The coffee experience in cafes and at home has evolved exponentially throughout the past few years. Café owners and home baristas are looking for refreshing ways to brew, present and articulate the coffee experience. What once was a purely wine drinkers’ obsession, we are seeing more people articulating their coffees in terms of flavour profiles, texture, body, mouthfeel and acidity. Being able to assess these qualities accurately and confidently is now a pre-requisite for any specialty barista. Without formal training, the process of becoming a good “coffee taster” can take many years.
Identifying the ‘taste of the cup’ enables baristas to fine tune their offerings and gives floor staff the vocabulary to describe their coffee menu in a way that engages the customer and drive sales.
But first, what exactly is taste?
Our sense of taste is mainly a function of the taste buds in the mouth. It’s a common experience that one’s sense of smell also contributes strongly to taste perception. The texture of food or beverages and the presence of substances in the food that stimulate pain endings, such as acid, also alter the taste experience.
Taste can be broken down into 5 components
All of these components can be easily identified in particular food and beverages. When we speak about sweetness we often think of lollies, tropical fruits, or juice. Potato chips and halloumi are often described as salty, whereas lemons are classically defined as sour. Bitterness is often seen negatively though it is pleasant in olives, cocoa and beer. Lastly, umami is often difficult to describe though we all have tasted it in foods such as Miso, Parmesan and dry aged beef.
Physiologically, these components are related to each other. The flavours of various foods are essentially a combination of these taste components and smell. We can alter our perception of a particular food’s taste profile. For example, altering the temperature of the food, changing the serving vessel or even experiencing the food in a different environment will change the taste profile.
What causes these taste profiles?
Sour: We can all relate back to a food or beverage that has identified as sour: lemons are classically known as being sour, but also Umeboshi Sour Plums and even Rhubarb. The sour taste we all experience is caused by acids – more specifically by the hydrogen ion concentration. To put simply, the more acidic the food, the stronger the sour sensation becomes.
Salty: Salty tastes are produced by ionized salts. Most prominently, the Sodium ions in compounds are mainly responsible for the salty taste, for example in regular table salt the Sodium element in sodium chloride. Other salts can be comprised of potassium and lithium.
Sweet: The sweet taste is not caused by any single class of chemicals but by organic chemicals such as sugars, glycols, alcohols, aldehydes, ketones, amides, esters, some amino acids, some small proteins, sulfonic acids, halogenated acids, as well as inorganic salts of lead and beryllium.
Bitter: Bitterness is often described as being somewhere between salty and sour. It’s often perceived as being sharp, textural, overpowering or even piquant. Natural bitterness is often identified in leafy greens, vegetables, cocoa, and readily in coffee. It might also be noted that foods that have a high alkaline pH often are perceived as bitter.
Umami: Umami is a Japanese word (translating to pleasant savoury taste) that’s qualitatively different from sour, salty, sweet or bitter. Umami is the dominant taste of food containing L-glutamate, such as meat extracts and aging cheese and is often described as savoury. Like most of the taste sensations, umami is pleasant in balanced and conservative amounts. When the balance is optimal, umami makes foods and beverages incredibly moreish due to its apparent heightened complexity and texture.
Earlier this year, we presented the first of our ‘Train Your Senses’ workshops around the country. These sessions were broken up into four distinct components, each demonstrating unique aspects of the coffee drinking experience.
To demonstrate the various skills, vocabulary and theories that surround sensory articulation in coffee, we devised a series of sessions that home in on a few aspects of the taste experience.
The Lez Nez Kit exercise is always a crowd pleaser, as it’s interactive and challenges the attendees in engaging ways. Lez Nez (French for the nose) is a catalogue of essential essences that span the gamut of the olfactory experience for a particular foods or beverages. Lez Nez kits are also used for other complex foods such as whiskey and wine.
The aim of the Lez Nez station is to encourage attendees to identify certain aromas in a controlled and uncontrolled environment. The first pass involved attendees being able to smell each vial and also able to read what it was. Once they had explored the essences through the set, the selection was whittled down to six ‘mystery’ vials. The test was to essentially see if they could recall an essence, they previously had witnessed minutes ago. Many people quickly discovered that by simply being able to read what each essence was made identifying it easier. However, once asked to identify a particular essence without hints it was a difficult exercise. For example, the Basmati essence vial had a few people stumped as to what it was; it was sweet, fragrant and almost popcorn in smell, disorientating the participants and astounding them once they realised it was rice. To further challenge the participants, we also ran a final challenge using essences from another Lez Nez kit that they hadn’t experienced.
Attendees explored the taste, texture and sensation of three important qualities that are readily described in coffee: sweet, sour and salt. A ‘master batch’ of hot sweet, sour and salty solutions were made up and attendees were asked to taste the 100% solutions and discuss their experiences as a group. The next step was for them to rank a series of cupping bowls in terms in terms of strength. Again, a simple task in theory but difficult once presented without tips, guides or hints! The last exercise took the attendees out of their comfort zone when presented them with ‘mystery cups’, each containing either sweet, salt or sour and all varying in intensity. For example, was cup one salty? Was it low, medium or high saltiness?
This station demonstrated how different acids impact the taste and texture of a particular coffee. Being able to identify a coffee’s naturally occurring acid will go a long way in describing a coffee’s taste profile. Firstly, each acid was described and tasted, accompanied by a run through of their typical characteristics. Secondly, the attendees got to taste the unadulterated batch brew cups by themselves, without the acids being added. The last step was to add the acids to the batch brew, in individual cupping bowls, and get the attendees to describe the flavours as a group.
Attendees were introduced to how certain taste descriptors end up being published on a coffee bag you’d find on the shelf. How does an Ethiopian single origin have so many qualities such as taste, texture and aftertaste? How can a barista use this to optimise the taste of their coffee?
The participants were presented with a table of varying foods:
We explored each of the sets and introduced a framework for articulating our experience: Sweet, acid, bitter. For example, how did the strawberries rank in terms of sweetness? Did anyone notice their acidity as well? How did this compare to a blueberry?
Having gorged on everything, we moved into a guided coffee course that comprised of milk and espresso beverages. Having articulated foods using sweet, acid and bitter descriptors, we expressed what we experienced in the coffee using the same framework. The attendees were encouraged to accompany their description with one or two flavour descriptors as well. For example, ‘The milk drink had a high sweetness, mid-range acidity and low bitterness, tasted like strawberries, fresh cream and cheesecake’.
The last exercise was a fun game of ‘Coffee Options’ using the newfound skills. The aim was to taste an espresso without any knowledge and to quickly identify what exactly they were tasting. From there participants faced off in a series of elimination multiple choice questions, answering each with either their left or right hands:
The participants weren’t expected to know precisely everything. There was a combination of educated assumptions and random guesses in the hope of winning some Veneziano swag. To walk away with the prize, the winner had to express what they were tasting in the cup using the framework they learnt: sweet, acid, bitter intensities accompanied by two or three flavour descriptors.
We absolutely loved holding the Train your Senses and can’t wait to take Train your Senses Volume 2 in October. Head to our Eventbrite page for upcoming dates.