by Julie Housh, Intelligentsia Coffee
As coffee professionals, we practice tasting coffee on a regular basis—whether via cupping or dialing in—employing tools like the SCAA Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel to articulate the flavors we find in coffee.
In my everyday role as a coffee educator, I often hear new baristas and consumers admit that “coffee just tastes like coffee” or, more bluntly, that they do not understand how the description on the bag relates to the coffee in their cup. While there is no replacement for repeated, regular coffee tasting, palate-development exercises are an additional activity benefitting anyone interested in coffee. For new baristas and consumers, palate development is a way to gently encourage the connection between the flavors in the description and the flavors in the cup. For experienced coffee tasters, it is a way to refresh our memories and make our descriptions more precise.
A palate-development exercise should be straightforward: all you have to do is assemble and taste actual food or aromatic items referenced in coffee descriptions. For example, a coffee from Guatemala might be described as tasting of “honeydew, vanilla, and apple butter.” In a palate-development exercise for this coffee, I would eat a slice of honeydew melon, a spoonful of apple butter, and cut open a vanilla bean. Taking the time to consume these items individually refreshes my sense memory. The next time I taste a cup of the Guatemalan coffee, (immediately after the exercise or at a later time) I should be better able to pick up on those flavors.
To add more depth to this exercise, it is also helpful to consider how we taste and develop flavor understanding. While there are any number of articles and books detailing how and why we taste, for the purposes of encouraging our thinking around flavor in a simple palate-development exercise, I have summarized the general concepts below.
Taste may be innate, but flavor is learned. Though the perception of basic tastes such as sweet, salt, savory, sour, and bitter may differ from one person to the next, each of these categories actually detects some underlying biological quality that we are born being able to recognize: sweet is energy, salt is electrolytes, savory is amino acids (or protein synthesis), sour is palatability, and bitter is poison. Despite the range of variation in how people describe a particular flavor, these underlying biological functions ensure that we have roughly the same reactions. In other words, my bitter may deviate from yours, but we can both agree that bitter taste exists.
Flavor, on the other hand, is a combination of different perceptions, taste being only one of them. The process also includes retronasal olfaction (the smell or aroma that fills my mouth), oral somatosensation (how it feels on my tongue), and chemesthesis (any other remaining sensations on my tongue), all of which appear to arise in the mouth. These other sense perceptions contribute to our ability to discern aromas in taste (strawberry, vanilla), texture (creamy, crunchy), and non-taste sensations (the burn of a chili). It is the repeated, learned exposure to different foodstuffs that results in an identification and preference for flavor.
When I consume something, I aim to consider all these. In a way, this is really just an application of terms we already use and know in coffee: aroma, body, sweetness, etc.
Applying the knowledge of how we acquire flavor to the palate-development exercise with honeydew, vanilla, and apple butter, tasting and smelling each food item takes on an additional layer of reference. I can consider the particular intense sweetness of the honeydew and apple butter, the aromas of the melon and the vanilla, the creamy texture of the apple butter, or the mouthfeel of the melon. Any combination of these things may be present in the coffee. By considering the different facets of flavor individually, it is much easier to identify why these foods were chosen to describe the particular coffee from Guatemala.
Additional palate-development exercises could compare similar items—different types of chocolate, citrus, or apple—adding a level of depth to these distinguishing characteristics. There is a clear difference between milk chocolate and unsweetened chocolate, and having a flavor reference for this distinction aids more robust coffee descriptions and understanding of how coffee tastes.
In the most basic of terms, palate development is simply taking the time to really think about a food or a fragrance, and to better store its qualities away for recall at a later time. Palate-development exercises can happen regularly with staff, or can be posed as an experience to receptive customers, encouraging them to make the real connections between what they taste in their coffee cups and the actual flavors of foodstuffs.