Developing your coffee palate
Here's how to develop a sophisticated coffee palate and how to start to really appreciate the delights of tasting fresh coffee like a pro.
Coffee is incredibly complex and on taste evaluation alone, the minor details dictate whether the quality of a coffee is considered specialty grade or not. Coffee contains more than 850 possible flavour compounds and we as coffee professionals in the industry need to constantly keep our palates refreshed and trained as we lose flavour memory over time.
Coffee tasting is a complex exercise and sometimes it can be very confusing, however with the right guidance and considerable amounts of coffee tasting, your palate will eventually develop and you’ll be amazed at how intricate the world of flavour can be.
Depending on the ability of the individual it may take a while to truly memorise a variety of coffee flavours, which in turn will help develop a competent palate on par with industry professionals.
Fun fact, there's a world coffee tasting championship called ‘The World Cup Tasters Championship’ where a national representative from each country battle it out knockout style, to judge who has the most accurate and fastest coffee tasting ability*
The following is a guide on how to develop your coffee palate, geared towards beginners and intermediate coffee geeks.
Coffee Tasting Exercises That Will Improve Your Palate
1. Taste and drink more coffee - a lot of coffee.
Beginner: if you’ve only dabbled in lattes or mochas, it would be wise to start trying other types of coffees like piccolos or long blacks. This is a good way for you to get closer to appreciating the flavour of coffee itself and not the additives of milk & sugar. Most coffee industry folk started off drinking caramel lattes and over time the majority end up drinking and appreciating black coffees.
Intermediate: So you love your 'long blacks' but have never really stepped into filter coffees. This is an exciting point as it's a whole new chapter of flavour appreciation. Espresso coffees tend to be very intense and bold in flavour, whereas filters tend to be light and delicate. When you try black coffee from cafes ask if there are other blends or single origins to try, make a note of what you taste to identify what you like and dislike about them. A great exercise is to ask your barista what they think of these coffees and ask them to explain what they taste.
A response from a barista could be “it tastes like peaches and has a cocoa finish”. You may or may not agree with responses however it allows you to get familiar with the language coffee professionals use to describe flavour. If you brew at home try coffees from different origins, different processing methods or coffees from different roasters, this will help you experience a wide range of flavour characteristics.
2. Add new foods to your diet, specifically fruits, candy and spices.
Beginner: know the flavour differences between common fruits and remember the intensity of them. For example, start off with the basics and group similar fruits together like citrus- tasting orange, mandarin, lemon and limes together. With chocolate as another example, taste them from the highest cocoa percentage to the lowest and order them from the most bitter to the least. These simple tasting exercises will not only develop your coffee palate but will increase your flavour memory of food items that we generally don’t stop to think about.
Intermediate: Once you have a good grasp on flavour and you are able to identify different fruits and spices within similar categories, you can train your palate further with blindfolded tasting. For example, identifying different types of berries, or tasting chocolate to identify the presence of sugar or sweetener. From here you can get more advanced by tasting the same fruits at different stages of ripeness and discerning differences within specific varietals of fruit, such as; imperial, gold nugget and honey murcott mandarins. This will allow you to distinguish the nuances between similar flavours.
3. Go to coffee events or cupping sessions.
Beginner: the industry is quite welcoming to newbies as long as the approach is correct. No matter where you are most cities have a coffee community where they hold regular events or share information online. If you attend these events, it's always helpful to introduce yourself to the host and others around you to let them know you're new to coffee and want to learn, most of the time they are willing to show you the ropes. Its important to follow the correct etiquettes in coffee tasting events and usually the hosts will go through them in the beginning of the event.
Intermediate: so you have been to a few tastings already but want to be able to be confident in identifying the coffees and flavours in front of you. The main advice here is to listen to the people around you and ask what they think of the coffees you might be stuck on. This could potentially influence your decisions, however over time generally these influences become just another opinion and you would be able to make your own decisions in the future.
4. Lastly be confident and open minded.
Confidence in your palate will come over time with a lot of tastings and coffees being consumed. Don’t take everyone's word for absolute truth because your flavour memory of say a ‘blueberry’ can be different to someone else's memory of a blueberry, so take other opinions as a grain of salt.
Being open to new ideas and flavour possibilities is incredibly important as this mentally allows the industry to grow, develop and expand its possibilities. Specialty Coffee is still relatively young and the industry is constantly evolving and refining itself.
Once you’ve applied all these helpful guides to your coffee rituals, you'll be on your way to becoming a skilled coffee taster in no time!