Espresso is a bold, concentrated beverage with over a century of coffee sector heritage. It can be traced back to 19th century Italy, and is today enjoyed around the world in various forms by millions of people.
While tasting espresso often comes down to identifying the acidity, complexity, and sweetness for judges and experts, it can be a little more daunting for beginners. So, to better understand how you should start tasting espresso, I spoke with two specialty coffee baristas. Read on to find out what they told me.
You might enjoy reading our guide to dialling in espresso.
What should you look for when tasting espresso?
The aroma of an espresso is the first thing you experience when you lift your cup. Evangelos “Vag” Koulougousidis is the Lead Barista and part of the competition team at WatchHouse in London. He came third in the 2020 UK Barista Championships.
“Aroma is one of the key indicators of whether the espresso is going to taste good or bad,” Evangelos explains. He says that it also hints whether you’ll be experiencing familiar or slightly more unusual flavours.
It’s also important to note that the human senses of smell and taste are closely linked. The human tongue actually only has receptors for the more fundamental tastes (bitterness, sweetness, and mouthfeel) you experience. Many of coffee’s more complex and subtle flavours are actually derived from your sense of smell.
Evangelos recommends taking your time to truly enjoy your espresso’s aroma. “With espresso, we have it in our mind that it’s something you [drink quickly] and go to work,” he says. “You never spend the time to fully enjoy it [and] have the full experience.
“Aroma is a magical moment that can bring back memories or can lead you to unexplored territory.”
So next time you taste espresso, breathe in its aroma and have a think. Is it unusual? Does it have a particular flavour, or does it remind you of a certain food? This can inform how you interpret the rest of the espresso.
Tyler Hickmott is a barista and cafe manager at Mojo Coffee in Auckland, New Zealand. “The body is basically the density of coffee on your tongue,” he says. Also known as texture or mouthfeel, an espresso’s body can be light and airy, almost like a tea, or dense and heavy, like warm honey.
An espresso’s body can vary massively; it might be oily, creamy, juicy, or syrupy.
“If you want a [lighter] body, go for beans with a more floral flavour, like [a washed] Ethiopian coffee from Yirgacheffe, for instance,” he says. “You’ll get a more pleasant linger.”
Tyler adds that a lighter body is often preferable for those who like the flavours of citrus fruits in their coffee, for instance.
To really evaluate an espresso’s body, let it stay on your tongue a while before you swallow. You might even want to swirl it around your mouth. In that time, feel the texture and think about what it reminds you of.
What do you taste when you sip? An espresso’s flavour depends on a number of things, including the roast profile of the coffee and the origin of the beans.
Darker roasts typically have roastier and more “traditional” flavours, while lighter roasts will showcase the origin more and typically have more delicate tasting notes, with better acidity. Origin will change what you taste, too; for example, Indonesian coffee is often associated with smoky or earthy notes, while Ethiopian coffee is commonly described as bright, fruity, or floral.
Learning more about your beans, how they’re processed, and where they come from can give you more insight into what you’re likely to taste.
When it comes to figuring out what exactly you’re tasting, don’t be overly specific. Don’t immediately jump to strawberries or bergamot, for instance.
Start with a broad category. Is it a fruity flavour that you can taste? If so, is it more citrusy or a berry-like? You might want to use a flavour wheel (such as the one published by the Specialty Coffee Association) as a reference, too. Identifying new flavours you didn’t associate with espresso previously can help you improve your palate.
An espresso’s finish is the aftertaste that lingers on your tongue and the back of your mouth after the drink has been swallowed.
Evangelos says: “A good finish is something that is long-lasting and reminds you of something [you like], such as sweet fruit.” With a good finish, you enjoy the lingering taste in your mouth, savouring it as it slowly fades.
“Finish is the one I really pay attention to when I dial in my espresso,” he adds. “I want the customer, when they have their last sip, to have something positive.”
He says that since the finish is the last thing you remember when you taste espresso, it has the opportunity to leave customers with a good final impression.
