A guide to the sensory analysis of coffee

Esther Gibbs
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October 25, 2022
the sensory analysis of coffee

How many times has a roaster heard the phrase “coffee just tastes like coffee, right?” from a customer or friend?

With over 800 potential aromatics, coffee is one of the most complex drinks in the world. More so, roasting to release those compounds takes a lot of skill and practice. In essence, coffee roasting is an art. 

Sensory analysis is a huge part of any roaster’s week, whether it is choosing new coffees to buy, quality control, or tasting as a new roast profile is developed.

To understand more about the sensory analysis in coffee, I spoke with Marcello Geraci, head of coffee and lead educator at 3Temp.

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an image of a coffee roaster in a coffee cupping session in an article on the importance of the sensory analysis of coffee

What is the sensory analysis of coffee?

The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) defines sensory analysis as a way of providing an objective measurement for subjective experiences. 

It is to create a standardisation of how to describe and measure what is experienced when tasting a cup of coffee in a calibrated way. 

This is why, when analysing coffee, a cupping protocol is used, which is available across the world.

When tasting coffee, the same ratio of water to coffee, brew method, and time is always used. This is to ensure roasters are only analysing the differences between the coffees, and not mistakenly analysing how well a particular coffee was brewed, and its extraction.

When it comes to sensory analysis, it is more than just taste and preference that is being examined. 

“Coffee is one of the most chemically complex things we consume,” says Marcello, who is also a Q-grader. “And as it would follow, beginning to identify subtle flavours in our morning cup can seem like a daunting task. 

“If you describe the flavour of a cup of coffee, you are talking about the perceived combination of taste, aroma and mouthfeel. Some people would even call flavour a multi-sensory experience,” he explains. 

“Coffee sensory analysis examines the properties, such as the texture, flavour, taste, appearance, and smell of coffee through the senses,” Marcello says. 

When analysing coffee, roasters can use a cupping form and take notes on measurements of each of these properties to gain a better understanding of the qualities of a certain coffee. 

While the SCA cupping form is the most popular, it is not the only form available. For instance, Cup of Excellence has a form, and many roasters create their own.

This is usually done for quality control purposes, or to help when selecting new beans to ensure roasters are assessing coffees consistently and meeting specific criteria.

An image of a coffee Q grader analysing roast coffee beans  in an article on the importance of the sensory analysis of coffee

What determines & influences a coffee’s sensory profile?

Marcello explains the sensory profile of a cup of coffee may vary according to a number of factors. 

“These include the varietal of coffee beans, the geographical ‘origins’, the green bean process, the roasting method, and method of preparation,” he says.  

It also includes the storage of both green and roast coffee. 

“The variation of these aspects will impact the overall sensory experience obtained from a cup of coffee during both preparation and consumption,” he adds. 

Defects, for example, could occur for several reasons, such as bad soil, harsh weather conditions, or processing at the producers’ end.

Additionally, they may be a result of incorrect storage conditions during shipment or at the roastery, or inconsistent roasting.

An image of a coffee roaster roasting coffee with a large-scale probat roaster  in an article on the importance of the sensory analysis of coffee

Who benefits from the sensory analysis of coffee?

Marcello firmly believes both roasters and producers can benefit from the sensory analysis of coffee. 

Notably, he believes roasters should have it woven into their weekly schedule, as it is essential to be tasting the product to ensure it is at a consistently high standard. 

Benefits for roasters

“For roasters, the sensory analysis is the most important tool to improve their roasting approach and to highlight the characteristics of each coffee. Another important application of this tool is to create consistency for customers,” Marcello says. 

It would be impossible to determine the ideal roast profile for a coffee without first assessing it. More so, roasters will be unable to improve a coffee without tasting and comparing the analysis back to the roast profile.

This is how roasters can see where improvements could be made. When profiling, Marcello says the key is to roast, cup, analyse, and repeat. 

“Sensory analysis can help roasters make good coffee great,” he says. 

The benefits for producers

“The coffee sensory profile is also evaluated to determine the quality of a coffee, which will in turn influence the price it is sold at,” Marcello explains. 

“A clearly defined flavour profile for their coffee helps a producer in a number of ways. First, once producers define a flavour profile that is attractive to buyers, they can repeat the same processes, creating consistency,” he says.

An image of coffee hoppers filled with roast coffee with coffee packaging in background  in an article on the importance of the sensory analysis of coffee

“Second, by being able to define the characteristics of a certain lot, producers will be able to label and classify them in greater detail. This, in turn, allows them to clearly communicate to buyers what they can expect to taste in the cup – adding more value and clarity to the buying relationship.”

By analysing and understanding their coffee, producers can not only negotiate better prices but also improve their products. It allows them to change either the processing method or the farming and harvesting techniques.

When standardised, sensory analysis also allows for improved communication across the supply chain. Essentially, producers, importers, and roasters will be able to communicate effectively in a common language.

Improving sensory skills and qualifications, such as Q grading, are important in the industry: they allow people from different backgrounds across the globe to assess the same coffee with the same calibrated language and measurement tools.

This may reduce the likelihood of bringing preference, bias, or subjective opinions to the cupping table. 

As coffee is ultimately a sensory experience for the end consumer, it is important for sensory analysis to be woven into the entire supply chain. 

Sensory analysis should be happening constantly, and being communicated back through the supply chain to the producers. 

In order for customers to have the best sensory experience with coffee, roasters must invest in the correct packaging.

Fresh coffee contains several volatile aromatic compounds that enhance the quality of a cup of coffee. Oxygen is the biggest threat to upholding the highest quality cup of coffee.

An image of a coffee roasters packaging roast coffee in unbleached kraft paper coffee bags in an article on the importance of the sensory analysis of coffee

MTPak Coffee offers recyclable and compostable coffee packaging options that allows roasters to seal their coffee bags sustainably. 

Our sustainable degassing valves allow carbon dioxide (CO2) to be released without letting any oxygen back into the bag, giving customers the freshest and best expression of roast coffee. 

We also offer a range of 100% recyclable coffee packaging options that can be custom-printed. Our bags are made from renewable materials such as kraft paper, rice paper, or multilayer LDPE packaging that comes with an environmentally friendly PLA lining.

We provide complete control over the design process by allowing clients to build their own coffee bags. Our design team is available to help create the ideal look for any type of coffee bag.

Plus, we offer a quick turnaround time of 40-hours and 24-hour shipping time. 

For more information on custom-print sustainable coffee packaging, contact our team.

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Esther Gibbs
Esther Gibbs

Esther has been in the specialty coffee industry for 14 years working as a Q Grader, SCA Trainer and ESTA trainer. She’s also offers her services as a coffee consultant through Hope Espresso. Her passion for writing comes from her love of sharing stories about the industry and ensuring knowledge is accessible to all.

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