Everyone can develop the ability to sample coffee like a professional. Tim Ridley explains how
Wild violets, a freshly opened can of tennis balls, Granny’s strawberry patch, salty air… Tasting notes such as these make it easy to see why professional tasters are revered and ridiculed in equal measure. For adherents, such notes are celebrations of a particular form of genius; for the sceptical they’re evidence that tasters are Wizard of Oz-like charlatans armed solely with smoke and mirrors.
Straddling these two perspectives are the people in white coats who, far from preparing to take tasters off to the asylum, are pushing past prejudice to probe our palates, test our tongues and identify which aromas can actually be retronasally identified in the name of research. If that sounds like it’s a bit too much for your regular cup of joe, you might be pleased to know science says anyone can taste as well as a professional – with just a bit of effort and a few key facts.
Put in the effort
The truth is, most people pay little attention to specific flavours when they eat and drink. Coffee tastes like coffee, whisky like whisky and chicken like chicken. Even professional tasters go through much of their day at this macro level. It’s worth noting that your brain is very good at grouping taste, flavour, smell and wellbeing, which is why you just accepted the idea of chicken having a single, identifiable flavour and you are probably now salivating at the thought of a roast dinner.
This mental shorthand helped discourage our foraging ancestors from eating poisonous plants (which are typically bitter) and is why you gag at the smell of booze after a night on the tiles. The act of “tasting” is to break these larger, aggregate concepts down into smaller parts. For coffee, this is typically aroma, taste, flavour and mouthfeel, and it takes concerted effort, in part because you’re pushing against the natural flow of your brain.
So keep these five things in mind and it will help you become at least as good at tasting as your barista.
1. Professionals don’t have better palates
The tongue can taste the four basic tastes of sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness, plus the lip-smackingly good umami and maybe some others (those in the white coats are still debating just how many “tastes” there are). With regards to coffee, we’re primarily concerned with the four basic tastes and the consensus is that professionals have neither more nor better-functioning taste buds. That’s not to say that people don’t have differing levels of sensitivity, but you can’t look in someone’s mouth and know whether or not they’re good at tasting. Tasters are largely trained, not born, and most of us are capable of tasting to a high level.
The main issue for most is a lack of familiarity. For example, people confuse bitterness and acidity, identifying both simply as a kind of attack on the tongue. If you’re not sure which is which, suck a lemon or drink something described as acidic, then look down, open your mouth and see how quickly you have to close it to prevent you dribbling on the floor. The more acidic something is, the faster you’ll have to close your mouth. Do this with as many beverages as necessary until you no longer confuse acidity, which causes you to salivate and tastes sour, with bitterness.
2. Most pros can smell only a bit better than you
Flavour is actually about smell. When a coffee has the tasting notes of strawberries, for example, that’s the vapours rising from your mouth into the rear of your nose. This means you “smell” the same coffee twice: before drinking it and while it’s being drunk.
Smelling before consumption is known as aroma – more correctly, orthonasal olfaction – while smelling during consumption is known as flavour (retronasal olfaction). For professional tasters, coffee can be fun to drink as it often has flavours that are very different from its aroma, which is rather crazy when you think about it and an important reason not to mix up your terminology.
If you think about flavour in terms of chemical compounds, most food and drinks have more than one aroma, so it follows that one key skill of a taster is to identify specific aromas. When scientists compared professional tasters with general consumers, in a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance, they found the professionals were only marginally better at identifying specific aromas from among complex aromas in specifically created synthetic solutions. That complex was defined as just four aromas; in the real world, coffee drinkers have to grapple with more than 800 potential aromatic compounds in a brew.
3. A little training goes a long way
Study after study has shown that amateurs are able to perform almost as well as industry professionals at identifying flavours following relatively basic training. In 1993, for example, the Journal of Sensory Studies reported how researchers found that 150 hours of training was sufficient to almost eliminate the difference between amateurs and people who had five to seven years’ professional experience. In another study in Food Quality & Preference in 2004, a set of amateurs significantly closed the gap in just 21 hours. When I think about what tasting skill I have, I recognise that it hasn’t grown gradually, but has instead improved in leaps and bounds as I’ve been exposed to formal training, read research or worked alongside other established tasters.
