This is a big one, to be honest I only got to grips with now on my second year of competing. Previously I’d just relied on the original tasting and cupping notes for the coffee, this is unwise. The majority of your points in Comp come from you telling the judges exactly how your drinks will taste, to do this you actually have to be able to taste that yourself.
In a normal shop setting if someone asks how my coffee tastes I would probably say “quite complex, red fruits and chocolatey,” or something possibly simpler. There’s nothing wrong with that as most people probably wouldn’t want more detail.
I certainly wouldn’t say it has a
“Medium Citric and Malic Acidity, Medium Sweetness and a Low to Medium Bitterness that comes through as Dark Chocolate in the after-taste. Flavours of over-ripe plum, dark cherry, red wine, pineapple and dark chocolate, with a heavy coating mouth-feel that lingers in a long sweet finish.”
That’s what I said in competition to give it a full description.
Learning how to do that is hugely valuable, breaking an espresso down into all those parts highlights its strengths and weaknesses. You can use these to improve your brew recipe, feed it back to roasters to improve their profiles and also help the most picky customers choose the best coffee for them.
It’s also pretty fun once you get the hang of it. Doing it in stages is much simpler and attaching low/medium/high to things like sweetness makes it easier to begin with.
One of the big places competitors go wrong, and most coffee shops do to, is to over rely on the roaster’s tasting notes on the bag. These are only accurate at the time they were cupped at the roastery under their unique brewing parameters*. How it tasted on the day of competition being brewed as espresso will likely be very different. Being able to taste your coffee and come up with your own detailed notes will serve you well in the rest of your coffee career.
One of the smartest moves I seen in the UKBC’s this year was by Joe Meagher, who actually dialled-in his coffee in the 15-min prep time then came up with tasting notes on the spot rather than going in with preconceived ideas of how the coffee should taste.
It’s also really satisfying going through the process of coming up with your own notes and having these confirmed by a group of sensory judges. For me it was the biggest confidence booster this year, having my descriptors validated by experts shows I must know what I’m doing, occasionally, when I put my mind to it.
*I’m half-way through writing what has become quite a controversial series of posts on tasting notes. Links to the so-far completed ones below