Tasting Coffee: A How To Guide

This is part II in a mini-series about what it means to "taste" or "cup" coffee. Part I can be found here.

Beautiful? Tea-like? Fruity? What do these terms we use really mean? How can a coffee taste round? What does earthy mean? Sometimes these aren’t terms everyone would naturally collate with how my coffee tastes. There must be a guide, a process to learn to recognize these flavors. Well we have good news, there is!

And it’s really not that mystic when you just plain get down to it.

There are essentially four broad characteristics to coffee:

Aroma - aroma is simply how the coffee smells when brewed. What flavors does it exhibit? It is your interpretation of the gases being released from brewed coffee. Does the coffee smell smokey? Nutty? Earthy? Like fruit? 

Acidity - acidity refers to a sharp and pleasing aftertaste, it can be thought of as the liveliness of the coffee. Acidity is a highly desirable quality and varies from low (dull) to high (lively). Acidity is essential, without it coffee is generally undesirable and referred to as flat. 

Sweetness - how sweet is the coffee, this is an easy one. 

Body - often referred to as texture or mouthfeel (such as oiliness). Body refers to how the coffee feels in your mouth, is it heavy or light (think: water vs. milk)? It can be sensed by allowing the coffee to rest on the tongue and by rubbing the tongue against the roof of the mouth.

Now the big secret to learning how to begin to pick up on these nuances is comparison.

It’s easy to pick out that a coffee is sweet when put next to one that is not. You need a frame of reference. What tastes distinguishes a coffee from Costa Rica from a Guatemalan? So, gather some friends and prep several different coffees and let’s cup (i.e. industry slang for taste) some coffee:

How To: Cup Coffee

Step 1

Smell the aromas. It’s said that a majority of our flavor perception is olfactory related. This is why professionals first smell the coffee. Ready? Cup your hands over the mug and trap the aromas of the steam and inhale it. What do you smell? Flowers? Cocoa? Hints of fresh berries?

Don’t forget to write it down, writing it down helps provide you with comparison notes when you’re sipping the coffee.

Step 2

Sip and slurp. Forget what your momma said about table manners, slurping coffee ensures you get air in the mix and sprays the coffee over your entire mouth enabling all the taste bud receptors to best perceive the taste. But don’t get so caught up in the slurping fun you forget to focus, listen to what your taste buds are telling you. You’ll notice that by slurping the coffee the flavors and body come alive. It’s all subjective, what you taste and how you interpret it will be different from others.

Step 3

Compare notes. Learning happens best when you compare notes with your compadres. What similarities exist? By comparing and talking through your experiences you’ll begin to expand your tasting compass. 

Tip: Taste is not the same as flavor. Taste is a chemical sense perceived by specialized receptor cells that make up taste buds. Flavor is a fusion of multiple senses. To perceive flavor, the brain interprets not only gustatory (taste) stimuli, but also olfactory (smell) stimuli and tactile and thermal sensations. With spicy food, the brain will even factor in pain as one aspect of flavor (source).


There are no wrong answers! What you taste is what you taste. The key is to continue learning, comparing notes with friends and trying many different types of coffee. Sometimes, as we pointed out in our first post, it’s just slowing down, paying attention to what you’re drinking and noting the differences in flavor.

Continue learning: Summer Coffee Classes announced, sign up now!