How can roasters improve their sensory skills at home? 

Esther Gibbs
March 17, 2023
An image of a coffee roaster cupping roast coffee in an article on how roasters can improve their sensory skills at home

Smell, taste, sight, touch, and sound are basic human capabilities for most of the population.

Senses can be extremely important for product development, testing, and fully understanding the user experience.

Several industries use sensory testing, from perfumes and clothing to movies and even furniture. Notably, coffee is also a product which both engages and can be influenced by the senses.

While it is possible to become a product tester without training, there are ways to enhance your sensory skills to professional level. Several universities offer courses in sensory science, covering statistics, psychology, and biology. Some also offer more industry-specific courses, such as Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) sensory modules or CQI grading qualifications.

That said, there are a few simple ways to develop sensory skills at home. Owner of Hope Espresso and licensed Q Grader, Esther Gibbs explains how.

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Why are sensory skills important for roasters?

Several factors can influence the way consumers taste coffee, including sight and sound.

For instance, drinking coffee in a quiet space versus one that is louder can alter the perceived flavour of the brew.

Similarly, drinking coffee in a red cup may enhance the “berry” notes, while drinking from a yellow cup may make the coffee perceivably more bright and acidic.

Arguably, the most important senses for roasters are smell, taste, and touch, also referred to as texture, body, and mouthfeel.

Improving your ability to recognise and correctly interpret smell, taste, and touch can help improve your coffee roasting.

Simple exercises can help improve your sensory skills and boost your confidence, allowing you to better evaluate coffees.

Additionally, you will be able to identify defects and flavours, improve roast profiles, and create better brewing recipes.

More so, these exercises can help you select more appropriate coffees and improve quality control and consistency within your business.

An image of a coffee roaster sampling roast coffee in a Chemex in an article on how roasters can improve their sensory skills at home

How can roasters improve sensory skills at home?

Small, daily practices can help improve a roaster’s sensory skills.

Build your memory bank

There may have been a time when you’ve purchased a bag of coffee, looked at the flavour notes and realised you have no idea what one or two may be.

In this case, you may not notice those characteristics in the cup when drinking the coffee, as you lack a memory linked to those particular flavours. Therefore, you would be unable to send an electrical impulse down any neuropath ways to interpret the flavour.

The brain’s ability to recall and interpret memories can often influence your perception of flavour. Therefore, in order to identify a variety of flavours in a coffee, you have to experience them first.

The more you experience flavours and build your sensory memory bank, the more accurately you will be able to identify them.

It is recommended you buy a variety of flavours often found on the SCA flavour wheel. Buy a variety of fruits, different nuts, and teas, and even take time to smell different flowers.

While tasting these flavours, be sure to note the smells, tastes, and feel of the product in your mouth. Say the name of the food aloud as you eat it to strengthen the memory.

This will enable you to confidently move away from generalisations such as “nutty” on the cupping table to a specific type of nut.

You can then make it more challenging by taking multiple versions of one food. For instance, you can purchase variations of oranges to notice the subtle differences between them.

This will enable you to talk about coffee as not just “orange” but specifically tangerine, blood orange, or satsuma. 

Cup coffees from other roasters

To help improve sensory skills at home, it is recommended you buy and taste coffees from other roasters.

Take note of whether you agree with the flavour notes on the bag, and whether you can detect any roast defects.

Ask yourself how you would have roasted the beans differently and note how you would improve the final brew.

This can help you become more objective when analysing coffee and improve your ability to critique and improve your own roasts.

This exercise is even more effective if you are able to connect with roasters who are using the same coffees as you.

An image of a coffee roaster inspecting the packaging for roast coffee, custom printed coffee bags in an article on how roasters can improve their sensory skills at home

Additional ways to improve sensory skills for coffee

Being able to detect acidity, bitterness, sweetness, body, and strength are crucial skills for coffee cupping.

Rank things by intensity

An effective way to build this skill is to make a variety of coffee “solutions” and rank them in order from strongest to weakest.

This can be done by making a batch brew and setting up six bowls. The first bowl should be 100% coffee, the second should consist of 50% coffee and 50% water. 

The third bowl should be 25% coffee and water, and the coffee strength should be halved as you continue filling the bowls.

Mark each bowl and then rearrange them to test yourself and see if you can put them back in order after tasting each. 

This exercise can be done with a lemon juice solution to rank acidity, and caffeine powder for bitterness.

The goal is to be able to objectively identify the intensity of each attribute within a coffee and rank them accordingly.

Roast badly on purpose

Similar to flavour notes, you will be unable to detect roast defects if you have yet to encounter them.

Therefore, if you have coffee to spare or are looking for a way to use past crop coffees, why not break all the “rules” during a roast and cup the results.

This can help build your memory bank in regard to common roasting defects. This is invaluable, as when it comes to tasting your own coffees, you will be able to spot and correct roasting defects quickly.

For example, if it is “smoky” you will remember that flavour from when you tasted the roast with no airflow and be able to rectify the roast with more airflow.

If you lack spare coffee to roast for this exercise, keep the production roasts that fail to meet your quality control checks and use them as a learning experience.

Tasting coffee is non-negotiable as a roaster. While these exercises will not replace the knowledge and experience gained from attending a coffee sensory course, they can help improve sensory skills with minimal costs.

The impact it will have on your business, roasting, quality control, and consistency can only be positive as you hone your skills and grow in confidence.

Doing this can help you confidently depict accurate taste notes on your coffee bags. In turn, this helps to further educate your consumers on the intricate flavours of specialty coffees.

Custom-printed coffee bags can go a long way in helping your customers understand more about the coffee they are drinking.

MTPak Coffee offers roasters and coffee shops a range of 100% recyclable coffee packaging options that can be custom-printed to your business specifications.

Choose from renewable materials such as kraft paper, rice paper, or multilayer LDPE packaging with an environmentally friendly PLA lining.

We use innovative digital printing technology to ensure your custom-printed coffee packaging is a perfect representative of your brand.

We offer a quick turnaround time of 40-hours and 24-hour shipping time, and low minimum order quantities (MOQs) to micro-roasters who are looking to remain agile while showcasing a commitment to sustainability.

For more information on custom printed 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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