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Tastebud Training: How To Become A Better Coffee Taster

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Coffee at a cupping, or professional style tasting. [Photograph: Meister]

Tasting is hard. No, really—think about it. We put stuff in our mouths all day every day, and sure, hopefully we enjoy most of it. But how much do you actually think about what you're tasting? Tasting different coffees side by side can be as daunting as going to a wine tasting. How on earth is a new taster supposed to identify and name all the seemingly zillions of flavors and aromatics emanating from that hot black cup of joe?

Here are a few tips to help you exercise your tastebuds to better understand and appreciate your morning coffee. (Or, heck, anything you eat or drink, for that matter!) Join us to develop not only a more nuanced palate, but also the vocabulary to go along with it.

Sip Before Sugar

This might seem obvious, but if you really want to get a sense of how your coffee tastes, try it—just try it—before up-ending that packet of Domino in there. To many people, coffee is a seemingly overpowering flavor, with strong bitterness or smokiness that can seem harshly unapproachable at first. That's often our first reaction to things like beer, wine, and fine liquors, too—until, that is, we develop a taste for them.

Nobody ever developed their taste for beer by dumping sugar in it, and neither will you for coffee by doing the same. Take one sip before sweetening it up, and try to savor that sip if you can. Next time you have a coffee, take two swigs before adding your lumps, and so on. See if you can't come to enjoy the taste of black joe little by little: it will significantly improve your ability to discern nuances you may never have experienced before through the milk and sugar.

Practice Makes Perfect

In order to be a better taster, you simply have to taste more stuff. For the next few weeks, try to slow down for a second as you go about your eating life. Hold things on your tongue a bit longer than you normally would—whole foods especially—and try to think of what other tastes they remind you of. Does that bite of brown rice have a nutty quality to it, or is it more like grass? Is there something honey-like about the sweetness of a ripe melon, or is it more floral?

Even if the act of savoring each bite for the sake of storing flavor memory doesn't instantly transform you into a supertaster, it will at the very least probably help you enjoy your food more as you work through it. Win-win!

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The Nose Knows

Our sense of smell deeply informs our sense of taste, so try to go in for a nice big whiff before you take your first bite or sip. Especially where coffee's concerned, the smell of both the dry grounds and the pot as it's brewing can give you a lot of insight into the flavors lurking behind that brown. And scent memory is undoubtedly one of the most powerful tools in our palate-stretching arsenal: When a certain aroma conjures images of youthful camping trips, a favorite food, a fondly recalled afternoon at the beach...these things all sound hippie dippy, but they can be surprisingly telling. That camping trip might mean you're detecting a smoky or toasted note in the coffee, that favorite food might mean sweetness or spice, while a beachside afternoon could indicate savory umami in the cup.

Compare and Contrast

One easy exercise for your tongue is to taste several variations of the same thing. With coffees, we might taste a few different varieties of beans all prepared the same way, or try beans across different regions, the way we might do a wine tasting of one grape from a few different areas.

But you don't have to be a coffee guru or a wine connoisseur to taste with discrimination: Simply turn to the bounty of the season. Buy a bushel of different varieties of apples and taste slices from each in succession, making sure to note which is which, and maybe jotting down some thoughts about the flavors that strike you as you go. Think about how the texture of each feels in your mouth, think about how sweet one type of the fruit is in relation with another. If you can start to recognize these types of elements in other things you taste regularly, it will be more of a cinch the next time you face down a flight of different coffees.

Quit Smoking

I'm not trying to be preachy about it (that's your mom's job), but smoking does not only dull your sense of taste, but also your sense of smell, which is in large part what clues your tatesbuds in on what they're experiencing when you go in for the kill on that perfect slice of pizza or hand-crafted small-batch Scotch. If you want to develop a masterfully working tongue, then, unfortunately you'll have to kick that Kool habit you've been hanging on to since you were 16. (PS: Note that's "Kool," not "cool," which is probably what got you into this mess in the first place.) But hey, if you can't have your coffee without kicking up that cigarette jones, far be it from me...

What other advice would you give to a new taster? Have you found anything to be especially helpful when trying to develop your palate?

About the author: Erin Meister trains baristas and inspires coffee-driven people for Counter Culture Coffee. She's a confident barista and an audacious eater, but she remains a Nervous Cook.

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