GUIDELINES ON HOW TO TASTE COFFEE
What is coffee ? In a nutshell, coffee is actually a cherry type fruit, which has two seeds inside. It is these two seeds inside that when dried out or washed, become green and when roasted become what people refer to as a coffee bean.
So, because coffee is a fruit, this means that it will have similar “aroma” molecules to other fruit, like raspberries, mangoes, blueberries, apricot, etc.
This basically refers to the smell of ground coffee and the finished brew i.e. before we taste the coffee, what smells do you recognize ?
Coffee can have low or high acidity and this is usually detected by the sharp taste you feel on the tip of your tongue when you taste coffee. A sharp taste usually means high acidity, typical of citrus type coffees, common to Central America, especially from Costa Rica.
Different types of sweetness can be detected in coffee like cane sugar, caramel (burnt sugar) or honey (creamy sweet) but not necessarily “pure sugar”. Well prepared coffee/good coffee should never be “bitter”.
Sometimes we get confused between sweetness found in some fruit and general sweetness found in sugar and honey, but when it comes to fruit, we should think about berries. When you undergo the SCAE Sensory Course, like I did in 2021, you get to train your tongue to distinguish between fruity and sweet.
How does the coffee feel in your mouth ? Is it heavy, light ? does it leave a dry, creamy, buttery, thin, oily or round feeling on your tongue ?
Does the coffee feel transparent (almost like water) in your mouth or is earthy (like the sediments at the bottom of hot chocolate) ? If coffee has been “washed” it will tend to have a clean finish, BUT if has been pulped natural, then it might have a more sediment finish.
What is the end result of your coffee ? A well roasted, crafted and great coffee should have a lingering finish, whereby, if you don’t eat or drink anything distinctive after your cup of coffee the taste will stay in your mouth for a while, like 30 minutes to an hour.
You should try and describe the flavour in a short precise manner. For example was it fruity ? If so, what fruit did it remind you of ? Was it chocolaty ? If so, like milk chocolate, dark chocolate, or pure cacao.
References: Tim Wendelboe’s Coffee Book, Lameen’s experiences and I’m still learning.
DISCOVERING COFFEE AROUND THE WORLD
As you know by now, coffee is a world commodity and is grown in many parts of the World in different types of climates. So it should come as no surprise that the most popular beverage in the World taste different from different parts of the World. Basically the higher the coffee is grown the better it should taste; and soil, weather and the processing of the coffee bean have a high impact on the taste of the bean.
(Traditionally bold and full body – good for filter coffee and milk based drinks)
Let’s start with the two big boys of coffee in Africa, Kenya and Ethiopia. As you know by now, coffee was discovered in what is now called Ethiopia. Ethiopia produces a lot of high quality coffee, with very individual types. So for example, you might get coffee low in caffeine, with citrus overtones in one region and in another region, you might get some coffees with mocha type qualities including chocolate overtones and high acidity. Ethiopia coffee can sometimes look unusual (I got some from the Sidamo region and they had a white line going through the middle) but don’t be fooled; you can get a lovely mouthful of good espresso full of crema from this unusual bean. The main regions are Sidamo, Kaffa, Harrrar, Djimmah and Yergacheffe. Some experts recommend that because of their good taste, Ethiopian beans are best when medium to dark roasted.
Personally, I find Ethiopian coffee good for the French Press or cafetiere, as you really get to enjoy a full taste. On a recent trip to a coffee starved nation, I was very happy drinking Ethiopian Harrar in my Bodum travel cafetiere mug, dark with no milk every morning – just what you need to begin the day with over 40C.
For some other experts, coffee doesn’t get better then those from Kenya, which are very bold, full of acidity and sharp. The quality tends to be high as coffee exports are managed very efficiently by the Coffee Board. Kenya also has the unusual peaberry bean, where there is only one bean as opposed to two in the cherry fruit. If you want to buy Kenyan coffee, look for one tagged with an “AA” tag, as these are the highest quality from Kenya.
If you go to gourmet coffee shops now, you will see coffee from Zambia and Tanzania too – the new players on the coffee scene from Africa. Zambian coffees are renowned to be light in body and good for filter coffees, whilst Tanzanian coffees, known for their great aroma, tend to be similar to their East African neighbour, Kenya, but with less acidity and lemony overtones.
The other country worth mentioning in Africa is Rwanda, which despite the huge devastation cased by the civil war, is coming up fast into the world coffee market again, especially with Fair Trade and organically grown coffee. The arabica is good quality due its very fertile soil and high rainfall.
(Good for cafetiere and filter coffee, lovely aroma – Silky smooth with chocolate overtones)
The Middle East – where coffee was originally grown in bulk and where the world grew to know and love coffee from – the land where the top quality bean, arabica got it’s name from – of course we are talking about what is now called Yemen. It is from the port Al-Mukha that we get the coffee type Mocha or Mocca. Mocha from Yemen tends to be wild, dry, aromatic and chocolatey. However, as with Java, coffee from Yemen is becoming more and scarcer, as farmers opt for more “cash” crops such as grapes and khat plants, meaning that the land originally used for good coffee is being used for other crops that bring in more money for the farmers. If you see good mocha and trust the supplier, then grab it, however mocha is sadly more likely to be put into blends nowadays.
