What does coffee taste like?

Or why I love good coffee, and how you can learn to love it, too.

TL;DR: Check out this coffee tasting wheel from Counter Culture Coffee - there’s more than bitter/burnt in coffee flavors!


I’m a coffee lover. It’s the second fact I put in my about page, after “I write stuff.” It’s a big part of my core identity.

I didn’t start out liking coffee. My grandma let me take a sip of her black Folgers instant coffee when I was a wee lass, and I hated it. I went through my teens and early twenties convinced I’d hate it forever; I’d try it every now and again, but it just tasted bitter and gross to me. Ugh. No way.

Then came a holiday gift from my employer in 2005: a $25 Starbucks gift card. “What am I supposed to do with this?” I asked myself. “I hate coffee.”

Well, fortunately for me, 2006 was the year I started shifting my mental paradigm to try to view things I didn’t enjoy as opportunities for growth. So instead of focusing on how I didn’t like coffee, I’d take the opportunity to try a bunch of sugary latte drinks from Starbucks - for free - to see if I might find something I liked.

Surprise! If you put enough sugar and milk in a thing, my mid-20s self was all over it. Cinnamon dolce latte became my go-to, but I tried a variety of hot and iced coffee drinks and found I actually enjoyed several of them. Yay! I became a regular Starbucks visitor. You might say it was my gateway coffee.

In 2007, I attended Camp Unleashed in the Berkshires with my dog, Ben. It happened to fall on an unseasonably cold and rainy autumn weekend, and I was under-dressed and under-prepared to stay in a cabin with no electricity and no heat. I had to buy a pair of sweats from the camp store, and I was cold for most of the weekend. One morning, in a desperate attempt to get warmer, I poured myself a cup of coffee.

At this point, I was still convinced I didn’t actually like coffee. I knew that the sugary Starbucks drinks weren’t representative of “real” coffee, and the time or two I’d tried it at a restaurant, I did not enjoy it. So without even tasting it, I doctored the coffee at camp with a ton of sugar packets and cream. But when I took a sip, it wasn’t the unpleasant, too-bitter drink I expected. It was tasty. Aside from having too much sugar. Huh.

I poured myself another cup a little later in the afternoon, and this time, I put in less sugar. Expecting to cringe, I took a sip… and it was tasty. How was this possible? What had happened?

By the end of that weekend, I was looking forward to every cup of coffee I poured. I’d completely gotten rid of the sugar, and had even enjoyed a cup of coffee black, but found I liked it best with a splash of cream or half-and-half. How was this possible? I remarked upon it to the woman who ran the camp, and she told me the name of the coffee company in New York that supplied the roast.

A little Internet research later, I found a website for a roaster that talked a lot about their roasting methods, their beans, and even recommended some brewing options. This was a whole new world for me. Coffee could taste good? Good coffee was tasty?

Thus began my slippery slope into coffee snobbery.

At this point, I’ve worked my way through basically every home brewing method. I’ve settled on the AeroPress with a metal filter as my preferred brew technique, although I like a good French press, too. I temp the water, brew using an inverted technique favored by baristas for optimal extraction, and have upgraded my coffee grinder repeatedly over the years to get to a good burr grinder.

When paired with good coffee beans, this setup gets me deeply flavorful coffee with all kinds of different tasting notes, depending on the bean. This right here is why I’m writing an app. Not to give too many details, but I want to figure out (and keep a record) of what I like, which will also hopefully help me figure out what to buy when I’m considering something new.

What does coffee taste like?

My entire slide into coffee snobbery started because of the revelation that coffee actually tasted like something, other than burnt or bitter. It wasn’t just a vehicle for caffeine delivery, acceptable only when heavily adulterated by sugar and milk. Coffee, on its own, has all kinds of different tasting notes, depending on the bean, where and how it’s grown, how it’s processed, how it’s roasted, and how you handle it at home.

I’ve been pondering this for years, and have slowly learned more about what I like (largely due to Counter Culture Coffee’s excellent tasting notes, info about the beans, and the occasional limited edition set of beans processed in different ways). I’ve learned that I prefer washed beans over honeyed or sundried beans. I’ve learned that I prefer light roasts, because I enjoy tasting more of the natural flavor of the beans. I prefer citrus or chocolate tasting notes, although I enjoy trying a wide range of coffees.

In other words, it turns out coffee has a diverse range of tasting notes, just like wine tasting, when you start with a high-quality bean that has been roasted and brewed well.

This is why I was super psyched to see Counter Culture Coffee’s Coffee Tasting Wheel when I browsed their site recently for some new beans. I love that it gives coffee enthusiasts language to help identify and discuss what they’re tasting. It’s a great tool to start figuring out what you like.

In thinking about coffee tasting notes as you drink it, you also get a more mindful coffee drinking experience. That was my biggest revelation when coming back to coffee after my caffeine detox a few years ago: mindful coffee drinking was amazing. Actually thinking about the taste, enjoying it, savoring it - that got me into the moment like few things do. I don’t know about you, but I definitely need more things in my life like that; things that inspire me to stop thinking about my to-do list, or what’s going on at work, or that book I’ve been reading, and just be present in the moment.

So yeah, if you’re at all interested in coffee, I encourage you to take a look at the tasting wheel and start thinking about - and enjoying - the coffee you drink. And the next time I talk about how I love coffee, maybe now you’ll understand better how I got there, and what loving coffee means to me.