Everyone has their own tastes and preferences as well as their own style when it comes to reviewing things like coffee. Since I'm still relatively new at reviewing coffee, I've adopted reviewing techniques of some of my favorite coffee reviewers and molded them into something I'm comfortable with.
I currently use 10 rating categories when reviewing whole bean coffee, and I give full credit to Kenneth Davids from CoffeeReview.com for introducing me to half of these at a talk he gave at Coffee Con SF in 2014.
I rate each of these categories on a 5 point scale and then convert it to a 100 point scale. So if I rated “Aroma” as a 3, I'd convert it to 60 in my review software.
Why do I do this?
Well, frankly I think it's silly for me to try and rate something I am still developing my palate for on a 100 point scale. The difference between a 92 and 95 would be arbitrary from review to review depending on my mood that day.
The other reason is that my software only works with 100 point scales, so yeah.
Fruity notes are the cornerstones of a coffee with great acidity. To me, perfect acidity would be lots of stone fruit notes with plenty of sweetness and limited sourness.
Coffee with these acidic notes that aren't overpowering are what I'm looking for in this rating category.
What am I tasting after the initial sip, particularly once the coffee has already been swallowed?
Aftertaste is pretty straightforward for me and I'm really only paying attention to a few things:
- The lingering flavor(s)
- The mouthfeel
If I'm tasting any flavor notes that weren't initially part of the coffee when it was swishing around in my mouth, then that's an aftertaste. If it's a good taste, great! If there are a variety of things I'm tasting that are good, even better! Lingering bitterness or sourness? No bueno.
As far as mouthfeel goes, if there is any lingering dryness that makes me beg for a glass of water, then I'm going to retract from the aftertaste's score.
This is the smell of the coffee. The score is largely contingent on how strong the aroma is (is it noticeable or difficult to detect?), whether the aroma is pleasant or unpleasant, and how many different aromatic notes I'm picking up (do I smell one thing or multiple things?).
I smell the coffee when it's in whole bean form and when it has been freshly ground. Coffee is most aromatic when it's freshly ground, but a coffee that is aromatic under both circumstances will likely score higher in this department.
So in a nutshell:
- Is there a smell? Yes? More points for you!
- Am I smelling multiple things? Yes? More points for you!
- Is the smell present in whole bean form and ground form? Yes? More points for you!
- Are there any bad smells? Yes? No points for you! In fact, you'll probably lose some points my dear coffee beans.
Balance (rating category added as of 10/8/15)
When a coffee has good balance, it is neither too bitter (over-extracted) nor too sour (under-extracted). It falls in the middle of undesirable extremes. When a coffee is described as “smooth,” I consider this to be good balance.
Body is all about how dense the brewed coffee is and how it feels in your mouth. In my book, a syrupy body is good, while a silty body with extra undissolved compounds is not good.
To me, perfect body is somewhere between water and mud in a cup. Yes, that's a broad range, but right in the middle would be a perfect score for body in my book.
Complexity (rating category added as of 10/8/15)
Complexity is all about the variety of flavors and aromas in a coffee. If there's a wide-range of experience, I consider the coffee complex.
I also “measure” complexity by using different brew methods and parameters (e.g. temperature) to see how these things change, if at all.
Last but certainly not least is the coffee's flavor. Nothing fancy here, just simply how the coffee tastes.
Is there some sweetness? Is there complexity? Is the coffee bitter or tainted by any undesirable flavors?
These are the things I look for mostly when rating a coffee's flavor.
Forgiveness (rating category added as of 10/8/15)
If the coffee tastes good across most brew parameters then I say it has good forgiveness. So even if you aren't using the perfect grind or water temperature and say, your shot of espresso still tastes great, then you've got a forgiving coffee on your hands.
Sweetness (rating category added as of 10/8/15)
Pretty straightforward…how much sweetness is in the coffee's flavor profile? This tends to be harder to pick up in dark roasts, which is why I don't really review them.
Versatility (rating category added as of 10/8/15)
Does the coffee taste great across brew methods? Good as drip or espresso? The more brew methods the coffee “works” with, the better the versatility score.
This is part of my review process that I decided to do in large part because of how Margaret over at CoffeeCantata breaks down what she gets from different brew methods.
I love this – and it makes total sense.
Trying the same coffee with different brew methods will open you up to a world of surprises, and this really helps me paint the most complete picture for the coffee I drink.
The one downside is that I'm inconsistent with the brew methods I use. It really just comes down to what I feel like using in that moment. I'll try and be more consistent and systemize the process over time, but for now you'll have to take it as is.
How I Take Notes
These days I've mostly been putting in all of my tasting notes and brew parameters in the Angels Cup app. It's a nice digital way to build up my coffee tasting database.
I do like to use my 33 Cups of Coffee Journal too though, as it's quicker to take notes with pen and paper.