What makes it taste so good?

6 Sep

In earlier posts I have written about how important it is to taste your own coffee and to check your routines.

All to often however I have found how hard it is to objectively review how good (or bad) your own coffee tastes to others.

What makes a certain coffee taste good, and can one judge taste objectively?

In all businesses that deal with the sense of taste there is an understanding that this sense is influenced by a huge variety of things that in the end makes up the end impression of what the product tasted like or how good it was.

I guess we all probably have had that customer walk through the door having been to some African country and reveling about having tasted the best coffee in their life there, and asking if you have coffee from this country. Knowing that this country most likely have exported their best coffee, and that what this customer tasted probably what was swept off the floor after sorting out what to export makes one ask the question: Why where they so overwhelmed? (This blog gives an excellent example with cigars.)

So how can we trust our own taste, and how accurate is our cupping?

One of the things that have been annoying me after having worked both as a barista and a roaster is how baristas (and many of the rest of us) judge a coffee after for instance tasting a few random pulled shots of espresso. The classic scenario is how a shot that tastes great is due to a skilled barista whilst a shot that tastes off often is blamed on the roast or the composition of a blend. This (and an over developed sense of pride in my roasting) provoked me into trying to come up with a few points that made people put more thought into their tasting. I know this is going to start discussions but I deliberately put things on edge to provoke people to think.

To me there are first and foremost two areas where I think we are guilty of taking shortcuts.

First of all: Taste is a very subjective and complex mechanism, but is taken for granted and used as an ultimate judging tool without much thought to what affects our perception.

Second: There are so many variables that can affect the taste of a shot from the beans in the hopper to the nectar in the cup, but how often do you take this into consideration when tasting that shot?


To the first point. There have been conducted considerable research into the science behind the sense of taste. Taste is very individual. We are all equipped with different genetic prerequisites that influence what we perceive. The “supertaster” is a person with a genetic advantage of specially shaped tastebuds on the tounge that gives him or her an edge over us other mortals in tasting. We all know however that as much as 80% of flavour comes from smelling so you would need to be a “supersmeller” as well to benefit from this.

What so if this “supersmeller” and “supertaster” would cup a cup of coffee, would they give us the ultimate answer as to if the coffee is good or bad or what it tastes like? They would also need the experience and knowledge in what a good coffee is supposed to taste like. This in turn is influenced by culture and personal tastes.

What if this “supertaster” an “supersmeller” just ate or is tired after working a long day? What if he or she is tasting in a noicy room or is influenced by the opinion of a group of peers? Could we trust their answer?

This article refers to something called the flavor pyramide where the basic tastes we often refer to is the last of the building blocks of our perception of flavour, the one that is most dependant on the others. Still this is the only level given much thought when we taste our coffees.


Then comes the second point. Pulling the perfect espresso is very hard, and the craft of the barista deserves all the respect it gets and more. Even more difficult is repeating this perfect shot over and over again. There are so many factors that can influence on each extraction that it’s close to impossible to pull two perfectly uniform shots.

An article about blending for Italian espresso in the March/April issue of Roast Magazine pulls out yet another factor that affects inter shot uniformity, namely the relative chance that the exact composition of the blend will be mirrored in the few grams of coffee fitted into the portafilter. They use an example with a blend containing 20% of a Guatemalan coffee. The percentage of this coffee will be (in the puck) between 18 and 22% (spread of +/-10% about a mean composition of 20%) only 48% of the time. The other 52% of the time it will be outside those limits.

If this coffee served a purpose of highlighting the blend in a certain direction (which it most likely would be) the taste of the espresso would vary quite a bit from shot to shot. I’m not sure all of us would be able to tell that well, but it certainly is a factor to be reckoned with.

Also, like is the case with wine, the form factor of the cups will influence the flavour as well as the quality of the water (if the espresso is being tasted in different countries like is the case in the WBC).


So where exactly am I going with this rant? Well, first of all I want to make people think more about all the things that affect our perception when we taste and try to take this into account and look beyond this when cupping their own or other peoples coffees.


There! I’ve said it. Glad to get it off my chest! 


7 Responses to “What makes it taste so good?”

  1. Tim Varney Monday, September 15, 2008 at 17:20 #

    Well the answer seems quite simple. You. At least according to the Nordic Barista Cup. Congratulations mate!

  2. Olings Monday, September 15, 2008 at 21:11 #

    Awww! Thanks Tim! It did feel good winning even though a large part of the trophy belongs to the amazing mr Wendelboe.

  3. Olings Tuesday, September 16, 2008 at 19:00 #

    By the way it was Nordic Roasters not Nordic Barista Cup…

  4. Chris Kolbu Monday, September 22, 2008 at 9:06 #


    NEVAR! Only one of us can be right, and my trophy is gold, not tin! In the relative scheme of things, that would make me more right. Yes? No?


    To be fair, you make some good points. Especially with regard to levels of noise, stress and taste fatigue; both environmental and human factors play a huge role in that sense. That said, the rest of us do try to stay professional about it – you’re not an island of erudition in a sea of idiots, as the closing paragraphs of your article more than implies./small>

  5. Olings Monday, September 22, 2008 at 16:23 #

    Well I never implied anything like what you’re blaming me for, but maybe you felt a bit guilty reading it? I was more trying to refer to a general notion I’ve picked up from several other baristas (Yes I won’t call it baristi. Deal with it!) bitching. As for the comment on the type of metal in the trophy; at least my trophy can be used for something. Yours can double as a door knob at best. He he he…

  6. Chris Kolbu Tuesday, September 23, 2008 at 1:56 #

    What happens if I take too much [tin]?
    Having very high amounts of tin can cause stomach pain, nausea and diarrhoea.

    Don’t let me catch you eating your lunch off of the Nordic Roasters cup..plate..dish thingy! No good can come of it.

    Having spoken with several (*counts fingers*) roasti, baristae and opinionated people of all stripes, I find one thing to be true: we all want to be right, or at the very least, the most right. This translates into every facet of our day-to-day existence, which is why we have the following: war; different flavours of religion; politics; rhetoric, and last and also least: (heated) internet discussions about fringe subjects.

    In closing, I would like to state the following: you sir, are not as right as I am (apply this to whatever situation or difference of opinion you may encounter). I fully expect you to reciprocate; in fact, I demand it.

    You bearded devil, you. Hsss!

  7. Olings Tuesday, September 23, 2008 at 19:02 #

    Philosophy will only take you so far my friend. It won’t make what you say right though… and I’ll use that tin plate to whatever strikes my fancy thank you very much!

    I don’t think you can debate the fact that taste is perhaps the least “objective” of our senses and needs to be treated as such.

    So much of our quality control is dependent on this sense and it’s healthy to try to limit the factors that affect it.

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