Palate Recognition: Quick Guide to Tasting Coffee/Understanding Coffee

Monday January 8, 2018

When looking at the universe of coffee it is really easy to get caught up in tasting notes, varietals, processes, brew methods, and all the other stuff that we in the industry study and look at.  For anybody who is looking to truly sit down and understand some of the things that we look at, then there are a few basic things that I learned that I believe are important to lay down a good foundation.  Palate recognition is what I believe to be the most important component to understanding coffee, because everybody tastes things differently and some people are more prone to tasting certain things over others.  We can taste sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami (something more on the savory side).  Understanding where your taste buds line up is for you and you only to truly understand.  For example: I am very aware of the fact that I love rich and fatty things and sweet and tart foods, like nectarines....oh my god, I love nectarines.  I am naturally drawn to coffees that give off a very particular tart like quality and coffees that have a rich and lushous body.  I love Kenyan coffee for the reason of having a very jammy-like quality (similar to a berry preserve).  I also loved this super sweet and luscious Colombian coffee from Verve Coffee that Alan Flanders (thanks again, my guy) let me try one day and I can still recall this brown sugary, buttery like quality that was seriously one of the best coffees I have had.  

If I was only in coffee for a short amount of time at the time when I tried these specific coffees I may have not appreciated what they had to offer, but because I knew exactly what a "jammy" coffee tastes like or what a full bodied coffee with a good balance to it I could recognize these flavors.  Through practice I have been able to understand what I like and just as easy, what I don't necessarily care for.  My palate will naturally be drawn very quickly to these sweet, jammy, and rich coffees.  I practice understanding what coffees taste like and within that I have been able to not so much pinpoint what a specific tasting note actually taste like, but I have practiced differentiating what these tasting notes are like.  This is what I call Palate Recognition. It can become pretty convoluted when you look at a bag of coffee and see nothing but tasting notes and all of this information so here is what to do to strengthen your palate.  

1. Tasting Notes are not everything:  When you buy a bag of coffee and it is described as tasting like spice cake, cola, cherry, and all of these other tasting notes, don't focus on those.  Know how to make that coffee and let it sit for a minute before trying it- coffee that is closer to room temperature is easier to taste, cause it won't burn your tongue and the acidity and sugars in the coffee have had a chance to cool.  Once you try the coffee, look to see whether or not the coffee  is sour, sweet, bitter, and begin to understand these types of sensations you'll pick up. Those types of sensations will allow you to understand beyond the "cola" or whatever the bag tells you.  If the coffee is sweet, then try to think about something you recognize as being sweet like a fruit, chocolate, or something in that nature.  You will be able to figure out what you're tasting if you separate your mind from the actual tasting notes and focus more on what you recognize or what seems familiar to you.

2. Your Nose Knows: Do not underestimate the power of your beak.  You nose will tell you things before you even try the coffee.  For me in particular I can smell a natural coffee (which tend to be syrupy, sweet, and very fruity due to the natural process) and immediately I get this remerging recognition of sweet/cherry/berry.  Once I taste it, my mind is predisposed to knowing what the coffee will be similar to.  Even when you taste coffee some of it makes its way back into your nostrils which is called retro nasal olfaction, a fancy phrase for saying that when you eat stuff small particles enter the back of your nose from your mouth.  That is why when you have a cold you can't really taste much, because your nose is a primary catalyst for tasting things.  So put that thing to work!  

3. Write Down Your Thoughts/Interpretation and InfoWhenever I am trying any coffee, I always keep a small notepad or I have my phone to record what exactly the coffee varietal is, who roasted it, the region, farm, how I prepare it, and any other information I can get on it.  I will usually write down my own interpretation of what the coffee tastes like, what the coffee reminds me of, whether I enjoyed it, and what the beginning/middle/end all tasted like.  Be honest with yourself and talk about what it reminds you of or what you think it tastes like and maybe when you look back someday with another coffee you may notice some similarities and start piecing that puzzle in your brain together.  Like maybe those two coffees are from a similar region/farm/etc.  I associate memory in my sense of smell all the time, have you ever gone anywhere and smelled perfume, or food, or anything and instantly your brain takes you back to a nostalgic place? Your sense of smell is super powerful, use it!

4. Understand the Difference Between Tasting Notes/ Body/ Intensifiers: Tasting notes are aromatic compounds in coffee that are actually very similar structurally to things you can actually compare the coffee to like an orange, baker's chocolate, strawberry.  Tasting notes mainly stem from fruit, herbs, spices, chocolate etc. according to the Counter Culture Coffee's Taster Flavor Wheel, which is what I use myself and many people in specialty coffee use.  Body is the physical impression that the coffee gives off in your mouth which can vary from light to heavy.  These can be anything from crisp and light all the way to chewy and velvety. Mouthfeel is also important in understanding the body of a coffee, and helps people understand what the difference would be between something watery and something creamy.  Finally, intensifiers are like the adjectives for a coffee, and these can range from bright and vibrant to dull and dry.  Intensifiers in my opinion are how the coffee makes your palate react, whether your mouth waters or becomes parched (Counter Culture Coffee). For example today, in tasting a coffee from Vertigo Coffee I noticed that once I was done, my mouth felt slightly parched and dry afterward give me the impression that the coffee was dry. 

5.  Honestly you just gotta practice! The only way you will ever know what these tasting notes, body or intensifiers are really like is through practice and truly developing your palate.  Starting out with some knowledge helps- once you understand your own palate you can delve deeper into what you like, don't like, and have the ability to understand how your palate reacts to certain coffees.  Try lots of different coffees and get your hands on a little bit of everything to familiarize yourself with all coffees from different regions.  Go to public cuppings or your nearest roaster and see if you can get in on a cupping.  Brew coffee at home, but also don't forget to enjoy it all.  Drinking coffee should be a pleasant and peaceful experience, so don't get caught up in all the fluff and just enjoy what you're drinking. 

Thanks ya'll!

Don't forget to download that flavor wheel!