Jake toasting coffee
Culinary Coffee Vol. 27 No. 01

A Matter of Taste

Coffee is more complex than wine.


Chefs have incredibly well-trained pallets. They can distinguish the salt levels in a dish and identify that secret ingredient that elevates a meal. They can isolate flavors in their mind and understand how they work together. Despite this skill and understanding of flavors, I have found that most chefs are uncomfortable tasting coffee. Many have considerable practice and training with wine and get very involved in pairings. It is a rare encounter to meet a chef that is as comfortable and knowledgeable about coffee as they are about wine and food. 

Years ago, I worked in coffee, selling bulk in the food service sector. Working with food service, we had to understand how the kitchen works and the needs and preferences of the Executive Chefs, cooks, F&B Directors, and sommeliers. We also knew that culinary professionals were in the dark and often uncomfortable when it came to coffee. They relied heavily on us to tell them what was good and bad and how to prepare it properly and train their staff. Even when a chef was selecting their coffee, and we had arranged a tasting, they would often look to us to distinguish what was excellent and preferable about one blend from another. Once they trusted us, the decision was all ours. I always found it odd and out of order that a chef or F&B Director would only partially own their ingredients. I was happy about the responsibility and didn’t like what it signifies. It was a lack of respect for the ingredient. 

An aromatic kit separates the essential aromas associated with a wine called the Le Nez du Vin. This kit has 24 essential aromas and educates your pallet on wine. They have made a similar kit for coffee called the Le Nez du Cafe, which includes 36 essential fragrances. Coffee is more complex than wine partially because it undergoes additional preparations, which are roasting and brewing. The chemistry of coffee is altered three times before it reaches our lips. Fermentation and drying at origin, roasting is the most dramatic change, and brewing accomplishes the final prestige of changing it from a solid to a liquid. These varied processes create new flavors and release hidden flavors induced by heat and solvents. Just as food changes chemistry through heat application and acids are converted into sugars and sugars are caramelized, coffee also passes through the developmental stages of Mallard and sugar browning. 

Drink Coffee Like a Wine Snob

A Video about Tasting Coffee with a Sommelier

There are many parallels to be drawn between food, wine, and coffee. We will be exploring them deeper and deeper with each article. In the meantime, here are a couple of tips for understanding how to taste coffee. 

  1. First, smell and engage with the aroma. As the liquid cools, new volatile aromatics are released, and more complex aromas can be detected and enjoyed. 
  2. Taste by lightly slurping your coffee to aspirate your sip. This will allow more of the gases to be released within your nasopharynx and allow you to perceive more flavors. Let the liquid coat your tongue, and be aware of sweetness, bitterness, brightness, and body. 
  3. When testing a coffee, drink it the way you usually take your morning cup. This way, you have a baseline of something you like to compare it to. Then try the coffee on its own to see its natural state. 

We will get deeper into tasting and descriptor language another time. Start with this, and stay tuned. 

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Jake Leonti is a writer and food + beverage advisor working in New York City, and around the world. He has worked in the food + beverage industry for over 20 years. Anything that touches coffee, Jake has done it. Including: importing green coffee, blending, roasting, building brands, packaging and coffee houses, developing RTD beverages, syrups, full scale menus and overseeing international product launches. Jake is a member of the Roasters Guild, a certified MuMac trainer and Editor-in-Chief of CoffeeTalk Magazine. F+B Therapy is a food and beverage consulting company that offers an array services including: opening cafes to menu creation, staff training, product development, branding and business strategy. F+B is based in the Northeast with offices and training labs in New York and Miami. Clients range from 100 year old international brands to owner operator small businesses across the US, Europe, Australia, South and Central America.

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