Taste Coffee Like a Connoisseur: Let’s Talk About Aftertaste
Talking about coffee might be our favorite activity that isn’t drinking coffee. Coffee fiends love to try new brews and blends, but what good is trying new coffees if we can’t describe them?
Whether you want to tell your friends about the fantastic new blend you found or even take notes on blends you’re trying at home, having a basic vocabulary to describe the flavor is helpful. While the terminology we’ll cover in this article is primarily coffee-oriented, there is lots of carryover to wine, beer, and food. Learning to describe and discuss flavor is the first step to becoming a sharper cook and connoisseur!
“What is Aftertaste?”
Aftertaste is the collection of flavors that linger on the palate after you’ve swallowed. Flavor is not a static experience, so flavor can’t be summed up in one word. Flavor changes, from the smell of the coffee, to the first sip, to the aftertaste that remains. As such, it’s essential to consider the ways flavor changes as we drink our coffee.
The aftertaste is just one component of that experience. You’ll notice an aftertaste most in the first breath or two just after swallowing, as aromatic compounds make their way around taste buds at the back of the throat, up the nose, and remain in the mouth.
“How do I describe it? I’m not a sommelier…”
The good thing is you don’t have to be an expert to talk about flavor. There are a few key aspects to look for; the rest you can describe as you see fit. Generally, you should evaluate flavor for acidity, sweetness, and bitterness. You can likely identify sweet and bitter flavors without much explanation, but how does one taste acidity? How often does someone say, “Gosh, Irene, this cake is so acidic!”
Acidity is easy to identify once it’s pointed out to you. Try licking a lemon wedge. Do you notice how your mouth started watering immediately? Feeling the activation of salivary glands is one way to identify acidity immediately. Sour or tart flavors are another way acidity is often described. The chemical responsible for “sour” flavor is actually just a form of acid.
Other flavors can be described by using comparisons. “Notes of chocolate” means that something about the coffee reminds you of chocolate flavors. You can also compare coffee to flowers, spices, fruit, or anything else you’re familiar with.
Does It Linger?
As we noted above, taste is not a static experience. When describing aftertaste, you will need to note how long the taste persists or lasts in the mouth. Is it short-lived? Does it linger and change? Some coffees will dissipate to leave a clean, fresh taste in the mouth. Others may remain on the palate to leave you smacking your lips after a sip. Neither quality is necessarily good or bad, but the difference is significant.
Sometimes the aftertaste can be a clue as to whether your coffee was prepared properly. Short, unremarkable aftertaste may be a sign that the coffee was under-extracted, and the aromatic compounds that contribute to aftertaste weren’t fully pulled out of the bean. A heavy, harsh, and bitter aftertaste may be a sign of over-extraction. Experimenting with coffee that is intentionally made poorly can help you identify its characteristics. Similarly, tasting both fresh and stale coffee will help you learn the difference in quality.
Taste Everything and Take Notes
The key to becoming an astute judge of flavor is to taste widely. You might think this means drinking every coffee on the shelf, but you should taste more than just coffee. The more flavors you have for comparison, the more vocabulary you have to draw from. Wine sommeliers will sample odd items like grass, cat urine, wet wool, and other seemingly wacky smells and flavors. They do this because the flavors and aromas are common in wine, so the ability to detect them is essential to their job. Don’t be afraid to find a wide range of aromas you can use to describe coffee, even if they sound silly or unappetizing. Chocolate, dirt, and wet cardboard are all fair comparisons to use.
Further, you should avoid being a glutton while tasting. Eat and drink thoughtfully. You’re trying to describe and understand the flavors you encounter. It might seem strange, but keep a notebook to record your thoughts when trying new coffees or new foods. If you are interested in becoming a real connoisseur, then the notes will be indispensable to you. Firstly, the notes allow you to practice tasting for quality and describing your findings in words (a practice called “cupping” in the industry). Secondly, if you are trying a wide variety of coffees, notes will help you remember what you have tried and what you thought about it. With the wide variety of blends and beans available just in grocery stores, having a system is essential.
At Hugo Coffee Roasters, our staff members do frequent tastings when evaluating coffee bean suppliers, developing new premium cold brew coffee packs, or creating exciting new products like our single-serve coffee bags. Just like our customers, our passion is coffee, and we make sure you can taste that passion in every cup.