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Teaching to Taste

Teaching to Taste

1. We all Taste, why do we taste?

The famous non-attributable quote goes “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”. Don’t try to tell me who actually said it first, that’s mostly unimportant. What’s important is that writing about any sensory experience is a rather challenging endeavor.

Most people have the ability to taste. Our sensitivity to particular tastes and our preferences are very subjective. Some of this is biological, and some is related to exposure and memory. Learning to be a taster, or tasting on purpose, is all about learning to discern one taste from another (i.e. putting language to sensory information), and to perceive how those different elements interact. Keep in mind that it’s not just about details, but how those details form the whole picture.

2. What We Taste and What We Sense

There are five parts of taste:

•bitterness •saltiness •sourness •sweetness •savoriness

But taste is just one part of sensory analysis.  What are the other parts?:

•aromatics  •tactile Sensations (body, mouthfeel) •trigeminal sensations (hot spice or cool menthol, acidity, astringency)

These modes all interact, and different characteristics can suppress or amplify one another, like citric acidity and lemon aroma. Characteristics within the modes themselves tend to at least partially suppress one another; for example, sweetness can diminish bitterness and acidity. Excessive exposure to any of these modes or sensations can affect your sensitivity to them. This is very important to remember when performing sensory analysis; you can have palate fatigue from simply tasting too much, or if you eat something strongly flavored in one way or another before you attempt to taste something purposefully, it can make it harder.

In a sensory test you would first try to identify the qualitative aspects and then its intensity. Identification and measurement: this is sensory analysis.

3. Training and Practice

Just like anything, better sensory analysis comes with training and practice. First, the mechanics:

As we see in Tom’s video, the key mechanics of tasting are contact time and the aromatics which are engaged by slurping the coffee. The slurping spreads the sample over the whole palate and back of your mouth up to your nose.


Once we have mechanics down. We can start training our palates to recognize certain qualitative elements. One of the most direct ways to do this is through a sensory skills test involving solutions of salty, sweet, and sour.
First,  make 3 solutions; salt for salty, sugar for sweet, and lemon juice for sour are the most easily available.
  • Next, make dilutions at 3 different levels of intensity or your 3 solutions.  You can do this by diluting (with water) your level 1 samples by half and half again.
  • Test #1: Set up the dilutions blindly (it’s important to have a collaborator for this).  Try to discern which dilution is which, separating all of the sours, from all of the sweets, from all of the salts. 
  • Test #2:  Discern intensity levels of each taste. Group the samples by intensity level, rating them from least to most intense. 
  • Test #3(A real doozy): Make combinations of each solution, say a level 2 sour, level 3 sweet, and level 1 salty. Figure out which solutions are present and what their intensity levels are as well. 

This last test helps you to learn how different components can either suppress or intensify the experience of another. This is a very difficult exercise, and when this test is given in professional situations the grading is usually done on a curve. Very few people can get a 100% score on this.

Test #4 (Triangulation):  Using at least two different coffees, prepare two cups of one coffee and one cup of another. Set the samples blindly  and pick out the coffee that is different. This can be easy or difficult depending on the coffee you choose, but either way you will start paying closer attention to what you are experiencing. 

Test #5 (Blends):  Take at least three coffees and set them next to each other to be tasted. Then set up a fourth sample made up of a blend of equal parts of the coffees that you’ve already set up. You going to look at how each of the three coffees are different, but in tasting the blend you are trying to find those differences in a new context. 

Test #6 (Temperature): Prepare dilutions at different temperatures. Which parts of taste are muted by higher temperatures? Which parts are amplified at different temperatures? In a dilution containing more than one solution, which parts are more noticeable at different temperatures and how does that change as the dilution cools?

How can we practice at qualifying and quantifying the other modes of sensory experience? You can practice analyzing aromatics by doing the triangulation test with dry grounds.  There are also other aroma tests available in expensive sets like the “Le Nez Du Cafe” which are a great reference when analyzing a coffee, but they’re pretty expensive.

Tactile sensations are one of the hardest sensory experiences to learn how to qualify and quantify.  If you can zero in on one attribute and think about where you experience it on the palate, at what intensity and for how long, you will start to get a sense of the body.

4. Flexing the Muscles

You can practice tasting and building your palate memory by being purposeful in your tasting with whatever you eat and drink or smell, and keep detailed notes in a tasting diary. Buy a few different varieties of apple and sit down with them and document the differences. Do the same thing with nuts, or chocolates. Visit your florist and ask to see the most aromatic flowers (and then pick up a few for a friend or loved one). Tasting different fruits, nuts, and sugars is going to build your memory and your vocabulary. Tie it all back to coffee by pairing coffees that are described as having certain fruit attributes with those exact fruits.

What I always come back to is this: this is about sensory awareness. Being a more aware taster is connected to other sensory experiences. If I’m looking at a series of paintings that are supposed to demonstrate the changes brought on by different light and perspective, then examining them for their differences is going to help me be a better taster.   One thing I always do when I am training a new roaster to taste is to tell them to listen to Tommy James and the Shondells' version of "Crimson and Clover" and come back and tell me how many different instruments they hear.  All of this teaches closer observation and sensory/sensual awareness. This will help you to be a better taster, listener, viewer, learner, and maybe even a better kisser. In fact, if you aren’t a better kisser after working at being a better taster, then I owe you a nickel. I’m good for it.