Teaching to Taste
1. We all Taste, why do we taste?
The famous non-attributable quote goes “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. Don’t try to tell me who actually said it first, that’s mostly unimportant. What’s important is that writing about any sensory experience is a rather challenging endeavor. If I’m going to try to teach you about tasting something... well it would be a lot easier to just simply taste it with you. I’m sure that I could convince you that you are tasting something.
Most people have the ability to taste. Our sensitivity to particular tastes and our preferences for them is very subjective. Some of this is biological, and some of this is related to exposure and memory.
Learning to be a taster, or tasting on purpose, is all about learning to discern one taste from another (i.e. putting language to sensory information), and then also being able to perceive how those different elements interact. It is important to keep in mind that it’s not just about the details, but how those details form the whole picture as well. In this, we are not just tasting, we are taking a whole sensory analysis of the experience.
Sensory analysis is used in coffee primarily for discovery, purchase, preference, quality control, and other research and development purposes. Cupping is the most familiar methodology for sensory analysis in coffee, and in some ways the prevalence of cupping as a practice has lead to both some positive and negative results. The main positive is that people are looking more closely at coffees while the main negative is that if cupping is the only way in which you evaluate a coffee then you may not get a fair picture of how a roast might be helping or hurting a coffee as certain roast profiles don’t perform well in a cupping setting.
Cupping seems complicated but it is eminently practical. Consider this: If you needed to tastes 10 different roasts of 10 different coffees all at the same time, how would you do it? Get 10 Mr. Coffee machines and start them all at the same time? Maybe 10 French Presses? But if the goal is not only to find problems in a coffee, and judge how consistent it brews up, when you grind a batch you are diluting the impact of that 1 defect bean that might be there. So by grinding just 80 beans into a single cup, and making 3 to 5 cups of each coffee by adding hot water direct to the grinds, you can taste a lot of coffee easily, gauge uniformity from cup to cup, and get the full impact of that 1 defect bean that might crop up.
The development of cupping as a practice stems mostly from a need to check for taints and defects in a coffee, and it’s important to note that it is designed to analyze the coffee itself and not the roast level. This is why for cupping purposes we roast the coffee to a level where there are minimal roast flavors and also why certain roast levels hardly ever perform well in a cupping setting.
If you're unfamiliar, the basics of a cupping are:
- A fairly fine grind of a coffee, like the grind for cone filter drip brew, in a small glass or bowl. A 5 to 8 oz rocks glass works well, or small soup bowl. You don’t really want to go over 8 oz.
- The dose ratio is approximately 2 tbsp per 6 oz of water. If you want to get more exacting the suggested ratio is 8.25 grams of ground coffee to 5 oz or 150 ml of water.
- With the dry grounds in the cup/glass, shake them up a bit and then put your nose into the glass and take a sniff noting the fragrance.
- Using approx. 200 water, wet the grounds and fill the glass to the rim.
- Now take a sniff of the wet grounds and note the aroma.
- After steeping for 4 minutes, take a spoon with a deep concavity (like a soup spoon) and with your nose directly over the cup “break” the crust on the top of the cup, plunging the spoon to the bottom of the cup and bringing it back up to the top taking deep sniffs as you do all of this.
- The grounds will have settled to the bottom of the cup and you will not be removing the grounds from the brew at any time. There will be a tannish colored foam on the top of the cup that you should scoop off, trying not to take too much liquid with it.
- It’s important that you check the temperature before you take a big slurp so as to avoid scalding your palate. You can do this by feeling the side of the cup with your finger, if it’s too hot to touch then it’s definitely too hot to put in your mouth. If you start tasting the coffee after about 10 minutes after you first poured the water then it should be cool enough to start. Also, it is important to taste the coffee as it cools all the way to room temperature as the tastes and sensations will change dramatically.
- With your spoon, take a bit of the coffee from the cup and slurp it.
You don’t have to cup to make a sensory analysis of a coffee. It is a good methodology because it forces you to focus on particular aspects of the coffee, and can give you a different perspective on the flavors of the cup than, say, you might have if you brew it in a French Press. There is also something to be said about “tasting” a coffee in the method that you most frequently experience it and instead of just drinking the coffee, you actually stop and think about it. Cupping helps a taster to consider the qualitative aspects of the coffee taste experience, and then consider the quantitative aspects of that sensation.
But before we get into that, let’s discuss...
2. What We Taste and What We Sense
As we stated before, taste is just one part of sensory analysis. There are many characteristics within the mode of taste, and these tend to be the first things that we are able to discern. The parts of taste are:
Of course with taste we generally are not just tasting sweet or sour but types of sour, like citric or malic acidity. This is maybe why when we think of sensory analysis we think mostly of taste, because it’s the most easily identifiable. We’ve all had an apple, and even if we didn’t spend a lot of effort thinking about it, we still tasted it because tasting isn’t voluntary. We just don’t always choose to pay close attention to it.
