Developing your palate and refining your sensory skills is a valuable practice for coffee professionals of all kinds. Those skills help to better understand a coffee’s cup profile and allow for you to more easily distinguish specific characteristics in terms of flavor, aroma, acidity, and more. In a professional environment, coffee tasting often takes the form of cupping, which is a technical activity used to evaluate a number of samples for business purposes. However, palate development is an activity that can—and arguably should—be practiced anywhere and anytime by people who are interested in learning to taste, interpret, and communicate their coffee experiences with others.
We’re excited to share these coffee tasting tips from our Ally Team as you continue on your journey in improving your palate.
Tip #1: Drink More Coffee
The best way to develop your palate for tasting coffee is by drinking coffee and making notes about what you’re experiencing in the cup as you do. Keep a journal, cupping form, or notepad at hand—physical and digital are equally useful—and write down flavors, aromas, tactile sensations, and everything that comes to mind. This practice is most effective when you’re able to set aside a few minutes to drink, taste, and reflect without distraction, similar to how professional coffee tasters and Q Graders approach cupping.
As you taste coffee, focus on specific sensory characteristics individually. For example, make notes about the aroma of your freshly brewed coffee while it’s still too hot to taste. Is it fruity, chocolatey, perfume-like, or something else entirely? Use the same focus for other characteristics like flavor, body, and acidity as you progress; is the flavor sweet, spiced, floral, or fruity? Is the body heavy, creamy, or thin? Is the acidity bright, rounded, citrus-like, or flat?
Luiz Tinoco, Ally Coffee Market Intelligence Manager, evaluating coffees in Ally's quality control lab, Greenville, South Carolina, USA.
Identifying nuances and specific traits in coffee can take time to develop, and the most efficient way to begin to recognize these characteristics is by tasting more than one coffee at a time, comparing and contrasting their profiles. Taste coffees from a variety of origins and roasters, and coffees that have been processed in a variety of ways. To start, you can choose two coffees that likely have different cup profiles, comparing a Washed coffee from Ethiopia with a Natural process coffee from Brazil for example. Over time, this should make small differences much easier to identify whether you’re tasting a single coffee at home or evaluating a whole table of fresh crop samples.
One tool that can help you take detailed and specific notes while you taste coffee is the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel. Originally published in 1995, this resource was updated in 2016 through collaboration between the Specialty Coffee Association and World Coffee Research. This Wheel is organized with general flavor categories in the center and progressively more specific flavors listed as you move to the exterior, giving you a basis for honing in on flavors that might otherwise escape you.
Tip #2: Develop Your Sensory Vocabulary
Communicating your coffee tasting experiences with others is a significant part of developing your palate. This means that building a vocabulary to talk about flavor and other attributes is important, both professionally and at home. "By doing so, you can deconstruct the aspects of taste and flavor and explain sensations in more specific detail,” explains Ildi Revi, M.Ad.Ed., Ally Coffee’s Director of Performance and certified Q Instructor. “This allows someone to determine coffee quality and talk about flavor.”
The widely used industry standard for this vocabulary is the Sensory Lexicon, published by World Coffee Research. This resource was designed to give concrete references for a wide range of sensory characteristics experienced in coffee, and is used by professionals across the globe. While the Sensory Lexicon is useful in helping people from a variety of backgrounds to calibrate on specific flavors, some ingredients referenced in the book may be difficult to find depending on where you are in the world. Nevertheless, the Sensory Lexicon is a wonderful compendium of many of the sensory experiences you can expect to find as you taste coffee.
Using an industry-standard reference like the Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel or the Sensory Lexicon is good practice, but few resources will rival tasting coffee with friends and colleagues. “If you calibrate with others, you will be able to improve the accuracy with which you talk about coffee,” says Elena Lokteva, Ally Coffee’s Colombia Green Buyer and a certified Q Grader herself. “I recommend volunteering at coffee or food events. These are situations where everything is about tasting,” she adds. “I’ve also heard about several initiatives from cafés and roasters who do ‘open cuppings’ guided by experienced people.”
Tip #3: Try New Flavors
Developing your palate for coffee is about much more than only tasting coffee. By experiencing a broad spectrum of other foods and beverages, you can expand and fine-tune your own personal sensory lexicon.
Fruits, nuts, and chocolate are some of the most commonly referenced flavors in coffee, and could be a good place to start expanding your palate. For example, which traits distinguish milk chocolate from dark chocolate or cacao nibs? Or, have you ever compared a selection of stone fruits like peaches, apricots, and cherries?
Chelsea Thoumsin, Ally Coffee Southeast US Sales & Account Manager and Q Grader, recommends that you try food prepared in different ways. She explains, “for example, taste a raw cashew versus a roasted cashew. Or a raw tomato versus a boiled one. What happens to the flavor as something is baked, roasted, dried, or boiled? It doesn’t need to be complicated. In fact, the more simple, the better.”
Elena Lokteva cupping coffee with others at Hacienda Cafetera La Pradera in Aratoca, Santander, Colombia
Tea tasting can also be a good practice for learning to differentiate a number of different flavors that may be difficult to come by otherwise. Herbal teas (or tisanes) can offer floral flavors like chamomile, hibiscus, and others, along with several spice notes like cinnamon, turmeric, or clove. Or, as a specific example, Earl Grey tea is a useful reference for bergamot in coffee, which is a citrus fruit that you’re not likely to find fresh at a grocery store. Some flavors might be difficult to find, depending on where you are located in the world; don’t hesitate to look for flavored candies and other goods while you explore the many flavors available to you.
While the examples above can be clearly connected to frequently used coffee tasting notes, your palate and ability to taste coffee benefits when you thoughtfully taste everything as you have the opportunity. Grains, vegetables, sweets, vinegars, herbs—everything you taste can help build your palate and refine your vocabulary as a coffee taster.
Tip #4: Find New Ways to Taste
Your skill as a coffee taster requires practice just like any other, and finding fun and interesting ways to taste coffee will help in broadening your sensory horizons. For example, you can try blind cupping coffees with one or more people. Blind cupping is an activity in which you don’t know what is in each cup, helping you to avoid any preconceptions you may have about coffees from a particular origin or processed in a particular way.
You can also set up triangulation cupping, which is the basis for the World Cup Tasters competition. In a triangulation cupping, cups are set up in groups of three with two cups containing the same coffee and one containing a different coffee. The taster then tries to identify which cup is different. You can adjust the difficulty by making the coffees more or less similar, and you can even compete in timed events with other people for a fun twist on practicing coffee tasting.
Lastly, make an effort to taste and discuss coffee with importers, roasters, traders, Q Graders, enthusiasts, baristas, and anyone you can find who shares your enthusiasm for coffee tasting. Sharing coffee with others—especially people with diverse backgrounds, experiences, and personal sensory lexicons—can offer incredible insights and unexpected revelations for your own coffee tasting journey. “One way to do this is via virtual tasting sessions,” says Chelsea. “Whether you’re brewing together with different methods, or setting up a more formal cupping, this can be a fun way to calibrate with others when you may not be able to meet up in real life. It takes a little more coordination, but is a valuable and more relaxed way to taste with others than in your traditional cupping room.”
Developing your palate and improving your ability to taste coffee can take time and practice, but the rewards of being able to more clearly understand and share your sensory experience with others are substantial. For many, both professional and enthusiast tasters, palate development is a lifelong journey marked by new flavors, memorable experiences, and—maybe most importantly—delicious coffees from across the globe.