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the 4 attributes of espresso coffee

As soon as I entered the world of coffee in Portugal, I realized how wrong we are when it comes to evaluating espresso (and not espresso, but that's a subject for another conversation).

With the intention of showing this discovery to everyone, I wanted to have the best espresso I could ever serve in my coffee shop, which I opened with my wife.

I studied everything I could in a short space of time, but I still found a huge barrier separating me from my audience. Even with my friends it was very difficult to explain to them that I knew coffee and that the espresso they were used to drinking was bad.

THE REVELATION

After getting angry at everyone and everything, I realized that the mistake was in me and in the way I presented my espresso. Only after a few years did I understand that there were two very serious flaws in the way I tried to seduce people to the other side (the specialty coffee side).

COMPARISON

The first flaw was the lack of comparison. The average person who isn't in the mood to experience all the sensations possible with a bite of a cookie, a forkful of pasta or a sip of espresso can't process all the new information presented to them without an obvious comparison.

Of course, making a direct comparison between a bad coffee and a good one (or at least a less bad one) is not logistically easy, but it is advisable to do so in order to understand the differences in a simple way.

But I'll explain, after we've looked at the attributes, how you can do it without sipping two espressos at the same time.

THE ATTRIBUTES OF ESPRESSO COFFEE

Analyzing espresso requires analyzing these 4 attributes: The aroma, taste, body and flavor.

Aroma

The first thing to analyze is the aroma after stirring the espresso back and forth with a spoon three times (in order to mix the extraction layers and release the aromas) and placing your nose as close to the espresso as possible so that, when you inhale, you can detect the volatile chemical components dissipating from the liquid. This is perhaps the most difficult attribute to analyze, so if you're just starting out, do it in an uncompromising way. Think of the first association you can make, however unreasonable. "Wood", "Bleach", "Cinnamon", "rice and beans"... Anything goes. You can even think of colors and then associate them with a scent.

I like it

Then you take a sip of espresso and try to get the drink to spread all over your tongue. That's why at coffee tastings (wine and tea too) you make that noise you were told not to make when you were drinking soup as a child. You're spraying the drink all over your tongue like a spray bottle.

There are 5 tastes to analyze, so this is the simplest attribute to analyze. Sweet, salty, umami, sour and bitter. For coffee you have to focus on 2: Sourness (or acidity) and bitterness. These two are always present in coffee and should always be present in a balanced way. In other words, neither should overpower the other. The sweet taste is also easy to identify in excellent quality coffees where the acidity and bitterness are balanced (which means that the barista is mainly responsible for not spoiling the coffee) but this taste is just a sensation created by the brain when it is happy with the result. 

Unfortunately, in Portugal there is a poor perception of what is bitter and what is acidic. It's normal to hear the expression "Oh, this coffee is very bitter" when you present a specialty espresso to someone who has never had it before. What they're feeling is quite the opposite: acidity. 

For this confusion to disappear, what we need to do is quite simple. Practice. To become the Cristiano Ronaldo of gastronomy, you have to taste, taste, taste and taste. Focusing on the 2 predominant tastes (acidity and bitterness), you have to taste ingredients that have these predominant tastes, understand which area of your tongue that taste is memorized and store that information. From then on, you know that if your tongue detects a certain area when you drink an espresso, what the corresponding taste is. Of course, it's not all black and white, but it helps.

There is an idea, now more than proven wrong, that the tongue has specific areas for each taste. In fact, the tongue detects everything everywhere. It may be more pronounced in some areas than others. And that can change from person to person. So here's the exercise to do:

Taste lemon juice. Sip it to try to spread it around your mouth and try to figure out which areas of your tongue taste it (usually the front or back sides). Record in ourmemory which "areas" correspond to acidity/sourness.

Crush an aspirin and dilute with 40ml of water. Sip it to try to spread it around your mouth and try to notice which areas of your tongue taste it (usually in the middle and back). Record in your memory what bitterness is.

You can also test the same with the other tastes by using ingredients that easily identify with those tastes: Sweet - sugar, Salty - salt, Umami - dried mushrooms.

Umami was recently added to our list of tastes, but it is a taste that is already well known in Asian culture (it was discovered over 100 years ago in Japan). Umami is the taste of glutamate, an amino acid present in many foods we eat every day, including aged cheeses, cured meats, tomatoes, mushrooms, salmon, steak, anchovies and green tea.

Body

So you have the most precious liquid in your mouth, you detect that the espresso has a perfect balance between acidity and bitterness and someone next to you says: "The body of this espresso is good". And you think you missed something because you didn't see any body in the cup.

The body is theThe body is the tactile sensation of the drink you are ingesting. Honey, for example, has a "larger" body than milk, milk has a "larger" body than tea and tea has a larger body than water.

So the body of espresso is nothing more than the physical sensation it conveys. Nothing to do with the aroma, taste or flavor. This means that you can analyze the body of espresso by touching the drink. If you want to feel the body of an espresso at your fingertips, just place your fingers inside the cup with the espresso.

We often talk about the "weight on the tongue" to evaluate the body. If the espresso is heavy, it has a "good" body. 

Body is a subjective analysis and doesn't really define the quality of the espresso. In other words, a blend of Arabica and Robusta species gives the espresso more body and doesn't make it better because of this. So saying that "it has a good body" doesn't determine the quality, but it is a characteristic of the espresso. In the same way that the body of a wine does not determine its quality.

Flavor

In the end, you analyze the taste. Taste is the most complex attribute to evaluate and requires experience.

It's a combination of taste and aroma that, together, send this information to the brain, which in turn determines that the combination makes you think of "orange", or "charcoal", etc.

The aroma is the great vehicle for flavor information. Even when the espresso is in your mouth and you're drinking it, you're constantly breathing in and analyzing the aroma of the espresso.

A curious exercise you can do is to cover both nostrils, so as not to breathe, while you sip your espresso and perceive only the taste and the body. Then uncover your nostrils and you'll see that all the aromas will invade your brain.

Would you like to develop this skill? Look for sensory analysis courses like those run by abcoffee.

Conclusion

Now I present to you the magic of the conclusion. You've analyzed everything correctly. Your espresso is medium-bodied, with a sharp acidity, cinnamon aroma and lime and almond flavor.

Perfect. To make that comparison, as I said at the beginning, you write down everything so you don't forget anything. The coffee shop, the barista, the day, the time, the origin, the process, the roaster, all the information is important. Fortunately, Tasteology has a sensory analysis notebook where you can record everything you want. 

Can you analyze espressos like this when you drink them?

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