SUNDAY, 7 MARCH 2021
AUTHOR: MAXWELL COLONNA-DASHWOOD
READ TIME: 4:01 MINUTES
At Colonna, it's safe to say we spend a lot of time tasting. We have accumulated countless hours of delving into taste variation and how people experience flavour differently. This week we thought we would explore the idea of the super taster test and learning to taste coffee.
You may have heard the term super taster before. What does it mean? That's a good question because it’s not actually a very well-defined term. There is a simple test that you can buy here. This is a PTC test strip. This is what is referred to as a super taster test, but what it really tests is your tongues sensitivity to bitterness.
The test is really interesting in that in a room of people the responses will vary wildly. Some will report no taste or sensory experience whatsoever when the strip sits on their tongue. Others in the room will have to wash their mouth out for half an hour after having a repulsive reaction. The test strips are exactly the same.
The population is roughly broken up into 25% high sensitivity, 50% medium sensitivity, and 25% low sensitivity.
This means that tasting is far beyond simple subjective preferences. People actually taste different things in complex food and drink.
So, does that mean people who are very sensitive to the test are better tasters? Not necessarily.
Being incredibly sensitive could actually be a drawback, in that the taster will be overwhelmed by certain flavours.
Mainly though, the name is misleading. The test strip tests your tongues sensitivity and most of what we experience as flavour happens in our nose (olfactory system). People's noses vary just like their tongues but this is harder to test. Notably, the variability in sensitivity to floral notes is huge and likely explains where the difference in preference for floral coffee profiles comes from. If florals don’t stand out to you a floral coffee will taste pretty bland.
What does being good at tasing coffee actually mean then? It means the ability to draw on a flavour library and to be able to identify attributes and put a word or a description to them.
An expert wine or cheese taster can’t suddenly be an expert coffee taster as they don't have the experience or the accrued library of reference points. Sure, they will likely be able to learn quickly as they have done a lot of connecting flavours to origins.
I have long been frustrated by flavour notes. They are subjective after all. A Kenyan coffee doesn’t really taste of blackcurrants, it tastes of a unique flavour profile to Kenya, but the closest food that we can compare it to is blackcurrant (not all the time of course, but its a common flavour descriptor). We use flavour notes to try and find a relatable reference point.
Sometimes they are spot on, but other times a description of the processing, origin, and variety is more useful. I.e. If I am told a coffee is from Colombia, is a Castillo and is washed, that gives me a better idea of how it tastes than saying chocolate, berry and citrus. These flavour notes could also mean an El Salvador washed bourbon for example. But, they don't taste the same and I really think the unique taste between the two is hard to describe with flavour notes.
That is the challenge with all tasting – building the library of taste. The hot tip in all cases is to simply taste a lot! Which, when you think about it, is an enjoyable way to learn. It’s really important to discuss flavour with other people and try to communicate it to yourself and others.
We recommend tasting blind whenever you can.
A really fun way to taste is to get someone to make or buy you a coffee without you knowing what it is and see if you can pick the origin, or the process, or anything that stands out to you about the coffee. Flavour notes are a fun way to start but being able to identify an origin through taste is really exciting. Side by side tasting is highly recommended also and will speed up learning.
Mainly though, there is no right way to taste. For each person I think it's about becoming aware of how you taste as an individual, learning your own preferences and sensitivity. I do recommend the super taster test and if you do give it a go I apologise in advance if you are in the sensitive percentile – it's disgusting.