Some people are fortunate enough to have very advanced sensory skills. These are the people who can taste the stone fruit in a cup of coffee or call it a taste only. And this gives them a valuable gift that helps to enjoy the drink more fully and, of course, promotes career development.
But while some of us may be born with more sensitive palates and receptors than others, the good news is that being able to distinguish between coffee flavors is a skill. You can also develop great taste because good coffee tasters are people who never stop working on themselves.
Lock Chan competes at the 2017 Captesting World Cup. Photo by Dick Cheung
Tips from the World Champion to help improve your skills.
Few people know better than Lok Chan, the 2017 Captesting World Champion, on this issue.
Last year, Lok and I met during a trip organized by Ally Coffee. It was a week of unlimited brewing, coffee consumption and training, which took place in Brazil on the best spesheltti farms, most of which cultivate natural Katuai, Katukai or Bourbon.
Locke recounts that his personal favorite is growing on the organic farms of Minamihara in Alta Mogiana: coffee flavored with white flowers and berries; white flowers, black currant and grapefruit to taste; citrus acidity; smooth body. The description alone is sufficient to allow saliva to flow, and such description can only be given by someone with a well-developed taste perception.
He graciously agreed to share his tips on improving his sensory skills, as well as several comments promised to give Ally Coffee employees and my SCA Sensory Foundation trainer Regina Guillon-Ferman. Read on to find out what they advise.
Lok Chan drops for coffee at Minamir’s farm on a trip to Brazil organized by Ally Coffee. Photo by Angie Molina
- Drink coffee, coffee again, and more coffee.
The first step is simple, no doubt you already do it. Drink coffee. Many. And most importantly, drink a variety of coffee. Locke explains that when you try coffee of different origins and different styles of roasting, you learn to distinguish a huge range of profiles and tastes.
A great way to create a sensory perception is to take notes while capturing, drawing in parallel to industry standards and internal regulations. Photo by Ally Coffee
- Add fruits and sweets to your diet.
How can you recognize something if you’ve never tried it before? In order to be an excellent captester, you need to be familiar with a wide variety of flavors, and fruit notes belong to the most common descriptors of coffee. Try as many different fruits as possible.
However, depending on where you live, it may not be easy. You will rarely see mangosteen in a British supermarket or prickly pear in Japan. So, what do Locke and his team do at Craft Coffee in Hong Kong? They train by eating sweets that, according to Locke, can be very similar to fruits.
Just imagine, if your parents knew you were going to be a captive, everything could have been different in your childhood!
Candy: A practical way to raise awareness about different flavors. Photo by Norman Kazi
- Know the basic tastes.
You will not be able to begin the captester journey by trying to distinguish between lemon and yucca notes, for example. Instead, you should familiarize yourself with the main flavors: sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami. The SCA Sensory Foundation course recommends that you try the following solutions to learn how to recognize them:
Sweet: 24 g sucrose per liter of water;
Acidic: 1.2 g citric acid per liter of water;
Salty: 4 g NaCl (salt) per liter of water;
Bitter: 0.54 g of caffeine per liter of water;
Umami: 2 g of glutamate sodium per liter of water.
Coffee Coffee Blind Tasting. Photo: TAOCA COFFEE
- Engage sensory vocabulary.
Dean Kallivrusis, a Q-grader and customer service manager at Ally Coffee, trains with his team using the World Coffee Research (WCR) touchscreen vocabulary, the language behind the wheel of coffee flavors. The Lexicon and Wheel contain numerous flavors that you can smell in coffee (though not all; as WCR states – optimization continues).
“A taste lexicon with an intensity scale from 1 to 15 was invented to create a standardized language for industry representatives and facilitate the discussion of taste,” explains Dean. He believes it is a great tool for improving his sensory skills.
You can download a free pdf from WCR, which contains all the information you need to study for yourself.
Taste wheel and coffee brewed for caping. Photo: Sinan
- Use the T100 Coffee Flavor Map.
Another tool that professionals have in their arsenal is the Aromatic T100 Coffee Flavor Kit – Lok admits to training with him every month. It contains 100 of the most common coffee flavors, making it incredibly useful for people who want to develop their sensory abilities. In fact, there is even a World Aroma Championship in which coffee pros compete in aroma recognition.
Not only does the kit develop your ability to differentiate between different flavors and aromas, it also helps you to calibrate. You will be able to describe the taste characteristics of universal language on professional outposts.
Coffee Map: 100 coffee flavors with cards as well as a detailed book. Photo by Ricardo Vaquerano
- Learn to recognize organic acids.
There are so many different types of organic acids in coffee: citric, malic, phosphoric, horseradish, tartaric, lactic … and each one has a different taste. The ability to recognize and describe different acids will help you better understand and appreciate the taste of your coffee.
Regina explains, “People should not just feel the intensity… [but] the way their receptors respond to that intensity. Then they will memorize the acid and will recognize it during contact, even in combination with another. ”
“But how do you train yourself to recognize different acids?” Well, Regina recommends the following:
- Brew weak coffee (50 g coffee per liter of water).
- Pour into 5 cups:
- Cup 1- support; do not add anything;
- Cup 2 – add 0.2 g of malic acid;
- Cup 3 – add 0.2 g of tartaric acid;
- Cup 4 – add 0.2 g of phosphoric acid;
- Cup 5 – add 0.2 g of lactic acid;
- Try five cups of coffee, comparing all the acid with the reference.
- Repeat during the blind tasting to see if you can determine the added acid.
Organic acids, ready for use in training. Photo: Tanpong
The source of inspiration for my last recommendation was the exercise for which Locke won the World Champion title: triangulation. This is a great way to train and evaluate your sensory abilities, whether in competition or in the workplace. Moreover, the level of difficulty can be adjusted.
On triangulation, you place three cups of coffee signed by A, B and C. Two of them contain identical coffee; the third is excellent. Your goal is to correctly identify the perfect cup.
The more similar the coffee, the more difficult the exercise. You can take different origins, processing methods, frying styles and even samples from different lots in one farm. And it’s fun!
Detection of taste and aromatic differences during triangulation. Photo by Padre Coffee
Performing these exercises will help you better understand the flavors and aromas of coffee, recognize the effects of processing and roasting, as well as try coffee of different origins. But only if you train regularly: advanced sensory abilities require constant practice.
So why not start today? Go to the supermarket for fruits and chocolates, get triangulated and read the WCR Sensory Vocabulary Guide.
Trust me: you will soon notice the changes.
Author: Angie Molina.
Note: This article was sponsored by Ally Coffee .
Translation: Anna Polstiankina.