Before we dive into training our palate, let's first get some basic knowledge out of the way.
Our tongues can only perceive 5 basic tastes: Sweet, Salty, Bitter, Sour and Umami. What helps our brains to distinguish between flavours such as apple, cinnamon, caramel, jasmine etc. is actually our nose, or more specifically, our olfactory system.
When we eat or drink, the food/beverage mixes with our saliva and vapours from the ingested items travel up our nose to reach our olfactory bulb at the roof of our nose. The odor molecules in the vapour are dissolved in mucus lining the walls of our nasal cavity where the neuron receptors in the olfactory nerve fibres detect and transmit information about the particular odor to our brain through a process called sensory transduction.
Being well trained in your palate involves both your perception of the 5 basic tastes with your tongue plus distinguishing flavours and aromatics through your nose. One of the reasons why coffee professionals slurp coffee so loudly is to aerate the coffee during the slurping action to allow as much vapors to travel up the back of their mouth and to their nose to allow themselves to better distinguish flavours. It also helps to spread the liquid evenly across the tongue.
So, how do some of the professionals in the coffee industry recommend to train your palate? Here are some of their answers below:
"The good news is that there are sensory classes that are available but those can be very instant and difficult to register into the mind. The not so good news is that it usually takes a long and extended period of time to train the palate. What's useful for us is to cup with people whom you think are good cuppers. Organise also ingredient tastings with different fruits, nuts, sugars and chocolates to taste the differences. Getting on the Q Grader course might be useful but it's more about calibrating oneself with the industry standards."
Dennis Tang, Co-Founder, Nylon Coffee Roasters
"With regards to sensory skills, I recommend to eat and taste as many things that are related to coffee as possible. Fruits, Chocolate, Nuts etc. I also like using association with colors as a taste guide. For eg. I would taste a coffee and give 3 colors which I see and ask another person the same thing. Go into the specific shades of the colors and ask the person to explain how they derived that color. It will usually represent a flavour quality. You can then use the color to refer to various tasting wheels if it helps.
More importantly, I think that an individual needs to taste coffee with the people who made them. Nowadays, coffee people are more open than before so you can go to any shop and buy a couple of coffees and taste with them. I don't think you need to agree with these people, but at least you understand what they are tasting. Never be afraid to ask for opinions, and then ask further how and why. Eg. If a roaster might say a coffee is 'grassy', I would ask which part of the experience do they taste to be grassy. A very important tool anyone can have is to be able to taste and isolate 'faults'; tasting alongside a refractometer will really help with perspectiveson extractions too."
Aslam, Co-Founder of VXX Cooperative
"I've realised the importance of the basic tastes of sweet, salty and sour and their correlation with coffee. This is what we experience in the Q grader course training. Many times we have difficulty detecting saltiness, probably due to the Asian diet. So I would recommend people to start with learning to detect these three tastes across different intensities first. Level 1 is 10g of salt, 12g of sugar and 13ml of citric acid per litre of water respectively with levels 2 and 3 being double and triple of those quantities. I also started improving alot when I drank more craft beverages like craft beers, wine and most of all tea! Of course, it also helps when you have an experienced taster to taste along with you and guide you. Women are usually very good at this."
Tay Ho Ming, Coffee Roaster & SNBC 2016 Finalist
"The simple answer is practice, practice, practice. There really is no quick fix. Learn from others, cup whenever you can and pay attention when cupping. Structured Cupper training such as courses offered by SCA, Q grader, private companies etc. can set you off in the right direction but that's just the start. A newly qualified Q grader is not suddenly an expert cupper."
Grant Rattray, Head of Mercanta Asia and ex-Director of Alliance for Coffee Excellence
"Keep drinking coffee. Keep tasting different drinks and food be it wine, beer, coffee or tea, fruits and all kinds of food and force your palate to identify the tastes."
Clint Seah, Founder of The Chillout Cafe and .Elia
"Just be more aware of everything you taste daily. Having opportunities to taste with 'experts' helps, so it's useful to go for cupping sessions or join sensory appreciations of other beverages from tea to wine and food pairings. Some people find Q-Grader classes help too."
Darren Chang, Director of Necessary Provisions and Smittens Specialty Coffee & Tea
"Drink more coffee, like really. Cupping a lot helps too."
Will Leow, 2016 Singapore Cup Tasters Champion
"Eat lots of fruits and different ingredients like spices and try to memorize how they taste like. So whenever you taste coffee, or anything, you can search your memory banks to see how each taste resembles the other. Then find fruits or foods with very close taste profiles and try to remember their differences. Eg. Strawberries and Raspberries, Star Anise and Cloves, White Pepper and Black Pepper, Green and Red Apples & Grapes etc."
Colin Loh, Senior Roaster, Oriole Coffee
"For me, I used to eat different kinds of fruits and nuts on their own for a period of time to remember the flavours. That's one way to improve flavour profilings. Drinking different kinds of coffee, from dark to light, even robustas and trying to taste defects like potato and leathery defects helps too."
Terence Tan, 2017 SNBC Champion
"Smell, taste, eat and drink everything you can get your hands on. It will help to expand your smells and taste vocabulary which will enable you to better relate and describe coffees when you taste them. Even things normally considered smelly or undesirable like ammonia or smelly socks. Especially smelly socks, I love smelling smelly socks."
Sabique, Coffee Roaster, Compound Coffee Co.
Want to train your palette together with other coffee professionals? Check our our Ultimate Coffee Roasting Course. You'll learn how to roast better than anyone. The first step is to train your palette to identify every single nuance from your roasted coffee.