How to taste an espresso: a lesson with Paolo

I maestri della tostatura media
Have you ever wondered how to taste a real expert espresso?

Of course we all know how to recognize a coffee that we like best from one that we like least, in fact we all have a coffee of the heart, which we just can’t give up and which makes our day better every time we sip it.

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

With this article you will find out!

Tasting should always be done in a neutral environment, that is, with little noise, no direct bright lights, and no particular odors in the air that might influence your judgment. In the absence of such an environment, however, try to concentrate as best you can on what you are about to taste, perhaps even closing your eyes.

We start by drinking a glass of water, which helps to clean our mouths.

After that make your espresso.

The first sense to be used is that of sight, which is essential for initial judgment.

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

In case the cream is lighter, it means the coffee is under-extracted; in case it is darker, the coffee is over-extracted.

In the first case, the coffee will therefore be less aromatically intense and less full-bodied, while in the second case, the coffee may even be burnt, giving off notes that are too bitter and therefore unpleasant.

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

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

In addition, the crema should be free of bubbles that are too large or spots that are too light compared to the rest of the cup, such as in the upper right corner in over-extracted coffee.

Last characteristic of the cream: it must be persistent, that is, it must not flake off and thus show through the drink underneath in a few minutes, but it must endure.

This is important because the cream is a plug for the flavors in our incredible drink; if it flakes off too soon, the flavors will come out much more easily.

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

Then break the cream with a teaspoon and bring the cup under the nose and perceive not the quality of the aromas, but the quantity. Ask yourself this question, “Do I sense a strong aromatic intensity or do I sense almost nothing?”

Bring the cup close to your nose and, with the help of a teaspoon that you keep moving inside, try to pick up the specific aromas of your coffee and especially try to figure out whether 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 others.
In contrast, negative aromas can be notes of rubber, jute, wet grass, earth, hay, damp wood, moss, mold, fungus, and even ash and tar. They are usually related to the use of a defective or contaminated raw material, or even incorrect and excessive roasting or poor cleaning of the machine used for extraction.

It is certainly not easy to identify scents specifically, as it takes a lot of training, but trust that it will be easier to recognize unpleasant aromas, as they make your nose twitch and make tasting unpleasant.

Finally it’s time 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 eating soup.

In this case it is really required!

At this stage of the tasting we will use taste and touch.

In fact, by swirling the coffee around on your tongue and palate, try to focus on understanding its full-bodiedness.

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

To set points of comparison, the coffee body should position itself somewhere between water and oil.

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

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

In this case we need to confirm, modify or reverse the judgment given at the olfactory level in the previous stage. We can then add new scents than those listed above, not warn some of them, or change our overall judgment in case more negative than positive aromas are warned.

In addition, at this stage of tasting, we will also feel: acidity, sweetness, bitterness and astringency.

We explain these 4 characteristics below:
  • Sweet : can be felt on the tip of the tongue. Roasting is an important and delicate process to achieve sweetness. In fact, too aggressive roasting nullifies this property. A sweet Ernani coffee can be the Santos Cerrado Bom Chocolate;
  • Acid : is felt on the side of the tongue. Acidity is one of the main properties of high-quality coffees, although an excess is always considered a defect. This organoleptic property depends mainly on the type of roasting and the method of infusion. Moreover, it is a characteristic mainly belonging to Arabica coffees. A sour Ernani coffee can be Ethiopian Sidamo;
  • Bitter : can be felt on the back of the tongue. A moderate level of bitterness is considered an expression of quality. The process of roasting is essential, as over-roasting, reduces to the point of nullifying the sweet notes, highlighting the bitter ones far too much. Generally, the robusta variety is more bitter than the arabica variety. A bitter Ernani coffee can be the Straits;
  • Astringency : is felt on the walls of the mouth and tongue. It is the allappant perception that is picked up over about 15 seconds, caused by the tannic part of the drink. To mean it is the same feeling you get when you eat a banana that is still too unripe, with which you feel like a “rougher” or viscous layer on the walls of your mouth. It must never be present, considered in fact as a defect. Astringency, on the other hand, cannot be felt from an Ernani Café.

Generally in the Italian tradition to achieve the purpose in all bars a blend is always used, in this way the percentage of robusta gives bitterness and body to the drink, while the percentage of arabica gives it acidity and fragrance.

In the case of going to taste 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. Even then, however, none must annoyingly overpower the other.

Now one last step remains: retronasal sensations.

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

Focus on the sensations left on your palate and the scents that come up retronasally as you exhale from the nose.

Even at this last stage you must perceive only positive notes.

What actually happens in most cases is to feel 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 smells described here depend on the level of roast adopted: the darker it is, the more it goes to burn the beans selected for your espresso, the more positive aromas will be cancelled out to make room for bitterness and smells of ash and burnt.

In contrast, with a medium roast the bitterness remains softer and the sweetness and all the aromas of the coffee are brought out to the fullest.

Now all you have to do is try!

Let me know how it went, and if you want more clarification on the matter, write to [email protected] and we will be so happy to help you!

Marketing, E-commerce e Social Media Manager
Coffee Lover


Martina Mazzoleni

Marketing, E-commerce e Social Media Manager Coffee Lover

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sono Martina, come ti possiamo aiutare?
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