Coffee is often a collaborative effort. From Greens-buyer to Roaster, to the thousands of baristas that work with the roasted product, each of these are a step along the way to achieving a fantastic end-product for our consumer.

Extraction is a science, however the way we individually perceive a particular extraction is less so. Being a professional barista gives you license to express yourself through your own style however, how can we know that what tastes good to us will also taste good to the person ordering their daily “joe”? Or heck, even to the baristas working alongside you!

Calibration and a common lexicon, or language, are key.

We all have different preferences and thresholds. As professionals in our field we must recognise these biases and account for them. Imagine if you had a high threshold to bitterness, and didn’t recognise that: it could create a situation where you’re slightly over-extracting your coffee without even knowing it.

The standards for both preparation and coffee cupping set out by the SCAA are a great place to start. As one of the most widely adopted coffee assessment systems globally, using this to structure how you approach coffee discussions can be really valuable. For super pro-level use of the form, you can pursue a Q Grader certification which explains and demonstrates every aspect of cupping and coffee assessment in detail.

To get stuck into calibrating your palate, you can use one of the foundation tests run in the Q Grader course creating sweet, sour and salty water solutions. The focus is on learning our personal bias, and recognising that the physical response we have to a variety of characteristics can be quite different than the next person. Taking out the variable, subjective element of coffee and instead, mixing citric acid, sugar and salt in various concentrations in water solutions, allows you to objectively attach a sensory experience with a descriptor. After we build a library of common responses, we’re able to take this experience to the coffee world and approach our next brew with a higher degree of confidence. For me personally, I learnt that I’m so sensitive to salt that even at its weakest solution it tastes like I’ve been dumped by a massive swell.

Use these recipes to mix up the solutions and put yourself to the test.

  • Castor Sugar
  • Citric Acid
  • Table Salt
  • Filtered Water

Method for max intensity:

  • Mix 3g of Salt with 1ltr filtered water
  • Mix 22.5g of Sugar with 1ltr filtered water
  • Mix 0.75g of Citric Acid with 1ltr filtered water

For varying intensities, the middle intensity should be 66% of your original solution. Your weakest solution should be 33%.

Now you’ve got the basics down, try diluting the concentration by half and repeat the experiment. Before you know it, you’ve dialled in your palate! Now you’re able to accurately describe key sensory characteristics and intensities of your cup.

It’s important to note that opposing tastes can change the perception of one another. Ie; something high in acid might make you squeeze your face up in discomfort, but if you add some sugar, the perception of the acid level will be lowered to something you might describe as “juicy.” Sweetness has decreased the perception of acidity, even though the level of acidity has not been lowered. As you get further into attaching accurate language to taste, you can take things to the next level – is the acid Malic? Acetic? Citric? Or Phosphoric? But that’s another article for another day!

So we’re calibrated, now what? With this new perspective, perhaps you now know to tone down the acid on that next spro, even if you personally find it delicious.

Alright – It’s time to skill up! Grab some water, citric acid, salt and sugar, and your co-baristas and get calibrating. This is an excellent first step in being able generate repeatable results with your coffee by using consistent and refined language between yourself and your co-workers. Nailing a coffee recipe after you understand your tongue is so much more rewarding. You’re not poking around in the dark anymore. You’ll be using a common language with recognised goal posts to find your perfect resting place, in record time.

Once you’re done, let me know to swing by. I’m sure your espressos will be tasting even more on-point!

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