One of the most important skills you can learn as a barista is how to taste espresso. It’s like a barista superpower.
Espresso machines can already steam milk, dose, and even tamp, but so far, no machine can taste coffee. That’s where the skill of a barista comes into play.
There are many different flavors found in espresso, and understanding the good flavors so you can avoid the bad is a skill any barista wants to master. This skill is what separates a great barista from someone who pumps out shots all day long.
In this article, I will keep things relatively simple and focus on four main things: Aroma, Body, Flavor, Acidity, and Finish.
Because this is a beginner’s guide, I won’t be delving deep into specific taste profiles found in coffee, such as the difference between brown sugar and blood orange.
– Acquiring a taste profile to pick out these subtle flavors takes time and practice to master.
How To Taste Espresso
When I’m tasting espresso for signs of quality, I typically evaluate four key components: Aroma, Body, Flavor, Acidity, and Finish.
I’m sure you’ve already guessed – the aroma is how the espresso smells.
The aroma of espresso is going to be the first thing you experience when you lift your cup. It will be the initial aroma that will give you a good indicator if the espresso is going to taste good or bad.
It is worth mentioning that the senses of taste and smell work in tandem.
For example, between 70 to 80% of what we think we taste comes from smell, not our taste buds. The tongue only has receptors for key tastes such as bitterness, sweetness, and mouthfeel.
However, when it comes to espresso, almost all the complex flavors are picked up by our sense of smell.
It’s the aroma that will give you a good insight into how espresso will taste.
Believe me. I’ve tasted some espresso that should have never been drunk. But, If I had paid attention to my nose, I would already know it was burnt or was going to taste like rubber.
If it smells bad, it more than likely will taste awful too.
Ideally, the aroma of a good shot of espresso should be rich, deep, and complicated. As you inhale, you should be able to notice subtle differences in the aroma.
You shouldn’t have a burnt taste or any hints of burnt rubber, chemical odors, or anything else that makes you stop and think, yuk.
The body of an espresso (also known as texture or mouthfeel) is something a bit harder to explain to a new barista.
The best way to get my point across is to compare the difference between skimmed milk and full cream milk.
Skimmed milk is a little thin in the mouth while being round and smooth. In contrast, full cream milk is a lot more creamy and thick in texture.
So taking that as an example, you should be able to pinpoint how certain coffees feel on your palette. The body of espresso is basically the density on your tongue.
An espresso in the mouth can feel airy, light, or heavy and dense, like warm honey or melted butter when you are drinking it.
To truly evaluate an espresso, it’s best to let it sit on your tongue for a while. Swirling it around your mouth will also allow you to pick up subtle profiles that you would otherwise dismiss.
With the coffee in your mouth, take a minute to think about what it reminds you of. This will help you to identify reference points for future tasting.
The espresso flavor can be attributed to many things, such as the origin of the coffee beans or the roast profile. The flavor is a combination of all of these things and more.
For example, with the roast profile, you will notice that a dark roast will give the espresso more of what I refer to as “traditional” flavors.
In contrast, a lighter roast will typically highlight the origin of the coffee and will almost always have better acidity and more delicate tasting notes.
When talking about the origin of the coffee, you can expect to taste a noticeable difference depending on what part of the globe the coffee originated.
Ethiopian coffee, for example, is typically described as bright, floral, and fruity. On the other hand, Indonesian coffee tends to be associated with more earthy or smoky notes.
Once you start to learn about different coffee bean origins, you will already know what you should expect to taste.
Beginners trying to understand precisely what they are tasting, don’t try to run before you can walk. Don’t immediately jump to flavors of strawberries or bergamot.
Start with a more broad category and then aim to hone in on exactly what you’re tasting.
The below flavor wheel can be a good reference for identifying the flavors you wouldn’t normally associate with espresso – it can really help you to improve your palate.
Acidity is another espresso characteristic that the mouth feels. Have you ever had a coffee that makes your tongue tingle, causes your mouth to salivate, or even dries out your mouth completely?
All of these can be caused by the acidity found in coffee.
You can think of acidity just like the zing of a lemon or the sourness of fresh green apple leaves on your tongue – these fruits generally have a higher level of acidity.
Too much acidity makes mouths pucker, and too little can leave the espresso seeming dull or flat.
A good espresso is all about finding the right balance.
The finish is the aftertaste that lingers at the back of your mouth and on your tongue after you have swallowed the last of espresso – the espresso shot ends very differently from how it starts.
Try to pay attention as the espresso moves from the front of the tongue towards the back – It might take a little practice, but you should be able to identify different flavors.
Yes, it tastes like coffee, but as you begin to pick out subtle flavor changes, you will realize it much more than that.
As you swirl the espresso shot around your mouth, try to pick out the earthy, fruity, flowery, spicy woody, or any other flavors you can highlight.
It’s the finish that will leave a good final impression – it’s the last thing you and your customers will taste.
A desirable finish in an espresso ideally should be sweet. A dry finish or overpowering acidity are not recommended.
After you finish your espresso, you shouldn’t have to reach for a glass of water to wash away the lingering taste – a good espresso you will want to leave lingering in your mouth for as long as possible.
“The Salami Shot” – Espresso Extraction Exercise For New Baristas
If you’re struggling to explain the different tastes of espresso to new baristas or even someone new to coffee, I recommend that you give the salmi shot tasting exercise a try.
The salami shot is an espresso tasting exercise, and it’s great for getting new baristas to understand which flavors are developing during different stages of the espresso extraction.
Let’s first walk through the actual technique.
First, you will need to dial in your espresso. The closer you are to the “perfect shot of espresso” the better this exercise will work.
For the salami shot exercise you’re going to pull a shot with your espresso machine as usual but with a slight difference. You will separate the shot of espresso as it extracts into at least six different espresso cups.
Slide your first cup under the portafilter, and as soon as you see the first drop of espresso hit the bottom of the cup, start your timer.
Have the other cups closer by and switch out cups every 5 seconds. Just tuck the cup up underneath the spout, and above the other cup, you can then slide the other cup away.
For this exercise, I typically use 6 cups.
I generally don’t see the first espresso coffee come out of the portafilter until after six or seven seconds once I’ve engaged the pump.
So this gives me a total shot time of about 37 seconds – which is quite a bit longer than I would usually run the coffee through the portafilter.
Once you have your six cups, all with a little bit of espresso in them, line them up, making sure to keep them in order.
You can start at the first cup and move along, tasting all six individual samples.
As you move along, you will be able to taste the progression of a well-extracted shot of espresso, 5 seconds at a time.
The changes are very apparent. For example, the first cup will be thick, dense, intense in flavor, and the espresso taste might be a little salty.
As you get towards the middle of the samples, they will start to mellow out, and as you continue, the coffee will become much more diluted.
This exercise aims to give the barista an obvious example of under and over-extraction. It also helps illustrate what flavors become more dominant if you pull a shot too short or too long.
These flavor profile references can be beneficial for any new barista when they are dialing in a shot of espresso.