I have to be honest. I haven’t paid attention drinking coffee 99% of the time. I am not present, doing a poor job with the analysis of what I am drinking, and am even more terrible at trying to identify the taste notes. I can, however, tell you if it’s good coffee.
At some point of time, I’d like to take up a course such as the SCA sensory program. But for now, the topic of tasting and identifying flavor notes in coffee intrigues me. When I came across Pete Licata‘s recent Instagram story talking about flavor descriptors used in coffee competitions, I had no idea that this was even a factor.
In his story, he talks about why flavor descriptors are not a great communication tool, and why we shouldn’t be assessing people’s skills based on their ability to identify flavors. However, it’s still important to use taste descriptors to communicate to consumers what that coffee tastes like.
Pete goes on to suggest how to assess a person’s skill in the competition settings by looking more objectively at the outcome and the structure of the drink. He had touched upon various points that really intrigued me, and I had to talk to him about how to effectively taste coffee.
Let’s face it, most of us aren’t seasoned tasters but are passionate about drinking good coffee. It’s only fair we break down the nuances of what we are tasting and start to understand the art of tasting a little better.
Take a look at this small scenario that happened a few years ago which I remember very clearly. Lameen and I tasted this amazing Ninety Plus Panama Geisha roasted by The Espresso Lab. The aroma of jackfruit was very prominent and I instantly recognized it because I have eaten the fruit and know of the particular aroma it gives off when you cut through it. Lameen knew of the fruit but had never experienced it. My experience of jackfruit was different to Lameen’s, but Lameen has been tasting coffee for many more years compared to me, and he could identify other nuances like Peach and Jasmine.
What that means is, everybody’s personal experience like tasting, for example, is different. From people located in different parts of the world to even those who live right next to each other. Enough with my experiences, let’s hear what Pete has to say.
Can you tell me a bit about yourself and how you got involved so deeply with coffee?
I started working in a café in 2003. A long-time friend was managing the café and told me I would enjoy being a barista. It took me a while, but I ended up taking the job as part-time while I was going to university. It didn’t take long to find immense pleasure learning about coffee, techniques, and the morning hospitality dynamic.
I also had the opportunity to meet Tim Wendelboe (the then reigning WBC champion) and Heather Perry (former US barista champion) at an event, which sparked my interest in competing. From there, I had developed this addictive exploration of coffee. There was always something new to learn, a different way to achieve the results I was looking for, and another opportunity to dive deep.
I am very curious about your role at Veneziano Coffee Roasters. Describe your typical day as a Product Development Consultant.
My role entails new product development, which means creating or improving new concepts which can be of value for the company. Some successes I have had so far are ready-to-drink cold brew cans, Nespresso compatible pods, and our Pinnacle top-level coffee program. It isn’t all just thinking up fun ideas though.
I have to assess potential sales interest and the cost of goods, as well as coordinating with our teams for packaging designs, nutrition information, and detailed write-ups and videos.
There is also long term testing for potential ideas. On any given day I may be testing competitive products, tasting samples, or researching markets for product initiatives.
I also oversee QC for the company in terms of finished product. There are a number of staff education sessions I present, and playing a supporting role to other teams within the business. And then, there is also competition training for our staff.
I don’t do all of these things every day, but you may find me doing any of it depending on the schedule and time of the year.
Your Instagram story on the flavor descriptors is the reason why we are having this interview. You made some legit points. However, I am not a coffee professional but I understand where you are coming from. Can you suggest what the standard should be when it comes to describing flavors of coffee?
I think we should differentiate between the use of specific flavours (such as saying a coffee tastes like chocolate, raspberries, and toffee), and the weight of their importance.
My story was pointing at competitive events where we scrutinize the description of flavours people use, and how unrelatable that can be. To put specific flavours on a coffee bag to indicate the type of notes you may get is one thing, but to essentially punish a motivated and enthusiastic barista for naming a flavour that you personally don’t think is correct is another. This leads to unrealistic expectations, and nearly impossible levels of multiple people needing to have the exact same interpretation of flavour. And that gets magnified by regional, international, or cultural differences.
I think we should be approaching flavour description as a guide. If you like to be specific that’s great, but the more specific you get the less you should expect everyone to agree with your notes. But if I take the approach as “you said strawberries and I taste raspberries, so I get what you’re saying”, then the pressure is off and we can all accept that we’re tasting similar things.
If you said “blueberries, candied ginger, and maple syrup” and I only taste unsweetened chocolate and tobacco, then we’re probably not seeing things similarly. This can guide my trust in your recommendations, or purchasing decisions in the future.
What steps can I take to better understand the coffee I am tasting? What I am effectively asking you is how do I taste coffee? Is it something that comes with experience and time?
It does indeed take experience and time, but you can learn some important bits quickly. One thing I mentioned in my story was “structure” which is simply talking about the different parts of the taste. Acidity, sweetness, body, aftertaste, aroma, etc can all be quantified. Much like in wine, these essentially combine to create an impression of the whole product, or the structure of its parts.
You can get a solid idea of this structure through the SCA score sheet and learning about each of these pieces. Comprehending the idea behind, say, Body, will get you ready to identify when you taste and look for that one part. It still takes time, and the more you taste the better you tend to get at it. No matter what, every individual has to create their own internal connection to what they taste and how to communicate it (which is again why flavour notes are only so much useful). The structural elements are a bit more technical with clear separation when you taste a few samples side by side.
Beyond that, when it does come time to identify flavour, you can apply more general terms to start with. Saying “chocolate” or “tropical fruit” rather than “73% dark chocolate” or “overripe papaya” helps you find a starting point as well as an easier connection point with others. Also, apply other food and drink experiences to coffee.
I did this a lot with craft beer when I was first learning. Tasting multiple varietals of apple and describing the difference side by side without saying “apple” is another fun one.
The exploration, discovery, and intrigue of that journey is both personal and part of why I love coffee. I hope some of this insight is helpful.
This is a question I have started asking almost every coffee professional I meet. What is the future of specialty coffee?
Oh, this one is tough. None of us can be perfect fortune tellers, but here is what I think.
I believe there will be some level of separation in the industry (not that it hasn’t happened before). Some will be more focused on production, consistency, and business fundamentals, and will opt for more automation and removal of the “craftsperson” from the process. Others will embrace the craft side and focus on redefining more of how they present the beverage and interpret what a great coffee experience can be.
This will be even more obvious with coffee prices going up, top quality supply potentially becoming less available, or other associated parts of the café becoming difficult.
I also think there will be more innovation to bring new versions of coffee, and more directly vertical integrated coffee companies (growing, producing, roasting, serving). Companies will come and go, where we grow coffee in the world may shift, and we may start cultivating different species of coffee for viability, but coffee will be here in some form as far as I can see.
About Pete Licata
Pete Licata was the 2013 World Barista Champion. After winning the WBC title, he formed Licata Coffee Consultants, coaching and advising competitors, including Hidenori Izaki, 2014 World Barista Champion. Currently, he is an R&D Coffee Consultant at the Nomad Coffee Group based in Australia.