How to Taste Coffee Like a Pro

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

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It’ll come as no surprise to you that tasting coffee is my all-time favorite part of being in the coffee world. In some ways, learning how to taste coffee is as easy as just having taste buds and an opinion. On the other hand, good coffee tasters can identify several tasting notes in a single cup of joe.

It’ll come as no surprise to you that tasting coffee is my all-time favorite part of being in the coffee world. In some ways, learning how to taste coffee is as easy as just having taste buds and an opinion. On the other hand, good coffee tasters can identify several tasting notes in a single cup of joe.

But don’t worry; every expert was a beginner once, so there’s no shame in being new to tasting coffee! By the end of this guide, you’ll know how to taste coffee like a pro.

What Does Coffee Actually Taste Like?

Tasting coffee can be a little intimidating at first. I mean, what if you don’t know how to describe what you’re tasting? Worse, what if the flavors you taste are totally different from the notes someone else picks up on?

Truthfully, both of these scenarios will happen, but that’s not a bad thing. We all have different noses, taste buds, food preferences, cravings and flavor memories. All of this factors into how we taste coffee and how we feel about certain flavors.

For example, if I just ate a Granny Smith apple yesterday and today I taste a coffee with very bright acidity, I may unconsciously say it tastes like green apple. Someone else may call that same flavor lime, while another coffee taster may just say that the coffee is tart.

Coffee Tasting at Home Important Terms

In other words, tasting coffee is just as much about naming as it is about tasting.

Still, some general tasting notes crop up time and time again. This is due to the organic compounds like acids and sugars that are naturally found in coffee. Plus, particular processing methods as well as the roasting process can exacerbate certain flavors or bring out new ones.

Often, coffee can have fruity, citrusy and nutty flavors. It is the seed of a fruit, after all! Plus, coffee beans have natural sugars and acids that bring out these fruity flavors in the final cup.

At the same time, coffee can have spicy, chocolatey, nutty, bitter or smoky flavors. The caffeine and tannins in coffee are naturally bitter, while a darker roast profile can bring out even more bitter and smoky notes.

Meanwhile, chocolate, nutty and caramelized fruit flavors come from the roasting process as the sugars caramelize.

How Do Experts Taste Coffee?

Experts taste coffee as often as they can, using as many brewing methods as possible. However there is one method that stands out as a simple and consistent way to brew many coffees at once: cupping.

Cupping is very similar to French press, in that it’s a full immersion brew method with medium-coarse fresh coffee grounds that takes about four minutes to brew. However, cupping is on a much smaller scale – say, 10 grams of coffee to 180 grams of boiling water. This is brewed in a small cupping bowl. Generally, you cup more than one coffee at a time so you can compare them against each other.

Experts smell the coffee grounds before brewing and immediately after pouring the water. Then, at four minutes they “break the crust” with a cupping spoon while inhaling the aroma. Breaking the crust causes the majority of the coffee grounds to float to the bottom. Then, using two cupping spoons they skim off any sediment or oils that remain on the surface.

Finally, once the coffee cools down a bit they begin tasting the coffee by dipping a cupping spoon into the bowl and slurping the coffee into their mouth. Slurping, as opposed to sipping, is important because it aerates the coffee and sprays it around the inside of your mouth.

While cupping is the industry standard for tasting coffee, you’ll find that many roasters taste coffee via pour over and espresso, too. After all, coffee roasters ultimately want to know how their customers will experience their coffee.

Learning How to Taste Coffee

Learning how to taste coffee, like developing any skill, is all about practice. 

Most people, on their first try, won’t be able to say that a coffee tastes like Bordeaux, toasted cashews and nougat with a round body and smooth finish. That’s really specific!

Hario Woodneck

It takes time, practice and a few tasting buddies to build up a nuanced palate and flavor vocabulary.

As far as tasting notes go, it’s best to start small. Stick to general flavors and mouth feels at first: fruity, nutty, balanced, round, sharp, heavy, tea-like.

Once you’ve got those down, you can try to be more specific. What kind of fruit are you tasting? Berries, apples, citrus or juicy tropical fruits? Does the nut flavor taste toasted or smooth?

Try to take a few moments of reflection everytime you drink coffee. Even if it’s in the wee hours of the morning, you can at least consider why you like (or don’t like) your morning cup.

