People who’ve been drinking coffee for years think they know what beans are the best for their palate. They’ll stick to the same brand—claiming that other beans are inferior or taste bad—and won’t deviate from their caffeinated cause unless they absolutely have to. That presents a problem: When hardcore Joe jockeys have to drink a new brew and then stumble upon a cup of really great coffee, their taste buds challenged, they can spiral into an existential crisis that has them doubting their coffee palate.
But what gives a particular coffee bean its singular taste and aroma when brewed? How do you properly taste coffee to really experience the notes and flavors that the particular bean imparts and makes you a fan for life? To honor National Coffee Day, and to pay tribute to the little bean that does so much for the human race each morning before work and every afternoon when energy dips, we ground down the factors that bestow coffee beans with their unique flavor notes—so you can figure out what makes your daily cuppa so damn good.
First: start with the bean. Two factors affect the flavor: Its origin (where it’s grown) and how it’s roasted. Single-source coffees are your best bet: If the label on the bag lists more than one country, look for something else, says Jordan Rosenacker, co-founder of the Atlas Coffee Club in Austin, TX. “Over 50 countries produce coffee, and each one is unique—so go for single-origin coffee,” he says. “If more than one country is listed, it’s a blend; often, good beans are cut with subpar beans for filler and they will dark-roast it to make it have a bold flavor, but that long roast will mute the subtle flavor notes.”
More than 800 aromatic and flavor compounds are found in coffee (compared to around 200 for wine), so it’s important to get quality, single-origin beans prepared correctly, from the roast to the brewing method. For example, coffee beans from Ethiopia generally have fruity notes like blueberry and hints of dark chocolate, while Colombian beans can taste of tart red cherry with a sweeter, chocolate note. For a traditionally low-acid brew with a nutty, chocolate finish, go with Brazilian coffee. A bright acidity and citrusy, clementine flavor dominates many Kenyan beans.
Roasting coffee is considered both an art and a science, because bringing the roast to the perfect level requires great skill—a few seconds too long can make a big impact. “Each coffee can yield a different flavor profile at different roasts,” says Rosenacker. “It's a mix of personal preference, attributes of that specific coffee, and a lot of experimenting.” Roasts also can vary from company to company, but generally the best way to get the full flavors from a brew you should go for a light to medium roast.
Another point: If you really crave coffee flavors, avoid dark roast coffees—they’ll rarely deliver all the coffee bean’s unique flavors. “Dark roast coffees are most commonly made up of inferior beans which are over-roasted to mask their imperfection,” says Rosenacker. “Some people like this ‘roasty’ flavor, which is fine, but it won't provide the unique flavors hidden in coffee.” Plus, a lot of people drinking dark roast will mix milk and/or sugar to cut the intense, almost burned, flavor, which ends up adding empty calories to your brew.
Another bit of myth-busting: Many coffee drinkers are under the illusion that darker roasts have more caffeine, but that’s not true. For one, the caffeine levels in a bean will stay very stable during the roast, no matter how dark you go—the key is the loss of mass of the bean as it roasts. When heat is applied, the bean steadily loses water, making the bean smaller and less dense. Consequently, you’ll need about 90 more beans to make a pound of dark-roast coffee than light-roast—more beans, more caffeine. But if you measure out the beans by scoop instead of weight, a lighter roast will have more caffeine, since the beans are denser. In the end, the amount of caffeine variance is negligible anyway, so just stick with medium to light so you can experience the true flavor of the bean.
To taste and smell your coffee the professional way, which is called “cupping,” can be a long and involved process that includes scales and specific cups, special roasting procedures, and timing. But for the casual coffee drinker who just wants to know how to relate the flavors and aromas that make a perfect cup of coffee for them, there are a few simple steps:
- Know where your coffee is from and the general flavors and aromas that go with it. To figure out what flavors you are about to taste and how they're related, a flavor wheel can be very helpful. This one, from the Specialty Coffee Association, is a great resource for when you want to understand what flavors are hitting your tongue.
- Before drinking your coffee, have some water or a piece of white bread to clear your palate.
- Take a sip and identify the flavor you’re tasting on the inner ring of the wheel. Jotting down your impressions on paper can be helpful. Are you experiencing a floral or fruity flavor? Or is it more earthy and woody? Maybe you're getting hints of chocolate or nuts?
- Have another sip to lock in what flavors you are tasting.
- Now take a big loud slurp, which lets the coffee cover your entire tongue, and gives you a better taste.
- Give your coffee a big sip, and swish it around your mouth for about five seconds to give your tongue enough coffee to really nail down the flavors. Swallow and check the wheel by moving your way out to further narrow down what you're experiencing, and finally find your favorite coffee flavors.