4. Being a hobbyist is the best of both worlds
I’m not trying to devalue the skill of professional tasters – rather, I’m telling you science doesn’t want you to be intimated. The “10,000 hours” concept popularised by Malcolm Gladwell, which theorises that what you need to succeed at virtually anything is 10,000 hours of focused practice, has encouraged some people to focus on honing their craft, but for most people a quick cost-benefit analysis will tell them it isn’t worth the effort. This is a shame and completely misguided.
The key thing to remember when thinking about professional tasters is that they spend much of their day doing the same as us: checking emails, sitting in meetings and talking on the phone. In 1996, a study published in the Journal of Memory & Language found little discernible difference between regular wine drinkers and wine professionals. Keep drinking coffee as a hobby and you don’t have to worry about all the tedious aspects of tasting, such as coordinating events, filling in forms or pretending to assist with the cleaning up.
5. Learn the terms so you can share your experience
Much of communicating flavour is about learning the lingo. Some people encourage others by telling them tasting is subjective and that there are no right or wrong tasting notes. This has led many to claim a level of proficiency with more enthusiasm than actual skill. However, I believe tasting is a team sport and, where possible, we should use broadly accepted flavour descriptors.
In a 1990 experiment published in the American Journal of Psychology, wine experts and novices were asked to taste and write flavour descriptions of various wines. The participants were then given a series of wines in a blind tasting, each with two tasting notes: one written about the specific wine and one about a different wine. Participants were asked to match the correct tasting note to the wine. Expert wine tasters outperformed novices, getting it right over two-thirds of the time, but only if the tasting note was written by another expert. This isn’t snobbery, exclusivity or a better palate – it’s a common set of reference points and a shared language. Tasting notes can be as subjective as you like, as long as you are happy to drink alone.
Some people do struggle to taste
because of physiological imitation or impediment. The NHS estimates around 6,000 people suffer from congenital anosmia (loss of smell) in the UK. Research suggests that around 4% of these will also have ageusia, or loss of taste. The more common impediments to tasting are lifestyle choices, such as regularly eating of salty foods, drinking sugary beverages or smoking. But even then, some of the best tasters have been known to sneak out for a quick cigarette break.
It is common to describe someone
who might be said to be “refined” as “having good taste”. This is unfortunate, because it reinforces the common prejudice that tasting is a bit posh or is for those who are too aspirational for their own good.
Coffee, like many beverages, largely defines quality on the basis of there being many distinct and identifiable flavours alongside a less clearly defined notion of “balance”. In food and some beverages, such as cocktails, good balance is harmony between the four basic tastes. However, using this definition, a coffee with all these attributes would widely be deemed to be awful, if not defective.
Coffee drinkers primarily use balance to denote a strong correlation between taste and flavour. For a coffee to be good, very good or excellent, we want clear flavours of citrus or berries, for example, in an acidic brew. If it’s sweet, there might be flavours of cocoa that combine to give the note of milk chocolate. Under this definition, it’s possible to have delicious coffees with bitterness, although these seldom make it through a cupping owing to our current prejudice against bitter coffee. However, taste without flavour – or vice versa – is a signifier of lower grades of coffee, or an inexperienced coffee buyer.
Express a preference
But while taste and flavour might not be subjective, there is no accounting for personal pleasure. There’s no pressure to like things that are of “higher quality” or widely esteemed – in fact, you’re rather lucky if you happen to appreciate a flavour many others do not, largely because your drinks are likely to be cheaper.
As with many things, coffee’s price is determined as much by the demand as its production cost or quality. For example, great natural processed coffees (see page 20) can be cheaper because many buyers focus on washed coffees. Good value can also be found in some lots from Costa Rica this year because the range of flavour profiles is much wider than the examples many buyers look for. Real gems can also be found from the always undervalued Ethiopia or from new speciality origins, such as Indonesia.
Of course, changes in production, climate, trend and knowledge lead to continual shifts in what is deemed good, what presents exceptional value and our personal preferences. This is why tasting is a journey without end, and science says you can – and should – take a step on that journey. But please don’t use you newfound skills to become pretentious. If you like it, buy it, drink it and enjoy it.
Tim Ridley set up a specialist coffee business in 2010 and accidentally discovered the joys of tasting and the challenges of communicating flavours to consumers and staff. He now runs a consultancy and tastes mainly for pleasure