Building up this practice takes time and confidence, so I encourage you to be patient with yourself! Taking notes throughout the process can help you keep track of trends across varietals, roast profiles and brewing methods.

When you’re learning how to taste coffee, I suggest that you taste as many different coffees as you can and as often as possible.

It can be especially helpful to taste coffee with others while you learn. That way, you can see how they describe certain mouth feels and flavors.

While I’m no longer a beginner, I still much prefer tasting coffee with a community. Besides, it’s way more fun!

Important Terms for Tasting Coffee

When you’re tasting coffee it’s helpful to break your observations down into different categories. This is true for beginners and pros alike! Pros – in particular Q Graders, coffee roasters and coffee buyers – use many of these categories to score a particular coffee for quality.

I’m not going to go into quality scores today. Still, tasting coffee with these categories in mind can make it easier to identify notes and sensations.

Fragrance and Aroma

Smelling the coffee grounds is the first step to coffee tasting, before you even take a sip.

You’ll want to smell the fragrance of the coffee grounds before brewing and then smell the aroma of the wet grounds after pouring.

Sometimes you’ll pick up some clear notes from the fragrance and aroma. For example, a really fruit-forward dry processed coffee may smell a lot like cherries.

Smelling the coffee grounds gives you a more well-rounded perception of the coffee once you get around to tasting it. Incidentally, the fragrance and aroma are sometimes very different from a coffee’s flavor.

Body and Mouthfeel

When you’re learning how to taste coffee, I suggest that you focus on body and mouthfeel before trying to discern specific flavors. Since body and mouthfeel are tactile experiences, it can be easier for newcomers to name particular sensations.

Moccamaster Kaffeemaschine Preinfusion

Take a sip (or slurp) of coffee and roll it around in your mouth. How does it feel in there? Is it sticky, juicy, syrupy, astringent, smooth, soft, heavy or tea-like?

It’s easier to test a coffee’s body and mouthfeel if you are cupping or tasting a pour over or french press brew. That said, tasting espresso shots is fun, too! 

These experiences are influenced as much by the coffee’s varietal and processing method as by the roasting process.

Geisha coffee is known to have a delicate, tea-like body. Meanwhile, coffee from Kenya often has a heavy and juicy body. What’s more, a dry processed coffee of any varietal tends to have a heavier body than its washed counterpart.

Still, the roasting process can further influence the mouthfeel and body of a coffee. Lighter roasts tend towards a lighter body. On the other side of the spectrum, super dark roasts that are dropped after second crack will also have a lighter body.

Sweetness

Sweetness is often a desirable characteristic in high quality coffees. Coffee beans are the seed of a fruit, and when that fruit is picked at peak ripeness, the coffee is sweet too!

You can consider sweetness in a few different ways: how much sweetness you taste, what kind of sweetness it is and when you taste it.

Ask yourself, is the coffee very sweet or not sweet enough? Is it the sweetness of fresh fruit or the round and mellow sweetness of brown sugar? Do you taste the sweetness at the beginning, middle or finish of your sip? Does the sweetness linger or deepen? How does the sweetness change as the coffee cools?

Considering adjectives for sweetness like round, caramelized, bright, sugary, fresh and mellow can help guide your tasting experience.

Acidity

Coffee Shop Culture in Japan

I love a juicy and acidic coffee. That said, not all acidity is equal.

There are a few different types of acidity you can taste in coffee. Citric acid will make the coffee taste tart and lemony. Alternatively, malic acid tastes bright and sharp like a green apple, while phosphoric acid will give the coffee a sparkling note like cola.

Once you get more experienced with coffee tasting, you can use these terms to describe a cup’s acidity.

Otherwise, using adjectives and fruits to describe acidity is a great way to dig into your flavor memory and build a tasting vocabulary.

Adjectives like sharp, bright, rounded, mellow, tart, sparkling, pointed and flat are all good starting points for describing a coffee’s acidity.

Balance

A balanced cup of joe is one of the best tastes in the world! But what do we mean by balanced?

Often, perceived balance depends a lot on the balance between sweetness and acidity. A bright coffee without enough sweetness will taste overly sharp and tart. On the flip side, a sugary sweet coffee without enough acidity will taste flat and sickly sweet.

