The world of coffee sometimes seems a little bit overwhelming — even to us! When we’re working with folks to pick the right machine to meet their needs or discussing the different coffee flavors inherent to different bean blends, we often hear the refrain that many people just want coffee to taste “good.”
Like any vague and subjective descriptor, “good” is defined differently by each of us, and how we achieve that “good” flavor is going to be similarly unique. Finding the blueberry or jasmine in a particular blend of coffee doesn’t have to involve pretension as much as it involves your particular sense of smell. Since flavor itself is defined as the combination of two sensory experiences — that of taste and smell — then your unique anatomical make-up regarding these two sensory systems will define your experiences of all foods, including coffee.
The taste buds in your mouth detect simple flavors such as salt, sweet, sour, bitter and savory — or umami — and all the rest of the flavors (like those hints of dried cherries or undertones of butterscotch) are sensed by your olfactory system. A misinterpretation of scientific analysis years ago led us to believe that the taste buds were allocated by flavor reception in specific regions of the mouth, but current science deems that not to be accurate.
Most of us are working with thousands of taste buds, but our sense of smell can vary quite significantly. Former or current smokers, for example, will have a decreased ability to taste the subtleties in flavors, while those with a heightened sense of smell will likely be able to detect even the most delicate of nuances. Here at Seattle Coffee Gear, we find that often to be true during our tastings — while some of us are able to taste honey or citrus, others can only return a sour, bitter or sweet determination.
One method that we’ve developed to detect these flavors is to sip the coffee, note any flavors that we may taste immediately, then sip a glass of water. We’ve found that clearing the palette can remove the basic taste sensation and leave the olfactory sensation behind, so that we can more easily taste the subtle aromatics.
Preparation will also have a lot to do with the flavor that you are able to sense — if you’re cupping it in a traditional ‘cowboy coffee’ method, you’ll notice more bitterness because of the increased amount of time the coffee is in contact with the water. Similarly, selecting cold brew methods that don’t extract nearly as much caffeine or acidity from the beans will give you a totally different flavor experience. So experiment with that, as well.
Most of all, have fun with it! Defining “good” coffee to you should be fun and delicious. Don’t let anyone tell you how a coffee should taste, just take the time to discover how it tastes to you and the way you like to prepare it. Turning coffee drinking into a gustatory expedition doesn’t have to be snobby or pretentious — and learning to appreciate the unique attributes of the various coffee beans from around the world is a compliment and a gift to all those who spend their lives cultivating them.