(Well balanced, high acidity, spicy and citrus tones, good aroma and medium to full body – good for filter coffee, cafetiere, moka pot and espresso blends)
When coffee lovers think about coffee from Central America they think of 2 places, Costa Rica and Guatemala. For some connoisseurs, there’s no better coffee than that found in Costa Rica, which has one of the best conditions for growing arabica coffee. Not only does Costa Rican coffee have what most look for in a cup of coffee like exquisite acidity, wonderful aroma, good body, but the quality is consistent across the country and it is difficult to find a bad crop. The good thing for tourists too is that the best coffees are near the capital, San Jose, so if you visit the capital, you know that you are near to the good stuff and can probably buy a good bag of coffee. Most experts recommend that for such good coffee, it’s best to drink it without milk to really appreciate the quality. It is also recommended that the coffee not be dark roasted, as this will compromise on the quality, lowering acidity and getting rid of some of the high tones in the coffee. The most famous coffees come from La Minita, Windmill and Henri Tournon but the region of Tarrazu also produces top quality arabica. Incidentally, Costa Rica does not produce robusta.
Personally, I got the best taste from a Costa Rican Tarrazu using a moka pot and it was quite heavenly. it was also quite good as a ristretto too.
Guatemalan coffee is also rated very highly but doesn’t have the consistency of Costa Rican coffee. It is traditionally what people call a well-balanced coffee with medium-to-full body, good acidity and with spicy/chocolate flavours and tends to be on the sweet side. However, in the northern part of the country, the high altitudes are ideal conditions for high quality acidity and top quality arabica coffee. The Guatemalan Antigua coffee is one of the most popular types of coffee and it is easy to find in the shops, including Starbucks.
My experience of Guatemalan Antigua is one of lightness, sweetness and one that holds its flavour as it gets colder using a Moka Pot and ideal for a cappuccino.
Also worth mentioning is Honduras, where the coffee tends to have a good flavour with good acidity.
Medium body and recommended for filter coffee and espresso blends – Largest Coffee producing area in the World
This is the largest coffee producing area in the world with Brazil and Colombia number one and three in the world for coffee production respectively. In fact, when you ask a lot of people where coffee is grown, they always say Brazil. Brazil grows both robusta and arabica, but their arabicas are not rated highly by experts, although in the southern parts of the country “Bourbon” arabica trees produce coffee with fine acidity and sweetness. However, Brazilian coffees are more likely to be used in blends than served on their own and the famous Italian coffee roasters, Illy, use Brazilian coffee in their blend of 9 coffees.
I recently tried a Brazilian Mogiana, dark roasted, which was very caramel like and good for an espresso, so you just have to search for what you like and prefer.
Colombia is also synonymous with coffee production and it is quite easy to find Colombian coffee in shops and highlighted as a sign of quality in some coffee shops. As with the traditional homes of coffee like Java and Mocha, the good quality old arabica trees have been replaced with new higher yielding varieties, compromising on quality naturally. However, the Narino region produces some of the best coffee, even getting exclusive rights to supply the Vatican. Columbian coffees tend to have a lovely aroma, good body and medium acidity – good for moka pots and cafetiere.
Bold and full taste with low acidity – Wide choice from India, Vietnam, Indonesia (home of java) – good for espresso and ristretto.
In Asia, the most popular coffees come from the land of Java, Indonesia. Indonesian coffees tend to be bold and full of taste and are grown on 3 islands, Sulawesi, Java and Sumatra, which produce almost all of the country’s arabica beans. Coffees from Sumatra tend to be planted in very fertile soil and are quite strong, rich and with herbal undertones. Another coffee from this island is the popular Mandheling, supposedly rich with low acidity. Coffees from Sulawesi are also rich and the most famous from this island is Kalossi (or Celebes, probably the best from Indonesia. Coffees from the island of Java tend to be rich, full bodied and earthly. Incidentally, the island of Java was where the Dutch started growing coffee outside of the Arabian Peninsula and coffee has been grown there for over 300 years, however, the quality of coffee from Java is not what it used to be and it’s quite hard to find a really good quality Java coffee that is affordable.
Personally, I found Lintong from northern Sumatra (Indonesia), rich and sweetish. As for the Kalossi, it was definitely bold and strong and good for espresso and ristretto. However Indonesia has been undergoing a rapid change, experimenting with its coffee and is becoming popular in specialty coffee shops, as it begins to offer real flavourful coffees (HINT: OUR ESPRESSO BLEND HAS INDONESIA)
Coffees from India tend to be low in acidity as well as light and sweetish and when drank with milk based drinks like cappuccino and caffe lattes can go down quite smoothly and are easily digestible.