September 13, 2023 4 min read

If you’ve ever spent time shopping for coffee, either at your favourite local cafe or from an online purveyor, it’s almost certain that you’ve read through the tasting notes on the packaging or in the description. Often descriptions like “caramel and nutty chocolate”, or “blackberry and cocoa” are printed conspicuously like some secret flavour code made to be cracked only by those in the know. 

If you often feel like being the only one in the room who doesn't really "get it" when people describe the taste of a really good cup of coffee, this guide will put you on your own journey toward decoding those labels and tasting coffee like a pro.

How to know if you're tasting a good coffee

Whether it's a moka, espresso or filter coffee, to appreciate a good coffee, you need to have a few clear steps and then, if you want, investigate with greater awareness the multitude of sensory characteristics that are revealed in the cup. 

Below is an introductory guide to coffee tasting that's largely independent from the type of extraction. It therefore gives more weight to the raw material and the good workmanship of the production process.

First and foremost, to catch and identify the subtle exciting flavours of coffee, you simply need to keep these senses alert:



Although less important than smell, taste and tactile sensations, sight is that telescope useful for giving us some indication of the quality of what we are about to swallow. For espresso coffee in particular, observing before smelling and tasting is important.

The crema of an espresso should have a silky, compact appearance, adhere well to the cup and not be fleeting. Its colour shouldn't be too dark, since it could mean that the coffee we are tasting was overroasted or overextracted. It should also not have a central lighter spot called a "button", synonymous with incorrect extraction.



It's important to mention that you may have wildly different aromatic results depending on whether the coffee is pre-ground or whole beans. Coffee loses a lot of fragrance/aroma after grinding, so it's important to grind just before you brew a cup. 

Before you even take a sip of the coffee, know that it's going to be hot. Too hot in fact. Ever notice how sometimes coffee seems to taste better the more you drink it? Or why bad coffee seems to get worse over time as you're drinking it? So what should we do while the coffee is too hot to drink? Smell it, of course. You can also take a sip if you want, but generally speaking you want to allow it to cool off a bit.

You should recognise the most disparate scents depending on the type of coffee, how it was processed and extracted, but you shouldn't smell any hints of burnt or smoke. While these aromas may be very familiar, especially when it comes to espresso, they are not a dependable clue of the coffee's quality or of correct extractions. 

On the other hand, rancid notes would without a doubt indicate an oxidation defect. They are caused by sulfur compounds, and may give out odours of stagnant water and wet rags. They are always among the defects to keep an eye on.


Those who say that tasting is the multisensory experience par excellence are not wrong. Taste, tactile, thermal sensations and even perceived retronasal smells get entangled, and sometimes it is really difficult to understand "who does what".
In this case, the aspects to be evaluated vary according to the type of extraction. However, generally it is easier to concentrate on what we SHOULD NOT find in the cup.

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Coffee shouldn't taste (too) bitter or acidic

Though “bitter” isn’t a flavour that coffee people often use to advertise their brews, coffee just wouldn’t be the same without it. At an appropriate level, bitterness gives coffee a rich, full mouthfeel that leaves no taste bud unaroused. Bitterness also brings balance to all of the other flavours in the cup; it can add layers of flavour like dark chocolate or cocoa nibs, or even round out fruit flavours.

While on the subject of primary flavours, it is worth mentioning the question of acidity. It's a characteristic enjoyable in the cup for many, but can be annoying when excessively present. When we talk about acidity in brewed coffee we are not referring to its pH level.  Acidity in coffee is instead the perception of how the brew feels on your palate, and it's often conveyed using words like lively, tannic, mellow, or sharp. Does your coffee give you the impression of red wine? Apple juice? Fresh citrus? Berry jam? Acidity is a major factor in all of those experiences!

Coffee shouldn't taste astringent

It should not leave your mouth feeling rough and dry after swallowing it. Astringency is not a taste but a tactile sensation induced by the bond created between the tannic substances present in coffee and the proteins contained in our saliva, those which make saliva viscous (thus giving it its lubricating power).

The tannins bind to the proteins of the saliva which becomes watery and loses its lubricating power. Not only that, the salivary ducts tend to close off and no more saliva would then come out. The result is a numbing sensation that is not immediate, but tends to be persistent and unpleasant when intense. A good coffee shouldn't leave this unpleasant memory in your mouth.

Finally, there are retronasal sensations that are commonly called aftertaste. How does the coffee finish? Does it have a lingering sweetness or bitterness, or does it just fall off the tongue entirely? Does the aftertaste boast a particular flavour? It's worth noting that flavours can intensify as you swallow the liquid, as it gives the aromas a clear path to your aroma receptors.


Well, by now you should be able to properly taste coffee. You understand right from the start that if it's well extracted (and therefore not burnt), it will be hazelnut-coloured, with no clear "button", no mold or rancid odour, not astringent and too bitter or too acidic in the mouth. Yes to caramel notes, slight acidity, citrus and red fruits and hints of floral. If you start to smell those on your next cup of coffee, congratulations, you have started tasting coffee like professionals do.