One of the most important skills you can learn is how to taste espresso. Here’s how you can develop your very own coffee barista superpower.
Espresso machines can steam milk, dose, and even tamp, but so far, no machine can actually taste coffee.That’s where humans and not A.I. comes into play.
There are many different flavours to be found in an espresso, therefore is advantageous to understand the good flavours so that you can avoid the bad. This is a skill any coffee lover wants to master.
In this article, I will keep things relatively simple and focus on four main attributes: Aroma, Body, Flavour, Acidity, and Finish.
How To Taste Espresso
When I’m tasting espresso for signs of quality, I typically evaluate four key components: Aroma, Body, Flavour, Acidity, and Finish.
I’m sure you’ve already guessed – the aroma is how the espresso smells.
The aroma of espresso is going to be the first thing you experience when you lift your cup. It will be the initial aroma that will give you a good indicator if the espresso is going to taste good or bad.
It is worth mentioning that the senses of taste and smell work in tandem.
For example, between 70% to 80% of what we think we taste comes from smell, not our taste buds. The tongue only has receptors for key tastes such as bitterness, sweetness, and mouthfeel, (this may be a new word for some readers, more about this under the Body and Acidity sections).
However, when it comes to espresso, almost all the complex flavours are picked up by our sense of smell.
It’s the aroma that will give you a good insight into how espresso will taste.
Believe me. I’ve tasted some espresso that should have never been drunk. But, If I had paid attention to my nose, I would already know it was burnt or was going to taste like rubber.
If it smells bad, it more than likely will taste awful too.
Ideally, the aroma of a good shot of espresso should be rich, deep, and complicated. As you inhale, you should be able to notice subtle differences in the aroma.
You shouldn’t have a burnt taste or any hints of burnt rubber, chemical odours, or anything else that makes you stop and think, yuk.
The body of an espresso (also known as texture or mouthfeel) is something a bit harder to explain.
The best way to get my point across is to compare the difference between skimmed milk and full fat milk.
Skimmed milk is a little thin in the mouth while being round and smooth. In contrast, full fat milk is creamier and thicker in texture.
So taking that as an example, you should be able to pinpoint how certain coffees feel on your palette. The body of espresso is basically the density on your tongue.
An espresso in the mouth can feel airy, light, or heavy and dense, like warm honey or melted butter when you are drinking it.
To truly evaluate an espresso, it’s best to let it sit on your tongue for a while. Swirling it around your mouth will also allow you to pick up subtle profiles that you would otherwise dismiss.
With the coffee in your mouth, take a minute to think about what it reminds you of. This will help you to identify reference points for future tasting.
The espresso flavour can be attributed to many things, such as the origin of the coffee beans or the roast profile. The flavour is a combination of all of these things and more.
For example, with the roast profile, you will notice that a dark roast will give the espresso more of what I refer to as “traditional” flavours.
In contrast, a lighter roast will typically highlight the origin of the coffee and will almost always have better acidity and more delicate tasting notes.
When talking about the origin of the coffee, you can expect to taste a noticeable difference depending on what part of the globe the coffee originated.
Ethiopian coffee, for example, is typically described as bright, floral, and fruity. On the other hand, Angolan coffee tends to be associated with more earthy or smoky notes. Search for the single country origin coffees on the Espressopedia site.
Once you start to learn about different coffee bean origins, you will already know what you should expect to taste.
Beginners trying to understand precisely what they are tasting, don’t try to run before you can walk. Don’t immediately jump to flavours of dried cherries or maple syrup.
Start with the broader category and then aim to hone in on exactly what you’re tasting.
The flavour wheel offers a good reference diagram for identifying the flavours you wouldn’t normally associate with espresso – it can really help you to improve your palate.
Acidity is another espresso characteristic that the mouth feels. Have you ever had a coffee that makes your tongue tingle, causes your mouth to salivate, or even dries out your mouth completely?
All of these can be caused by the acidity found in coffee.
You can think of acidity just like the zing of a lemon or the sourness of fresh green apple leaves on your tongue – these fruits generally have a higher level of acidity.
Too much acidity makes mouths pucker, and too little can leave the espresso seeming dull or flat.
A good espresso is all about finding the right balance.
The finish is the aftertaste that lingers at the back of your mouth and on your tongue after you have swallowed the last of espresso – the espresso shot ends very differently from how it starts.
Try to pay attention as the espresso moves from the front of the tongue towards the back – It might take a little practice, but you should be able to identify different flavours.
Yes, it tastes like coffee, but as you begin to pick out subtle flavour changes, you will realise it is much more than that.
As you swirl the espresso shot around your mouth, try to pick out the earthy, fruity, flowery, spicy woody, or any other flavours you can highlight. Keep that Flavour Wheel handy!
It’s the finish that will leave a good final impression, after all it’s the last thing you will taste.
A desirable finish in an espresso ideally should be sweet. A dry finish or overpowering acidity are not recommended.
After you finish your espresso, you shouldn’t have to reach for a glass of water to wash away the lingering taste – a good espresso you will want to leave lingering in your mouth for as long as possible.
So what's stopping you explore the Espressopedia site and try something new today.