You can also consider balance in terms of mouthfeel and flavor profile. Does the body carry the complexity of the cup, or is there not enough structure in the body to match the flavor? Is one of the flavors overwhelming to your palate?

A good coffee roaster knows how to tweak a roast profile to deliver a balanced cup. However, a balanced cup ultimately starts with the character of the green coffee itself.

Flavors 

Flavors and tasting notes are the first qualities people consider when they think about how to taste coffee. However, you can see that I’ve put this category towards the end of my list.

Though it’s fun to say a coffee tastes like red wine or blueberries, I find those descriptors to be quite subjective. Personally, I think discussing a coffee’s body, sweetness and acidity are more objective ways to discuss its quality.

Plus, learning how to name a coffee’s tasting notes takes time. That said, sometimes a flavor is really obvious.

Maybe you’re tasting a coffee from the Agaro region of Ethiopia that tastes a lot like peaches, or you’re cupping a dark roast Bourbon from Colombia that tastes like toasted almonds and dark chocolate.

Coffee Tasting at Home Flavors

If particular tasting notes aren’t so obvious, you’ll need to dig into your flavor memory and consider the other qualities I mentioned above.

For example, if a coffee has a heavy body with round sweetness and mellow acidity, you can call to mind similar foods and flavors you have tasted in the past. To me, these descriptors sound like strawberry jam or baked apples. Sip the coffee again with these tasting notes in mind and see if they fit what you’re tasting.

Similarly, using a flavor wheel can help you pull out specific notes, too. The Specialty Coffee Association makes a digital flavor wheel that you can download.

To use a flavor wheel, you first refer to the center of the wheel, which has general descriptors like floral, fruity and sweet. Then, follow the descriptors as they fan outwards to get more specific notes.

Finish

Since the finish is your last experience of a sip of coffee, its flavors and quality are really important. Even the most brilliant coffee will leave a bad impression if its finish is overly sour or bitter.

Sometimes a finish is short and the flavor quickly falls away. Other times, the aftertaste of the coffee lingers and even changes long after you’ve swallowed.

When you’re doing a coffee tasting, consider: how long does the flavor, acidity, sweetness and body linger in your mouth? Does anything about the experience change once you’ve swallowed the coffee? Does the finish make you feel satisfied, or leave you needing another sip?

If it’s a great coffee, the aftertaste will leave you satisfied and craving another sip.

How to Taste Coffee at Home Like a Pro

Now that you’ve read through the above guide, you have all the tools you need to taste coffee at home! Well, I suppose you’ll need fresh coffee, a burr grinder, a coffee scale and a kettle, too. But that should be a given.

ROK Coffee Espresso Press Espresso Shot

I’d suggest using a full immersion brewing method like cupping or French press when tasting coffee at home. Of course, you can still reflect on a coffee’s flavor when making pour over, but you may also have to consider notes from brewing defects or the inherent flavor of a paper filter.

If you’re trying to do a full-blown cupping, maybe drink your morning cup first. Then, invite a few coffee drinkers over, grind up your favorite or new-to-you coffee, break out your flavor wheel and notebook and taste away!

Final Thoughts

There you have it: how to taste coffee like a pro! I’m sure you can tell that I’m very passionate about this subject, so I have a lot more to say. But that’s for another article, or maybe even a whole book.

For now, I’ll just say this: there’s no wrong way to taste coffee. If it ends up in your mouth, you’re doing it right.

Do you have any tips or tricks for tasting coffee? I’d love to compare (tasting) notes. Let’s discuss in the comments section!

Tasting Coffee FAQ

Cupping is the industry standard for tasting coffee.

Taste a lot of different coffees as often as you can. This helps you to fine-tune your palate and discover your preferences.

This question is oddly specific but I’d say brew, smell, taste and taste again!

I wouldn’t say there are only 5 concrete elements of tasting coffee, but rather several: aroma, body, sweetness, acidity, balance, flavor and finish.

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Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

Hi! My name is Arne. Having spent years working as a barista I'm now on a mission to bring more good coffee to the people. To that end, my team and I provide you with a broad knowledge base on the subject of coffee.

More about Arne Preuss

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