Sweetness is often regarded as desirable for an espresso’s finish, whereas dryness and overpowering acidity are less preferable. You shouldn’t want to “wash an espresso down”; you want to enjoy the sensations lingering in your mouth.
These four components are not completely distinct. They are closely linked, and form a full experience from start to finish. As you taste your espresso, try to identify each of them. See if you can label each individually, but recognise that they are intricately tied together.
For example, Evangelos says flavour is heavily dependent on aroma. “It plays a big part. If the aroma reminds you of something, you will generally find that in the flavour as well.” Well-extracted espresso will be rich and complex, with its flavours linked to the aroma.
This is also something that will change as you continue to sip. In filter coffee, as the temperature drops, drinkers note that the aroma and flavours they experience change.
The same is true of espresso. As you go down the cup, you will start to notice different scents and flavours. If you rush your tasting or abandon it after the first sip, you can easily miss them.
That’s why Evangelos recommends taking the time to enjoy tasting your espresso. One tip he notes is to continuously take in the espresso’s aroma; not just in the beginning, but after each sip, too.
Crema: What do you do?
There are several schools of thought on what you should do with the layer of crema on top of your espresso. Some suggest swirling the cup, some stir the crema in, and others scoop it out entirely. Which one works best? Should the crema be broken or preserved?
Evangelos says: “I stir it a lot, like 9 [or] 10 times, to make sure everything is properly mixed. Then, when I bring it up to my nose, I swirl it to get all those aromas.”
He recommends stirring the crema when the cup is close to your nose. This way, the crema acts as a barrier between the air and the espresso. “When you break the crema, you allow the aroma to come out all [at once].”
Tyler says that your approach should vary depending on how the espresso is served. “It depends on the cup. If it’s a tulip [cup], swirl it. But if it’s in a demitasse, then stir it. If you try swirling it in such a small cup, it’s gonna spill.”
However, he encourages experimentation. “If you’re a first-time espresso drinker, try all three and see which one you like best.”
Read more about crema in our article on how it’s formed and what it tells us.
A personal experience
Tyler goes on to explain the importance of finding your own favourite method when it comes to tasting espresso.
“It’s all about personal preference,” he says. “Order it in a tulip cup, if you can. Sip the espresso, and then see how you like it. Then [maybe] add water. Try it as a small long black.
“Maybe add a bit of [steamed] milk if you’re more used to lattes and flat whites. It adds body and gives it a different texture.”
You shouldn’t be fixated on one “true” method for tasting espresso. Experimentation can allow you to uncover new or unusual aromas and flavours; tasting in different ways yields different results.
Some other things you can try:
- Extract the espresso into a carafe and swirl it vigorously.
- Extract two single shots with a spouted portafilter. Keep the crema on one, and break the other. Sample them side by side.
- Shake the espresso to aerate it slightly. See how it tastes different from slurping it.
Evangelos notes that he has even seen participants in barista competitions remove the crema using a paper filter. It’s really about what works best for you.
Final tips for tasting espresso
Taste more foods. The more flavours you can identify, the better equipped you will be to taste the more nuanced flavours of espresso. Eat fruits and candies, drink juices, and even wine if you can.
By tasting these “reference flavours”, you’ll expand your palate and be better equipped to pin down a certain aroma and flavour from experience.
Comparative tasting is another tip. Taste different espressos with different origins and roast profiles side by side. This will allow you to make an immediate comparison right away, rather than leaving and forgetting certain notes after you finish each one.
And finally, when you’re tasting multiple espressos in a row, have a glass of water to hand. Take a small sip to cleanse your palate between each.
Espresso is a highly personal thing, and everyone’s mileage will vary when it comes to tasting it.
However, with these tips, you can start identifying some of the key components that make espresso good, and maybe notice a few flavours or traits you didn’t before. There’s only one way to find out – keep on drinking espresso, and keep on experimenting.
Enjoyed this? Then try our coffee tasting exercises to improve your palate.
Photo credits: WatchHouse
Special thanks to Sean Yew of The Hearty Brew for his work on this article.
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