How to Taste Espresso For Quality

Baristas should taste the espresso they are serving every day.  If not – what are we serving our customers? How can we be confident we’re representing the hard work of the coffee supply chain if we haven’t tried the ‘spro? (and slamming back a shot for a caffeine rush mid-shift doesn’t count as tasting.)

Savor the shot and give it a chance to really be evaluated. Focus on each element and make sure they are all still in line with what you want to present to your customers. If not, make an adjustment!

How to Taste Espresso 

When I’m tasting espresso for quality (which I did a LOT recently preparing to compete in the America’s Best Espresso competition on St. Patrick’s Day), I’m mostly evaluating four key areas: Aroma, Acidity, Body, and Flavor.

  • AROMA- Aroma is how the coffee smells.  Roughly 70% of our impression of a taste comes from our smelling senses, not our taste buds.
  • ACIDITY- Acidity is another element of “feeling” the coffee. If you’ve ever had a coffee that makes your mouth water, or your tongue tingle, or even dries out your mouth – all of these can be reactions to the acidity of a coffee.
  • BODY- Body is how the coffee feels in your mouth when you are drinking it. Espresso has a very rich and complex body, which is one of the things that first drew me to this delightful coffee drink.
  • FLAVOR- Flavor (not taste) is an end-result combination of all of these things and more. It’s how we experience the combination of everything that makes up the coffee.

How to Evaluate Espresso & Make Adjustments

Espresso is called a “magnifying glass” for coffee, meaning that it enhances the natural characteristics of whatever you’re putting into the machine. If you have a coffee with mild cocoa notes as a drip cup, it may just feel like crunching into a fresh cacao nib when you brew it as espresso. I always keep this in mind when trying new coffees. 

I’m also very aware of my brewing variables.  Preparing excellent espresso hinges on variables like grind size, water quality, water temperature, and water contact time, but it also depends on the barista.

Espresso machines can control a lot of variables, but the barista has the ultimate say.

The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) even considers the barista to be one of the 5 Interdependent Elements of Espresso.  Because a barista’s skill level and attention to detail are so important in pulling a quality espresso shot, it’s impossible to write a one-size-fits-all quick-guide to pulling the best espresso shot.

These steps will be a great place to start building your skill set.  Then, you should follow-up with practice and professional training.

  1. Choose your coffee – any coffee. I generally try coffees as drip and then decide whether I want to experience those flavors enhanced even further.
  2. Get your pen and paper ready. Yes… I’m serious! I always dial in coffees with a chart to record information on the coffee (things like region, processing method, drying method, varietals, roast profile and roast date), as well as the brewing variables-  weight of coffee used, weight of the espresso produced, extraction time, the grinder I used, the espresso machine, and the grinder settings.  Then, I note the taste, aroma, acidity, body, aftertaste, and overall flavor for each shot pulled. Sound like a lot? It can be, but it helps me keep track of what worked, and what did not. The notes also serve as a reference for future coffees, so it’s well worth the habit.
  3. Throw coffee in the grinder and pull a shot. While I’m aiming for certain parameters I will taste and record information for shots I pull along the way. Who knows, you might stumble upon a delicious recipe by accident!
  4. Taste the coffee and record your notes.  
    • Unpleasantly sour, with a thin, watery body, and so acidic you want to cry? Your coffee is probably under-extracted.  It needs a finer grind and a longer extraction time. Or maybe it was distributed unevenly?   Or maybe you need a lower coffee dose?  All of  these things could make your coffee taste under-extracted.
    • If it’s bitter and ashy with a flat acidity, it’s probably over-extracted. Try using more coffee, or a coarser grind so you reduce your brew time. You might even try pulling a smaller shot with the same amount of coffee.
    • Tasting something burnt or “gross”?  It goes without saying that you should always be using a clean machine. When clients call and say that no matter what they do, their espresso tastes burnt or gross, I always ask them when they last cleaned their machine. Clean machines produce clean flavors.
  5. Make an adjustment, and repeat steps 3-4 until satisfied.
  6. Decide on your perfect profile, then adjust as needed to maintain it! Unfortunately, coffee isn’t a one and done thing. Baristas will need to adjust settings on their grinder throughout a shift to maintain a consistent shot.

Tools I use when Tasting Espresso

Get Professional Training

Want to know more? I always encourage people to sign up for a barista course!  Attending professional barista classes changed the course of my life and helped me hone my own skills.   Plus, what could be bad about spending an entire day geeking-out over all things coffee?!  Find a class that fits your needs.  


April 3, 2018
BY blog2_q3hku8
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2 Responses

  1. I’ve started getting into making espresso at home (using a Gaggia Classic with Rancilio Rocky grinder). With regard to maintaining a clean machine, something I like to do is pull a shot of water and taste it. I do this when I first fire up the machine in the morning and again at the end of the day just after cleaning it.

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