Welcome back! This is the final part of “A Cupping Kit” and as mentioned before, I will be presenting mostly my personal opinions on how to best improve your palete for better coffee evaluation based on my practical experience. Again, please click here if you prefer Vietnamese version of this post.
Before getting started, there are some things we should be aware of and try to avoid: tension, confusion and too much expectation.
- There is no right or wrong when it comes to tasting – it’s a personal experience
- Don’t be afraid to have a very different opinion to others
- And like many other things in life, we get better with practice.
Now that you’re ready to pursue a new passion, it’s time for task and assignments:
FLAVOR WHEEL EXPERIMENT
Let’s have a look at this Coffee Flavor Wheel:
Source: Specialty Coffee Association of America and World Coffee Research
How many of these flavor notes are you familiar with? Is it easy for you to recognize a flavor without seeing it? Several years ago, I was only able to identify mango as a fruity note and jasmine as a floral note since they’re the most popular fruit and flower in Vietnam. So, take your time and enjoy the journey to develop your own palete.
You’ll notice on the wheel that flavors are distinguished by colors, which creates a visual effect to help your brain memorize these notes easier without saying it. Here is my own personal experience regarding to this color categorization: I used to find it hard to differentiate lemon from lime as my English teacher used to call both of them “lemon” generally. This made me strongly believed that there was no other name for this fruit regardless to its colors. One day, we figured out that lime was actually the green one which has a bit bitterness and sweetness along with its sharp acidity, while lemon was the yellow one with dominant sourness. By looking at this wheel, we can immediately link the coffee’s acidity to the green or yellow one before calling out their names.
The most difficult part of experimenting with all of the flavors on this wheel is that it might be prohibitively expensive. For example, forest fruits are very rare here in Vietnam so we may have to sacrifice some of our favorite things for a while to afford some of the berries for sensory practice! Maple syrup, molasses and nutmeg are even harder to find but at least, we don’t have to worry about most tropical fruits as they’re a part of our daily lives.
Besides, there will be a number of armoma smelling much lighter in coffee than in its pure form, such as peapod, meaty brothy, etc. This is why you should considering purchasing an aroma kit, which obviously costs you more but at the same time, enhances your sense of smell.
You won’t want to be overwhelmed by too much of anything at one time and therefore I choose forming categories as my typical practice routine. For example, one session for berries and dried fruits, another for tropical ones, one more for flower and citrus fruits. Let’s start with something you are the most curious about because you’ll remember it more. Don’t forget to write down what you smell like, how it is on your tongue and how it lasts after you swallow it, as detailed as possible. By taking this simple approach, your taste buds will be effectively enhanced and your brain will memorize things better with a smaller range of flavors.
GO BEYOND YOUR CIRCLE
This is not an advanced homework for gifted students as you may think. By saying “Go beyond your circle”, I highly encourage everyone to gain very first sensory practice by taking notice of ordinary things around you. Here are a few tips that you can consider:
- Having your meal more slowly and mindfully so that you can feel separately pure flavors of each ingredient. Let’s see how broccoli and cucumber taste alone to know what “greenish” could be, then bite a piece of avocado to feel its “silky body”, which is also a description of coffee quality. Keep doing this even when you don’t see some kind of food relating to coffee flavors, such as tofu, because you can at least learn their texture, which is absolutely a part of coffee evaluation, too.
- Trying pairing coffee with anything that you’re interested in. Coffee with chocolate is legendary, but what kind of chocolate? How about chocolate coated strawberry or a bonbon made by milk chocolate and filled with salted lemon? Have you ever thought of cheese? I did and found myself not a big fan of this couple. I love coffee and I’m crazy for cheese but their combination doesn’t light up my already terrible day, at all. But there was once, I had a silly idea of taking a small bite of a fried tofu then a sip of café latte. This experience blew my mind totally. I never expected that eating tofu before can make the café latte taste sweeter than usual while reversely, the coffee enhanced the richness of tofu.
- Expand your experience in different aspects of F&B: wine, whisky, mixology, bartender, cook, patisserie, chocolatier, etc. Hanging out with some wine connoisseurs, reading about the latest trend of mixology and try it, or challenging yourself making the best French Beef Stew. If you do something much enough, you’ll find more ways to explain another thing. Years ago, a friend of mine made a secret liquid for his mixology experiment and challenged me to smell and guess what it was. I believed it was lychee. But then, he told me that it was fresh rose petal steeped in water for 24 hours and the reason why I thought it was lychee was that they were from the same family!
Generally speaking, just have fun going beyond your limit. Everything you encounter will shape up your knowledge and experiences.
LEARN THE STANDARD INTENSITY SCALE
Now that you’re acknowledged of possible flavors in coffee, let’s train your palate with the standard intensity scale of sweetness, acidity, bitterness and saltiness in it. We all know how acidic a lemon is, but how much of it should be acceptable in coffee? I personally support the idea of warming up your taste bud with the Sensory Lexicon by World Coffee Research, which you can find easily here.
This Lexicon gives you not only concise descriptions for each flavor but also a detailed instruction on how to prepare sample acidity, sweetness, bitterness and saltiness in low – medium – high intensity scale. After trying everything presented in this lexicon, it’s time to drink the actual coffee and see how your sensory skills improved. Don’t mind if your coffee doesn’t taste like what you see on its flavor notes, it’s a must-have process in learning: agree and disagree. If you agree, how clear can you find it? If you disagree, what could it be, instead?
Good luck with your new passion. Please leave a comment or email to me if you want to share with me your sensory experience. Would love to make more new coffee friends 🙂
P/S: I would love to express my gratitude to my friend – David, who helped me correct a part of this writing, which absolutely made it sound much better. Thanks again, David.