How to taste an espresso, according to Paolo


Have you ever wondered how to taste an espresso as a true expert?

Anyone can tell a good coffee from a not so good one and we all have a beloved coffee, that one we cannot live without and that improves our days on a regular basis.

But do you know how an expert recognizes a quality espresso against a mediocre or even bad one?

With this article you will find it out!

Tasting is always best done in a neutral environment, which means little or no noise at all, no direct strong lights and no particular odors in the air that could affect your judgment. In the absence of such an environment, however, try to concentrate as best as possible on what you are about to taste, perhaps even closing your eyes.

Let's start with drinking a glass of water, which helps cleaning your mouth.

After that, prepare your espresso.

The first sense to use is that of sight, essential for a first judgment.

Look carefully at your espresso and check that the crema is hazelnut, no lighter and no darker. Possibly with darker streaks, warm brown, almost reddish.

In case the crema is lighter, it means that the coffee is under-extracted, in which case the coffee is darker and over-extracted.

In the first case, the coffee will therefore be less intense in aromatic terms and less full-bodied, while in the second case the coffee could also be burned, releasing too bitter and therefore annoying notes.

Here is a photo to understand the right color of the espresso cream.


On the left an under extracted coffee; a correct espresso in the center; on the right an over-extracted coffee.

In addition, the cream must be free from bubbles that are too large or from spots that are too light compared to the rest of the cup, as in the top right corner in over-extracted coffee.

Last feature of the cream: it must be persistent, that is, it must not flake and then show the underlying drink in a few minutes, but must resist.

This is important because the cream is a stopper for the aromas of our incredible drink, if it falls apart too soon the aromas will come out much more easily.

At this point it is time to use the sense of smell.

Break the cream with a teaspoon and bring the cup to about 15-20 cm under your nose and perceive not the quality of the aromas, but the quantity. Ask yourself this question: "Do I feel a strong aromatic intensity or do I feel almost nothing?".

At this point, bring the cup to your nose and, with the help of a spoon that you will continue to move inside, try to capture the specific aromas of your coffee and above all try to understand if they are pleasant or unpleasant aromas.

Take long sighs and possibly with your eyes closed. 

Positive notes could be scents of flowers, fruit, citrus, chocolate, cocoa, cinnamon, vanilla, honey, malt, toast, caramel, nuts and many more.

Conversely, negative aromas can be notes of rubber, jute, wet grass, earth, hay, damp wood, moss, mold, fungus and even ash and tar. Generally they are related to the use of a defective or contaminated raw material, or even to a wrong and excessive roasting or poor cleaning of the machine used for extraction. 

It is certainly not easy to identify specific scents, as it takes a lot of training, but trust that unpleasant aromas you will recognize them immediately as they make you turn up your nose and make the tasting unpleasant.

The time has finally come to taste your espresso.

Drink in small sips and possibly with a suck, to better understand the same suck that makes you rude if you do it while you are eating soup.

In this case it is really required!

In this phase of the tasting we will use taste and touch.

In fact, by turning the coffee on the tongue and on the palate, try to concentrate on understanding its body.

To be clear, the body of the coffee is comparable to the viscosity of a liquid. For example, water has zero body, oil has a medium body, while a nice hot chocolate has a lot of body, being very dense.

To establish points of comparison, the body of the coffee should be positioned halfway between the water and the oil.

The body can be defined velvety if it is softer, round if it is more full-bodied and consistent if it is very full-bodied.

Let's take a second sip and focus on the aromatic part and the balance of your espresso.

In this case we must confirm, modify or reverse the judgment given at the olfactory level in the previous phase. We can therefore add new perfumes to those listed above, not warn some of them, or change our overall opinion, in the event that we perceive more negative than positive aromas.

Furthermore, in this phase of the tasting, we will also notice: acidity, sweetness, bitterness and astringency.

We explain these 4 features below:

  • Sweetness: it is perceived on the tip of the tongue. Roasting is an important and delicate process for obtaining sweetness. In fact, too aggressive roasting cancels this property.
  • Acidity: it is perceived on the lateral part of the tongue. Acidity is one of the main properties of high quality coffees, even if an excess is always considered a defect. This organoleptic property mainly depends on the type of roasting and the infusion method. Furthermore, it is a characteristic mainly belonging to Arabica coffees.
  • Bitterness: it is perceived on the back of the tongue. A moderate level of bitterness is considered an expression of quality. The roasting process is essential, as excessive roasting reduces the sweet notes to the point of canceling them, highlighting the bitter ones too much. Generally, the Robusta variety is more bitter than the Arabica variety.
  • Astringency: It is felt on the walls of the mouth and on the tongue. It is the appealing perception that is perceived within about 15 seconds, caused by the tannic part of the drink. To be clear, it is the same sensation you get when you eat a banana that is still too unripe, with which you feel a more "rough" or viscous layer on the walls of the mouth. It must never be present, considered as a defect. 

A curiosity: many think that coffee should be balanced between sweetness and bitterness.

In reality this is not the case! Coffee must be balanced between bitterness and acidity, that is must significantly prevail and / or prevail over the other.

Generally in the Italian tradition to achieve the goal in all bars a blend is always used, in this way the percentage of Robusta attributes bitterness and body to the drink, while the percentage of Arabica gives it acidity and aromas.

In the event that you go to taste it in single origin, the cup will in most cases be a little more unbalanced on acidity or bitterness, depending on the variety of coffee you select. However, even in this case, no one must annoyingly prevail over the other. 

Now there is one last step: the retronasal sensations.

Wait 10-15 minutes from when you have tasted it and do not drink or eat anything else.

Focus on the sensations that have remained on the palate and the aromas that rise through the retronasal exhaling through the nose.

Even in this last phase you must perceive only positive notes.

What actually happens in most cases is to perceive a persistent and unpleasant bitterness. If this happens it is considered a defect. After a tasting, if the espresso is good, you should never need to drink a glass of water to rinse your mouth. In fact, you never want that incredible taste to go away!


Many of the sensations described here depend on the level of roasting adopted: the darker it is, the more the beans selected for your espresso burn, the more positive aromas are canceled out to make room for bitterness and smells of ash and burnt.

On the contrary, with a medium roast the bitterness remains softer and the sweetness and all the aromas of the coffee are enhanced to the maximum.

Now you just have to try!

Let me know how it went and if you want more clarification on this, write to and we will be happy to help you!

Paolo Sangalli 

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