So, if taste is just part of the sensory experience, what are the other parts?
- Aromatics (the most closely related to taste, and one of the largest influences on taste)
- Tactile Sensations (body, mouthfeel)
- Trigeminal Sensations (hot/cold temperature sensations, but also hot spice or cool menthol sensations). Acidity and astringency are also trigeminal sensations. Perceived acidity or astringency also relates closely to sour or bitter taste attributes.
When you were reading over these lists and you saw the word sour, chances are that you actually had a sensation or sense memory of sourness and maybe even puckered up a bit. Becoming more attuned to this is key in building your palate memory.
These modes all interact, and different characteristics of these modes can suppress or amplify and support one another like citric acidity and lemon aroma. Characteristics within the modes themselves tend to at least partially suppress one another; for example, sweetness can diminish bitterness and acidity. Also, excessive exposure to any of these modes or sensations can affect your sensitivity to them. This is very important to remember when performing sensory analysis; you can have palate fatigue from simply tasting too much, or if you eat something strongly flavored in one way or another before you attempt to taste something purposefully, it can certainly make that difficult.
As we stated earlier, in a sensory test you would first try to identify the qualitative aspects; what is the sensation being experienced and what mode does the sensation belong to? Then you would consider the quantitative aspects of the sensation and its intensity. This is usually where you can begin to be able to discern differences, because in considering the quantitative aspects you are using a scale and comparing it to the other sensations that you are experiencing or have experienced. The same could be said about the identification of the qualitative aspects where you’re discerning whether you are experiencing sweetness or sourness, and then what type of sweetness and sourness. Identification and measurement; this is sensory analysis.
3. Learning to Taste
Just like anything, better sensory analysis comes with training and practice.
You need training because you need to condition yourself to be more sensitive; practice because, while palate memory is rather strong, you still need to actually fill that data base.
First - The Mechanics
This is a link to a video that Tom did about the difference between drinking and tasting - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=npUErC5z9p4
As we see in Tom’s video, the key mechanics of tasting are contact time and the aromatics which are engaged by slurping the coffee. The slurping allows retro-nasal aroma perception and also aids in spreading the sample over the whole palate. You continue to spread the sample over the palate by “chewing” the coffee, and you can also breathe in through the nose while the sample is still in the mouth in order to further stimulate retro-nasal aromatics. This takes a few tries to perfect and it’s always slightly comical to watch particular people struggle with the idea of slurping due almost entirely to politeness (I wouldn’t mention it if I hadn’t seen it over and over again). One other important slurping side note; while slurping is the best way to taste certain liquids such as coffee or wine, do not try it with carbonated beverages.
These are the mechanics of taste, but with talk of retro-nasal aromatic perception, let us not forget other important aroma analyses. With coffee preparation, and especially cupping preparation, two very important aromatic analyses come into play; the fragrance reading of the dry grounds and the aroma reading of the wet coffee and the break. These analyses can betray many problematic or delightful attributes in a coffee. These readings also are integral in learning to taste in the sense that you can practice to find in the cup what you experienced in the dry fragrance or break.
Once we have mechanics down. We can start training our palates to recognize certain qualitative elements. One of the most direct way to do this is through a sensory skills test involving solutions of salty, sweet, and sour.
- The first step in the test is to acquire the solutions; salt for salty, sugar for sweet, and lemon juice for sour are the most easily available.
- Next you will make dilutions of the solutions at three different levels of intensity. Try to make your three intensity level 1’s the same strength so that your level 1 sour is about the same intensity as your level 1 sweet and level 1 salty. This will be important at a later stage in the test.
- The first test is simply about differentiation. Setting up the dilutions blindly (it’s important to have a collaborator for this), you will try to discern which dilution is which, separating all of the sours from all of the sweets from all of the salties.
In the next test, you are going to try to discern intensity levels of each taste. You will take the three samples of each dilution at 3 different dilution strengths that you set up and then separate the salt from the sweet from the sour, but also you will rate them in each taste category from least to most intense.
- The third test in this series is the real doozy. In this test you will make dilutions which are combinations of each solution.
- Not only will they be combinations in which you will have to discern what the combination is (salt and sour, or maybe even all three solutions), but you will rate the intensity level of each solution in the dilution. So, a dilution might contain level 2 sour, level 3 sweet, and level 1 salty and it’s you task to figure out which solutions are present and what their intensity levels are as well.
This last test is an exercise which works very well for helping you to learn how different components within the modes can either suppress or intensify the experience of another. This is a very difficult exercise, and when this test is given in professional situations the grading is usually done on a curve. Very few people can get a 100% score on this. It is a truly challenging, and for that reason a fantastic, training and learning exercise.
