Developing your palate

Beginner and pro baristas share tips and tricks for making espresso.
King Seven

#1: Post by King Seven »

At Dan's nudging I thought I would post something here, related to the little article I put up on my blog yesterday titled "8 Steps to develop your Coffee Palate".

The article was really focused at the curious consumer, and was somewhat inspired by many conversations I've had and read recently about cupping.

For me the key to palate development is comparative tasting. I find still find it difficult to sit down with a single cup of coffee and to really break it down and describe it satisfactorily. Having just one other coffee to taste makes this 100 times easier.

The process of cupping doesn't develop your palate any better than simply paying attention while you taste at least two different brews. There is no magic in the cupping bowls and spoons - only opportunity.

I still think we all worry a little too much about poetic descriptors that often do a better job of saying something about the person writing them, rather than communicating the likely experience of a well brewed cup of that coffee. (And yes - I write labels, judge me as you will!)

If you haven't done a simple side by side tasting in a while then I strongly urge you to do it. If you can, do it 'blind'. (Have someone pour the coffee into two different cups but not tell you which is which. Or just do it with two new coffees.)

I desperately want to make great coffees more accessible so if you think this is useful please do pass it on. Anti-snobbery will always hinder speciality products, but I think it is more elitist not to spread information and thus deny people the opportunity to enjoy something (coffee) more than they do.

Sorry - bit off topic there. Any other tips people would add for speedy palate development?


#2: Post by andrewpetre »

For the totally uninitiated, I would say that a bit of Jim's wisdom on 'make big changes to observe results' is helpful. I started with some of the most polarized comparisons I could (SO Yirgacheffe and Sumatra) to make an impression. It's really easy to get lost in homogenized blends if you're trying to discern leather from tobacco. So I started with a lemon squeeze versus VS a dark stinky cigar and worked my way toward the middle from there. I still don't know much, but I know a big citrus punch in the mouth when I taste it. =D

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#3: Post by another_jim »

James is right about having several different cups. It particularly helps to have familiar coffees to compare to unfamiliar ones. For giving coffee a rating, I use a "ruler" consisting of a coffee I've rated at 85 and another I've rated 90. No need to get that precise, but having a standard of comparison really makes things a whole lot easier

I think it's also important to cup or try coffees with other people. Discussing the coffee usually adds to everyone's appreciation and enjoyment. Mostly other people will come up with things that surprise you, and it turns out to be something you've tasted and haven't paid attention to, or something you've put under a different name. These little surprises are always helpful. In a setting like this, always encourage the people with the least experience to speak first.

On describing flavors, I have an interesting work in progress that may or may not work out.
  • There are the exuberant Ethiopian or some Central coffees where a few flavors stand out. These are easy to describe. Then there are coffees from Kenya and other East African coffees where more than a few flavors stand out. They strike one as complex, but they can be described.
  • But most coffees just taste like coffee, some do so dully, others with elan and swagger. How do flavors work in these? I've been thinking that flavors fall into a spectrum, like colors. Every coffee has every flavor, but at varying levels. In the easily described coffees, a few flavors are high, and he rest are low, so as with color, you get a definite shade. In classic cups, you have all the flavors fairly evenly balanced, so it's like white or washed out brown light. The good classic cups have a few "absorption lines," missing flavors, that add to the cup's clarity and shimmer; while the poor ones have every flavor, good or bad, and turn to gray
So I tried adding the "flavor spectum" to my cupping forms and seeing if it helps. In a recent get together, I served a very classic cup Hiue-Hue Bourbon that nobody could describe. I was gratified to find that the flavor spectra all agreed, with "absorption lines" for vegetal and tobacco (along with a slight chocolate peak).

It's still under development, but the moral is that thinking about missing flavors as well as present ones may be helpful.

Here's two spectra, one with peaks, one with absorption lines:

Jim Schulman

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#4: Post by Psyd »

King Seven wrote: I still think we all worry a little too much about poetic descriptors that often do a better job of saying something about the person writing them, rather than communicating the likely experience of a well brewed cup of that coffee.
My problem is that I have a hard time getting the exact words to describe the 'colour' that I taste. All too often I recognise the flavour that is present, but don't remember the word necessary to describe it. Or maybe it's that I recognise the flavour, but don't remember what to attribute it to. Could be the head traumas, could be a too simple palate...
Anyhoo, a friend that wants to get away from old stale commercial roasts asked which coffee to get, but couldn't describe what kind of coffee they liked. I suggested (after asking the roaster) that she go to the roaster and ask for a pound of coffee, but divided into two or three ounce samples of each of the SO's that they have available.
I'm looking forward to the cupping myself!
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One Shot, One Kill

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Ken Fox

#5: Post by Ken Fox »

Aside from water, there are two beverages that I drink everyday; wine and coffee. I'd rather not think about coffee right now because I am in France, and more specifically Corsica, and I haven't had a drinkable coffee in a week and a half (when I was last home). But I digress.

Wine is much easier to evaluate than espresso. That is a plain and simple fact, and the reasons are that any decent wine is much less assaultive on your sensory apparatus than is a good espresso, plus you have a LOT of time to evaluate a wine, and precious little to evaluate an espresso.

Espresso is an "in your face" beverage. It overwhelms your sensory apparatus for the short time after brewing that it can be appreciated at its peak. This gives you very little time to evaluate it and come to a conclusion. What is more, the first taste compromises your ability to further evaluate what you have left in your cup, so first impressions are really what count the most when judging espresso.

With wine you are trying to judge several things, and the first taste is not necessarily the most important one. With a young wine, you want to know how it will age and how long it will last. These are things that take time to evaluate (and/or guess at), and it helps to have the wine in front of you for a few hours, if possible. With an older wine you want to know how much life there is left in it, which will give some information as to how much longer you can keep remaining bottles until they start clearly to deteriorate. This also takes some time, some airing, to evaluate. And any wine worth drinking will not overpower your senses so much that a second taste impression is worth less than the first one (although it is best not to second guess your initial impression, as is the case also with coffee).

What, me worry?

Alfred E. Neuman, 1955

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#6: Post by yakster »

Nice article, James, something I can now appreciate. I roasted up six different origins for an informal coffee tasting at work (Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopian Korate, Costa Rica, Colombia, and a Sumatra Mandheling) and while I think that my co-workers enjoyed the coffee, for me it was a rare opportunity to compare the tastes of different origins at the same time. I usually only have one or two origins roasted at the same time that I'll drink that week. I think I'm going to have to do this more often. Also, luckily, my parents are in town visiting so I've doubled the number of coffee drinkers to be able to get to these roasts while they're still fresh.

Jim, I really like the spectrum chart you posted. This is something I can start using with my roasts.


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#7: Post by SlowRain »

I like the visual aid of Jim's chart. Nice and concise.

Isn't there another chart out there that is somewhat circular in nature. When all the characteristics are plotted, it looks a bit like a spider web. Has anyone else ever seen it before? I can't remember where it was that I saw it.

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#8: Post by yakster »

Tom at Sweet Maria's uses a Spider Chart to graph his cupping scores.

There's an explanation, though no reference to where the spider chart originated here. (

(no commercial interest in Sweet Maria's)

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#9: Post by SlowRain »

That's the one. Thanks.