A feast for the senses

Many factors work together to enable tasters to pin down the exact flavours of each individual coffee, as Claire Gordon-Webster discovers. Photo by Gary Smith

When I was a kid I hated courgettes. Hated them with an all-consuming passion. I’d push the sliced, steamed courgette my mother had lovingly prepared around my plate in a futile effort to make her forget she’d insisted I finish my “greens”.

Then one day, a miracle happened. She tricked me with a humble plate of roast vegetables. Cleverly disguised among the roast carrots, onions and celery were the most delicate yet fleshy chunks of courgette. How was this possible? This 180° turnaround of my palate? I now adore courgette. I’d say it’s right up there with my all-time favourites: avocado and asparagus. Steamed, roasted, sautéed, “courgetti”…my love for courgette knows no bounds.

This ode to courgette serves to illustrate how many of us view taste and flavour perception: as a purely subjective, personal experience. Which is why I found myself asking, with the UK Barista Championship (UKBC) finals looming, how on earth does one judge flavour? How does one even begin to define and describe it? I know I’m not alone in finding the tasting notes on some coffee bags overwhelming, with their promise of “dried fig and plum” and cheeky “hints of orange blossom”. Yet as I explored definitions of taste and flavour and the language employed to convey these, I discovered that flavour description opens important conversations within the speciality coffee industry: from trade to consumer and beyond.

The obvious starting point is taste and flavour, and the crucial distinction between the two. Taste refers to the sensation inside one’s mouth when the coffee comes into contact with the taste buds. The “basic tastes” of sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami can be likened to primary colours – they are the starting blocks of flavour.

In coffee tasting, the desirable primary tastes are sweet and sour, referred to in coffee’s case as “acidity”. In a quality cup of coffee, these primary tastes play off each other, creating a pleasing, enjoyable balance. It’s only when these tastes are harmoniously balanced that the flavour can begin to sing and flourish. Too acidic and the coffee will have an unpleasant sourness; too sweet and the coffee will be overpowering.

Taste also includes mouthfeel, or the body of the coffee. Essentially, this is the viscosity or thickness of a liquid. At one end you’ll find heavy, syrupy coffees, at the other weak and watery ones.

The magic of flavour materialises when taste is combined with aroma or smell. As a working definition of flavour, it sounds simple enough but throw in a taster’s personal experience and actual biological make-up and it’s more complex.

“Tasting is your history – your experience, practice, confidence – before you step up to the [cupping] table,” says Oli Brown, coffee evangelist and quality manager at Union Hand-Roasted. “If someone has a sugar-rich diet, for example, they’ll struggle to perceive sweet things. The opposite is also true: if someone has an acid-rich diet, they’ll struggle to perceive acidity. It comes back to personal history.” So how does one get past their subjective personal history to reach a more objective perception of flavour?

“Calibration,” says Mark Lamberton, QC and education development at Harris + Hoole and UKBC judge. “Just as a thermometer can be calibrated by placing it in boiling water to ensure it reads 100°C, judges will spend the morning tasting coffee together and describing what they perceive. That way everyone’s boiling point is 100°.”

Brown, who has experience as a Cup of Excellence judge, concurs. “We have a whole day of calibration,” he says. “We do all the acidities, we do viscosity levels, looking at the sweetness and how thick it is, how coating it is… Everyone starts to come to a mid-point. But still, some people’s ‘lovely’ is another’s disgusting. I love the fact that you’ll sit in a room and you’ll have found chocolate, toffee, caramel and someone else is totally different. I love the fact that one coffee can split a room.”

Before calibration can even begin, one needs to be able to express what one is tasting. But the use of language is tricky territory. My understanding of a mandarin orange flavour may be another’s grapefruit, again depending on our subjective experience and tasting history. I may even describe that mandarin orange as “that beach holiday back in 1990 mixed with caked sunscreen”, which would leave you confused.

Thankfully there is a tool at the coffee taster’s disposal: a flavour wheel. Developed in 1995, the Speciality Coffee Association of America’s Taster’s flavour wheel was a ubiquitous guide, dominating cupping discussions across the globe. Developed using sensory science, it provides a glossary of common coffee terms and a shared language between tasters.

