When you attend a cupping session, you should freely explore the various taste and aroma associations that the components of a coffee elicit from your life experience. The first thing I do at a cupping table is catalog, catalog, catalog! Starting with the fragrance, I associate it to a past experience and then from there, I find the best place to catalog what I am sensing. To get you started, the Specialty Coffee Association of America (SCAA) has proposed generic templates of some of the most common associations that tend to be elicited by coffees. The tree diagram below is the SCAA’s initial breakdown of the sensation that we call taste.
The spectrum of tastes given in the table is hardly an exhaustive one. If you attend a cupping session, don’t think of this particular list as a “limitation” on what you should be tasting. Instead, merely think of it as a starting point. There are bound to be other associations that the flavors in particular coffees will elicit in you: licorice, honeysuckle, bergamot, saffron, and peppermint and in my case, I always seem to get Fruity Pebbles!The high sweet notes that makes a coffee dance on the surface of your tongue, and the sweetness that sparkles on your tongue are attributes of acidity. The “body” of a coffee is also called its “mouth feel.” Body refers to the sense of richness and heaviness that is left near the back of your tongue after you taste the coffee. Sometimes it is easy to think of it as orange juice (acidity) and milk (body).The concept of “aftertaste” is one that captures the sensations of the brewed coffee vapors. Aftertastes may be described as carbony, chocolaty, spicy, or turpeny, just to name just a few.
Coffees taste is perceived mostly on the tongue by the taste buds.
SWEET- The first sensation humans develop, our appetite for sweetness is unparalleled. In coffee, a number of sugars (usually called polysaccharides or carbohydrates) exist and are perceived as sweetness. Sweetness in coffee is directly related to the ripeness of the coffee cherry when picked.
SOUR- We perceive acid on the tongue as the flavor sour. The term sour in coffee is related to an excess of acetic acid or tartaric acid due to an overfermentation or unripe coffee. However, our sour receptors also perceive desirable acidity characteristics of fine coffees.
SALTY- Frequently in coffee tasting a phantom saltiness can appear which is unrelated to mineral content. Salty flavor is a taste defect in coffee and is usually related to mineral contamination during processing, especially drying coffee on the ground.
BITTER- Our perception of bitter is thought to be an evolutionary development against environmental poisons. A common alkaloid in coffee is caffeine. Bitterness is essential to coffee's flavor and not just caffeine but other various products of sugar browning.
SAVORY- In the early 1900s, a Japanese Scientist established the taste sensation of umami (literally: deliciousness) by isolating the flavorful component of kombu seaweed. The isolated active component was glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is the most common amino acid in food protein. Savoriness in coffee is thought to be related to yeast activity during fermentation phase of processing.
The “aroma” of a coffee should be considered in juxtaposition to its acidity and flavor. Floral notes in coffees may sometimes only be experienced within the context of the aroma. A distinct fresh floral note can easily be distinguished in the aroma.The SCAA has also put forward a breakdown of coffee aromas. Since there are so many more aromas than tastes, the SCAA aroma breakdowns require four charts to list them all.
The SCAA has separated aroma into three generic categories: Enzymatic; Sugar Browning; and Dry Distillation. These basic categories are broken down further in the tree diagrams below. Again, this set of categorizations should not be used to limit what you experience when you savor the aroma of a coffee. Instead, use them as a starting point in forming your own associations.
ENZYMATIC BY PRODUCTS- are related to enzymes reactions in the plant itself and enzymatic reactions during processing.
SUGAR BROWNING- as the name implies are aromatic compounds during the roasting process by thermal reactions in sugar browning, called Maillard Reactions. These include caramelly, nutty, toastlike and grain aromas.
DRY DISTILLATION BY PRODUCTS- are related to the burning of plant fibers during roasting. Spicy, smoky and woody aromas are in this group.
To bring it all home, coffee's flavor is a combination of its taste perceived on the tongue, and a myriad of aromatics perceived in the nasal cavity. The more you cup, the more skilled you become in the art of tasting in general and of articulating this experience specifically.