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Coffee tasting: knowing the difference between a good and a bad brew

Sometimes it feels like nothing can ruin a fresh bean to cup coffee at home, cosied up in your favourite jumper with perhaps a little amaretto biscuit on the side. Well, that is, apart from one thing. A badly made brew. Bitter, over extracted, too much acidity, weak, poorly foamed, these things are the stuff of a coffee connoisseur’s nightmare. We shiver at the thought, and felt it our moral duty to give you our best advice for ensuring you have a really tasty brew by being able to differentiate what makes a great coffee and a mediocre one. Creamy, smooth, strong if you like it that way, pleasing aromas, it’s the stuff dreams are made of. Put your instant down, step away from the coffee creamer, and get reading; you’ll be coffee tasting like a professional barista in no time.

There are a lot of components that go into great coffee. If you’re after a step by step guide to espresso, cappuccino, macchiato, or cold brew, we have you covered (link), and our run downs of utilising a french press, aeropress or espresso machine are all here. However, one thing that covers all of these bases in ensuring you get it right is having a discerning coffee palate like that of an expert. Plus, you don’t need any fancy gadgets, just a working tongue and a willingness to learn! Read on to find out the different ways you can differentiate a great to bad coffee.

The method

There’s a lot more to this enjoyable process than pouring coffee in your cup and having a glug. We love doing that as much as the next person, especially when you’re on limited sleep! However, if you’re looking to really explore the flavours and develop a new fancy skill, there’s a bit of a knack to getting the best aroma and flavour experience from your brew. 

Smell it dry

You bought your beans whole or ground, right? We hope so! If you bought whole beans, get a good smell before you grind them and before brewing immersion, agitating them a little bit in the cup or bowl you use to measure them out, then taking a good smell. If you bought them pre-ground, don’t fear, there’s still plenty of benefit from giving your ground beans a good smell. You’ll be able to get a more subtle scent either way before any water gets involved, as once the coffee oils are released in the extraction process they’ll be a lot more pungent. You may find it easier to discern different smells when the beans are dry, as the stronger smelling notes of the coffee can be more powerful than others once your beverage is brewed. You’re also, in our experience, a lot more likely to get straight to slurping the good stuff and forget to have a whiff if you don’t smell it dry first!

Scrape off the crema 

We’re imagining here that you’re drinking your coffee black, in either americano, filter or espresso form, to get the most of the unique flavours of your roast. We love milk laden beverages, but if you want to get the absolute optimum flavour and aroma from your beans you’re going to want to drink them as purely as you can. With a black coffee, you’ll usually develop a crema in the brewing process. Scrape off that gorgeous caramel crema before taking a sip, as this will affect the flavours you take on from the brew. We like to spoon it off like ice cream and eat it from the spoon, but we’re wild like that. 

Slurp!

Just like a good wine, if you want to get the absolute best out of tasting your coffee, there’s a specific way of experiencing the optimum flavour. It might not be the method for polite company, but the best way to get the flavour is to slurp your brew! Why? It makes sure the coffee covers your whole mouth and introduces plenty of oxygen to emphasise all the different levels of acidity and sweet notes. It’s also more likely that the coffee will get to the back of your mouth more quickly, where there are more tastebuds relevant for coffee.

Now you know what to do in terms of getting the best flavour and aroma out of your beans, we’ll give you the heads up on a huge variety of subtle qualities you can look for. By no means do you need to look for all of these (and there’s plenty of cups we’ve drank and not considered any of the below!), but isolating each one and mindfully trying your cup of jo will really enhance the experience for you. 

What to look for

Aroma

It goes without saying that the smell of fresh coffee is enough to wake the sleepiest of sleep deprived parents up somewhat, but did you know coffee aromas can vary considerably depending on the beans you’re using? Taste isn’t just about flavour after all, as a huge proportion of the body’s chemosensation system (the system responsible for flavour) relies on your olfactory response (nose). Smell carefully. Are the beans roasted well? Are they burnt? If you were to compare different roasts, how would they differ? Check by having a good sniff pre and post grinding the beans. As for the scent you’re looking for, this goes alongside the flavour which can range from sweet chocolate and caramel to citrusy orange and lemon, but the main goal here is the deeper and richer the better.

Body and cleanliness 

Not what it immediately sounds like! This one is really dependent upon your brewing method, and the type of beverage you’re making due to the weight of the coffee in your mouth, but the strength of the coffee can make a huge difference on flavour. Pour over brewing, for example, will have a very different body to say, an espresso. Overall though, questions in your head you might like to have are around whether it is heady and strong, or thin and weak? We’re all about a strong coffee. Immediately following the body of  your cup of jo is the ‘cleanliness’ of it. We’re not talking about how easy it is to scrub out of your clean carpets when your cat jumped on your lap mid slurp, but how quickly the flavour leaves your mouth once you’ve finished drinking. Are you left with a bitter flavour for hours after drinking, or is your mouth fairly fresh after a few moments? It’s no surprise that the lingering of stale coffee is not very desirable, so the ‘cleaner’ the better! 

Acidity

Acidity is also known as brightness and shouldn’t be confused with acidic flavours in terms of pH. The only way you’re going to burn your mouth is if you down your brew too quickly! We’re in fact talking here about how citrusy a blend is. These flavours come from the original bean type, not the roasting process. You’re looking for fruity flavours here. We like them to be subtle, and look for flavours like orange, blackberry, right through to lemon at the strongest! Not a fan of the acidic level of your roast? No need to change your brewing method; just ask your local roaster for a different bean which meets your palate preferences next time. 

Sweetness vs Bitterness

Avoiding bitterness is all about the level of extraction we’re using to get the gorgeous natural oils out of our coffee. Read a detailed rundown of how to know whether your coffee is under or over extracted. In summary, you’re looking for the perfect balance between flavourful and rich but not muddy, where the coffee grounds have been soaked for just long enough (not over extracted), and smooth and drinkable but not watery (under extracted). With the right extraction you’ll be able to feel the sweet flavours of your coffee. Are there honey notes? Or possibly caramel or chocolate? You’re much more likely to spot them with a well extracted brew. 

Layering and temperature  

Did you know that just like a good wine, a great brew offers layers of flavour and aroma? A great coffee can have a sequence of two or three flavours, each of these complementing each other – think caramel and chocolate, orange and lemon. An easy way to start recognising the layering of your coffee is to taste it frequently as it cools. We find that different flavours often release as the coffee heat reduces. While bitterness can develop a little as time goes on, it should happen slowly and not soon after your coffee has briefly cooled. Equally drinking your coffee piping hot will hide any bitter or sour notes, so let it cool a little bit, but not get cold (if you can avoid it!).

Final thoughts

So there you have it. A quick rundown of how to taste your coffee like an expert barista. There’s never been a better time to get to grips with your favourite beverage, and if this hasn’t convinced you to go whole/ground bean over instant, we don’t know what will! You could even turn the tasting process into a coffee tasting (virtual) party – no need to wait until the kids are in bed for your cheese and wine night! We also love that you can put your newfound expertise to use straight away, as you’re now more prepared to know what sweet treat will pair well with your brew. We have an article on what flavours match well with what deserts, so head over there if you’re ready to use your new skills for something new. Happy brewing and happy slurping team!

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