Adventures of a Coffee Trainer by Emma Haines

Adventures of a Coffee Trainer by Emma Haines

Five Ways to Improve Your Sensory Game…

Whatever your role in coffee, we can safely assume that you would have come across discussions on the sensory aspects of this delicious little fruit.

Whether you’ve read notes on a bag of coffee, had flavours described to you by a competent barista, or heard it discussed at length by colleagues, it’s hard to ignore the fact that coffee stimulates peoples senses in many ways.

It occurred to me during a discussion with a friend a few years ago that, for many people, reading that a coffee tastes like ‘morello cherry, orange or blueberry’ can seem very alien to some, with this particular friend asking whether it meant the coffee had been ‘flavoured’ or grown with those particular things.

Since then, I realised that we need to help to demystify the tasting of coffee and, although highly complex and detailed, everyone (unless you have a pre-existing medical condition) has the ability to train themselves to taste better. So, here’s my quick start guide to improving your sensory skills. 

1. Understand the language used: Taste, aroma, flavour? Essentially, taste refers to the five main tastes your tastebuds pick up (gustatory sensations). They are; Umami (savoury), Sweet, Salt, Sour and Bitter. Your tastebuds work hard to pick up on these taste sensations regardless of what you are eating or drinking. It is what we perceive via either our retronasal system (via our mouths) or our orthonasal system (via our noses). Without our retronasal or orthonasal aroma perception, we would be able to distinguish very little of what food and drink flavours exist. Imagine tasting a doughnut with a very heavy cold. You know you are chewing food, you know if something is sweet, but you can’t get the full flavour due to a lack of orthonasal/retronasal activity. 

2. Check out the SCA Flavour Wheel: The flavour wheel is a wonderful tool to help you develop the use of more appropriate descriptive language. The wheel has both positive and negative flavours and has a wealth of study and knowledge backing up the information in the wheel. The SCA have an excellent article on how to get the best from the wheel, which can be found here

3. Practice at home: Once you decide to learn more about tasting coffees, you find that it suddenly opens up a whole new world of learning. Make ‘tasting’ a habit and part of your daily routine. A dilution of lemon juice in water can help you identify acidity, a simple white sugar solution can do the same for sweet and using a flat tonic water will replicate bitterness. I always recommend choosing an area of the wheel to then focus on, for example, fruit. Start by tasting apples, pears & grapes, then ‘blind taste’ to try and identify them without looking. Once you have that nailed, start to dig down into each section, so instead of tasting apples vs pears, taste a variety of different apples. Note down the different sensations and try and ‘store’ that flavour memory (you’ll be amazed how you can recall it later on!)

4. Attend cuppings or cup at home: Coffee cuppings are run regularly by green coffee importers, roasters and cafes. Don’t be afraid to attend. You’ll often find members of the public at these events and by attending cuppings with more experienced cuppers, you’ll soon start to feel more relaxed. If public cuppings aren’t feasible, then cupping at home is really quite simple. You can choose to either join a subscription service such as The Cupping Club, which will take you through the process step by step or, alternatively, you can start by purchasing a small selection of beans. Simple cupping protocols can be found all over the web, and are pretty easy to follow. Alternatively, feel free to contact me and I’ll happily help you get set up!

5. Attend a professional course: There are many sensory courses available. The SCA have specific sensory modules that focus on teaching you from beginner to professional, just how to hone those sensory skills. By learning in a classroom environment you’ll remove the need for the pressure of setting up cuppings etc and you’ll be led by someone experienced in the field, who can help guide you in the right direction.


  • Emma has worked in hospitality and catering training for the last 10 years. For the last five years, she has focused on coffee training, in particular specialty coffee training, and how to incorporate specialty elements into commercial environments. She works all over Europe and beyond, and is a resident trainer at London School of Coffee.

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