What should coffee taste like?
This is a complicated question. For many coffee drinkers we know what good or bad coffee tastes, like but it’s still difficult to articulate in words.
We could use plenty of flowery words to describe coffee (and many people do) but does it fully capture what coffee tastes like?
We use words like bitter, sweet, strong, and bold. Adjectives like caramel, blueberry, peach, chocolate, pumpkin, and nutty all get used.
These are neither wrong nor right.
There are so many variables to coffee multiplied by the differences in everyone’s palate, taste, and even someone’s taste buds that even the same coffee will always taste different to someone else.
Even the same roasted coffee brewed or extracted differently will taste different. The dose size, the amount of water, the extraction time, the temperature, the type of filter, and method of brewing will alter your experience with coffee.
There are over 1000 different flavonoids that have been identified and can alter the taste of coffee.
And still… as a barista it will be an important question to consider because you will be tasting coffee every day – in order to deliver the best tasting coffee you can serve.
Training Your Barista Taste Buds
Let’s consider what impacts the taste of your coffee. Here are few of the many, many variables that impact the taste of coffee. Appreciating each of the factors will help us be a better barista.
- Coffee species (Robusta or Arabica)
- Coffee Origin (Guatemala or Ethiopia, etc.)
- Is the coffee shade grown or not
- Is the coffee organic or not (debatable)
- The type of soil it’s grown on
- The elevation it’s grown on
- The quality of the crop
- Whether it was a “rainy or dry” season
- How the coffee was picked or harvested
- The degree of impact from pests or fungus
- How the coffee is processed after it was picked (Wet, dry, or both)
- The general quality of the coffee (The worst coffee is used for instant coffee)
- Shipping & Care during handling
- Age of the coffee after it was processed
- Roasting (Espresso or Light Roast)
- How long the coffee is sitting after roasting
- How the coffee is extracted or brewed (Espresso machine or pour over for example)
- The quality of the water used for extracting coffee
- The dose amount of coffee
- The amount of water used
- The temperature (heat) of the water
The list goes on…and on!
Yes, all of the above the following impact the taste of coffee! Additionally, the drinker’s own taste buds and olfactory sensory neurons located in the upper nasal passages all impact taste of the individual.
Most people don’t drink straight espresso in the United States. So we cannot forget the role that the quality and quantity of milk will have on the taste of many coffee drinks.
Let’s briefly get back to the topic of coffee taste, and how should you lean in on different definitions as a barista. As you get your barista training and even years into your coffee career, you will develop your own taste.
So who’s to say what a good or bad cup of coffee is?
As a barista you may pour a great cup of coffee only to have it sent back because it’s too bitter or not “tasting right”.
To each his (or her) own, right?
Still, there are still some general concepts when it comes to “coffee taste” that I’d like to briefly discuss.
Let’s start with bitterness because it’s a word that is often used to describe coffee.
In fact, if coffee tastes bad… it’s often described as “bitter” or “too bitter.” I believe that’s fine because finding another description can be difficult, especially if you’re not a frequent coffee drinker.
There are a couple of known compounds in coffee (quinic acid and trigonelline) that gives coffee its bitter taste. Caffeine is also known to be bitter in taste. Can it be that the more caffeine a coffee beverage has, the more it will lean into “bitterness”? Perhaps this is true.
No doubt, describing anything as “bitter” has some negative connotations.
Often times, according to Tristan Stevenson, in his book The Curious Baristas Guide to Coffee, the presence of bitterness in your coffee is often the result of over-extraction. So a slow espresso extraction or waiting too long to French brew can cause bitterness.
While acidity sounds bad, acidity is a fundamental part of your coffee taste. Acidity is what provides the brightness of coffee we all enjoy, the fruity citrusy taste that is common in our palates and that we note to be good tasting coffee.
Ahhh… there is nothing quite like the wonderful aroma of coffee in the morning, right?
Aroma makes up a large part of our joyful experience with coffee. The overall flavor is enjoyed by and large with our ability to smell. In fact, as mentioned a little earlier that our body’s use of our olfactory sensors play an important role in taste. These sensory factors can vary from person to person and therefor impact our taste and profile perceptions.