutty?” and if yes then try decipher which nut. If no, maybe move onto “is this coffee fruity?” and if so which type of fruit; is it citrus or berry like? This may sound very simple and basic but it works a treat. Finally I find it helps when I’m tasting coffee is having a flavour wheel open in front of me. Like the one from the SCAA shown below. It helps me identify a flavour I may have in my head but have been struggling to put my finger on exactly what it is.


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