The SCAA’s flavour wheel was recently “recalibrated” thanks to the release of Counter Culture Coffee’s more accessible version (pictured right). In a recent interview Timothy Hill, Counter Culture Coffee’s buyer and quality manager, explained that this version was built from descriptors that frequently occur at cuppings. He believes it should be seen as a “living, breathing document”, subject to change and constructive criticism. Where as a judge’s calibration serves to bring everyone’s subjective flavour perception to a middle ground of understanding and agreement of quality, Counter Culture Coffee’s more relaxed wheel serves to accommodate the subjective nature of language.

Andrew Tolley, co-founder of Taylor St Baristas and Harris + Hoole, enthuses about the importance of coffee language. “I think language is really useful for describing flavours,” he says “You can use language to make [coffee] more accessible, using terms such as ‘chocolate’ or ‘caramel’. Or, if you’re talking to a group that is really into flavours, you can say, ‘It’s more like baker’s chocolate’ or ‘It’s that 72% Madagascan chocolate and it’s this brand.’ You can get as specific as you like. It’s also a way to relate your enthusiasm, or to bring out an emotional response.

“You have to learn how you taste,” he continues. “Half the time when you’re tasting coffee you’re talking to yourself – you’re building a language so you can describe flavour to yourself. Then you have to compare how you taste with how someone else does. That’s where calibration lies. A lot of people can be good tasters, they just have to understand themselves and find a way to talk a common language with others.” Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect, but it can make for a more confident, articulate taster.

Talking that common language takes guts. To partake in the conversation at a cupping can seem daunting. What if you get it wrong? What if your caramel is another’s milk chocolate?

Brown is bemused by this fear. “It’s only when you have a go and stick your neck out to say what you think that you’ll realise people may be in agreement,” he says. “It amazes me the lack of confidence people have in their own senses. If you relax, you’ll find it much easier to perceive the taste and flavour. And it’s much more enjoyable.”

Evolving coffee language serves not only to join tasters in cupping discussions but also to engage the consumer. Brown is excited to emphasise the importance of language for industry evolution.

“In order for coffee to survive for people growing and picking coffee, and for conditions to improve, coffee needs to be elevated,” he says. “We have to get people willing to think about flavour, we have to get people willing to spend a bit more. The way we do that is by making people really think about flavour and that’s why we write what we write on coffee bags.” Such tasting notes serve as a loose map of flavour for the consumer, a key into their own flavour perception.

Jochem Verheijen, head of coffee at Harris + Hoole, UKBC head judge and World Barista Championship (WBC) sensory judge, believes these descriptions empower the consumer to make more considered coffee choices.

“We need to get to a place where everyone has sufficient knowledge to know there is a difference between coffee A and coffee B, and that that difference is always flavour,” he says. “The second step is to teach people about quality; that there’s ‘good’ and ‘bad’. This doesn’t mean they have to be able to spot the difference between an apricot and a peach flavour, but it does mean they need to be inquisitive enough to figure out that they like one coffee more than another one from down the street. They can then build up a preference.” Tasting notes allow consumers to investigate their own perception of flavour and establish their own preference.

Personal preference aside, the task of a UKBC judge seems problematic: how does one separate personal preference from flavour perception in order to judge coffee flavour? I suggest a similar approach as with objective art criticism. An art critic, for example, can critique Picasso’s technique – what he was expressing through the work and its contemporary relevance – without necessarily liking his work. In a similar way, a judge can appreciate and judge the flavour qualities of a particular coffee without liking it.

A judge’s interplay between their tasting history and objective flavour perception is key to their effectiveness, as Tolley explains. “A judge uses their knowledge of origin, flavours and process. Then their job is to record what the barista says [the story of the coffee] and to correlate whether their experience of that coffee matches what the barista identifies and also to make notes on accuracy, the barista’s knowledge, professionalism, service… A judge should be a good observer and have a good background knowledge of coffee and a lot of experience of tasting different origins.”

Perhaps approaching flavour perception from a completely objective standpoint is as futile as pushing courgettes around a plate at dinnertime. Perhaps we’re intelligent enough to perceive flavour and personal preference simultaneously. Lamberton summarises this interplay with his experience training new baristas. “One of the trickiest parts of training new baristas is that they want to hear that tasting is a purely subjective experience,” he says. “I think that’s what they can best understand. It’s easier to say, ‘We all taste differently, we all like different things.’

“But you have to be open to the idea that flavour can be both subjective and objective. I present them with multiple coffees and as a team they are always able to put together fairly accurate descriptors of each. I then ask them which one they think is best. Together they have identified a range of good qualities in each coffee, and yet invariably they are split on which coffee is their favourite.”