Everyone’s first coffee tasting goes, more or less, the same way; a few folks standing around claiming they smell subtle notes of moss, licorice, or chocolate. Meanwhile you’re next to them thinking, “it just tastes like coffee, what the fuck are you talking about?”

It has the potential to be unapproachable and pretentious, but it doesn’t have to be. Behind the jargon, lip smacking, and subtle flavors exists the best aspect of coffee – the human element! It’s an opportunity to tell a story and connect, human to human, a chance to acknowledge and appreciate the complex history that went into the cup.

Simple elements of a coffee tasting

  • The coffee (duh); the best advice I ever received on learning about coffee came from a former District Manager at Starbucks when he asked me, “Have you even read the damn bag yet?” If you’re wondering, I had not. The point was that the people who make and love coffee are also fond of talking about it….
    • The best coffee you have around, ideally fresh ground
    • Look for small batch coffee if possible (coffee made in smaller quantities, leading to a higher level of sophistication and care from the roaster)
  • The food; a good pairing will completely transform the profile of either the food or the coffee, and a great pairing changes both in ways that are hard to understand (we’re baristas, not chemists)
    • If a coffee has undertones of flavor notes listed, pay attention to it and use that to work with the flavor of your food
  • The people
    • Don’t forget the reason we get into this world! Coffee is a cultural town square, use it to tell a story or break the ice

When it comes to the actual tasting, James Hoffman does a great intro video! Hoffman is a well known coffee consultant, author, and barista – if you have a few minutes and want to dive deeper he’s a good start!
Here are the steps to get started with your tasting:

  • Prep the food pairing first 
  • Brew your coffee
  • Walk everyone through the tasting steps (it may feel silly, but it really does help)
    • Smell the coffee; our noses can smell much more than we can taste, but they also inform each other
    • Take a sip
    • Describe what you taste
    • Try the coffee with a bite of the food and see how the coffee flavor changes
    • Discuss
    • Rinse and repeat

Another tool that can help you in your tasting adventure is the coffee taster’s flavor wheel! Counter Culture Coffee developed my favorite take on the flavor wheel and also have a blog with more great content we recommend checking out!