Here’s another video from Tom which discusses some solution options as well as ways in which you can use the exercise to calibrate, evaluate, and/or hone your tasting skills:
insert the solutions video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gz6R4T_4csI&feature=related
Another standard sensory tests is the triangulation test. This is a test for which you can actually use coffee, and you could even use just about any brew method but generally cupping does work best. You do need at least two different coffees though. For this test you will prepare two cups of one coffee and one cup of another, and then you can repeat the setting with different coffees. The samples need to be set blindly so you’ll need a conspirator. Your task in this test is to pick out the coffee that is different.
This can be really easy or really difficult depending on the coffee you choose to work with, but either way you will start tasting the coffee differently and paying closer attention to what you are experiencing.
A test that I really enjoy doing and that I feel really helps people to be better coffee tasters is what I call the blend test. Take at least three coffees and set them up next to each other to be tasted.
This tasting does not have to be set up blind, but blind tastings are usually best to avoid any preconceived notions of a particular coffee. Then you will set up a fourth sample made up of a blend of equal parts of each of the three or more coffees that you’ve already set up.
This test is great because not only are you going to look at how each of the three coffees are different, but in tasting the blend you are trying to find those differences in a new context. You can’t help but pay more attention to what you are tasting and experiencing. This is one of my favorite cuppings to set up for people who are new to the exercise.
So far, all of these tests are focused on tasting. How can we practice at qualifying and quantifying the other modes of sensory experience? You can exercise analyzing aromatics by doing the triangle test just with dry grounds or the break. That being said, the dry fragrance and break reading should be used whenever you do a triangle test so that you are using it in conjunction with your taste analysis. There are also other aroma tests available in expensive sets like the “Le Nez Du Cafe” which are great tools as far as sharpening your skills or as a reference when analyzing a coffee.
A great exercise that can show you the impact that trigeminal sensations have on tasting is to take the solutions from the sensory skills test and prepare dilutions at different temperatures. Which parts of taste are muted by higher temperatures? Which parts are amplified at different temperatures? In a dilution containing more than one solution, which parts are more noticeable at different temperatures and how does that change as the dilution cools?
Tactile sensations are one of the hardest sensory experiences to learn how to qualify and quantify. You can taste orange juice next to apple juice and note the differences in mouthfeel, but there’s so much else going on that you’re literally comparing apples to oranges. How about milk? You can taste whole milk next to 2%, next to skim, and you will be able to see how the fat content alters the sensation of body or mouthfeel. With tactile sensations you may be referring to viscosity, or you may be talking about the clarity and structure of a coffee. One way that you can start getting a clearer picture of body and mouthfeel is to think about how you are experiencing the other attributes of a cup. The relationship between flavor and acidity and where you experience those modes can be used to help you get a clearer picture of the body of the coffee. Perceived acidity is a trigeminal sensation and is also closely related to parts of taste. The trigeminal system also helps discern viscosity and whether a coffee feels thin, dense, round, silky, or creamy. In short, if you can zero in on one attribute and think about where you experience it on the palate and at what intensity and for how long, you will start to get a sense of the body as well.
4. Flexing the Muscles
This all brings us to ways in which we can continue to build our palate memory data bases and how to continue to exercise the parts of your brain that help you discern, discriminate, and define. You can practice tasting and building your palate memory by being purposeful in your tasting with whatever you eat and drink or smell, and keep detailed notes in a tasting diary. Buy a few different varieties of apples and sit down with them and document the differences. Do the same thing with salts, nuts, or chocolates. Visit your florist and ask to see the most aromatic flowers (and then pick up a few for a friend or loved one). Tasting different fruits, nuts, and sugars is going to build your memory and also your vocabulary and ability to describe what your tasting not just to yourself but to others as well. Tie it all back to coffee by pairing coffees that are described as having certain fruit attributes with those exact fruits. Coffee is a fruit, and obviously a flower, so those sugars are present!
What I always come back to is that: this is about sensory awareness. Being a more aware taster is tied up with being aware when you taste anything, but it’s also tied up with other sensory experiences. If I’m looking at a series of paintings that are supposed to demonstrate the changes brought on by different light and perspective, then examining them for their differences is going to help me be a better taster. Reading a series of novels in which there’s a continued development of the characters and their personalities and how they grow as individuals is going to make me a better taster.
Listening to a piece of music and trying to discern how many different instruments are playing and how the different instruments or elements in a piece of music interact with each other is going to make you a better taster. One thing that I always do when I am training a new roaster to taste is to tell them to go listen to Tommy James and the Shondells - Crimson and Clover and to come back and tell me how many different instruments they hear. Also, there are elements within the song that create a perfect set-up for the tremelo’d vocal breakdown at the end of the song so that rather than just being some wild psychedelic freak-out, the end of the song is the obvious conclusion to everything that happened before it. If you can pick and point these out, you can become a better taster.
All of this teaches closer observation and sensory/sensual awareness. This will help you to be a better taster, listener, viewer, learner, and maybe even a better kisser. In fact, if you aren’t a better kisser after working at being a better taster, then I owe you a nickel. I’m good for it.