Presenting: The Specialty Coffee Tasting Guide

Presenting: The Specialty Coffee Tasting Guide

Disclaimer: This information is not scientific and based on my personal experience. The descriptors on the poster come from this experience which is influenced by my culture and access to foods I've had in my life. Everyone's sensory experience is influenced by cultural background and all things you've tasted in your life. This may differ from the experiences and tastes described here. We're more than happy to work on cultural adaptations of this guide. 


The development of the tool

In my life I have tasted tens of thousands of different coffees. At times just to drink and enjoy them, but usually as part of my responsibilities as coffee cupper and buyer. There are many reason why one would taste, or cup, coffee. It can be for quality control, it can be to purchase a lot of coffee, to showcase at a trade show or at times also to settle a dispute. Depending on the occasion, we may use different tools such as forms or flavour wheels. These provide us with the structure necessary to make the exercise quantifiable and consistent. 

Now, when we founded Paso Paso, I wanted to draw upon these experience and apply it to the description of our coffees. Each coffee is described with at least three descriptors: one for sweetness, one for acidity and one for mouthfeel. I call this the triangle of coffee tasting. Each element can be singled out in the tasting experience and have a relation to the descriptors of the other coffees we serve within that same element. I choose descriptors that highlight the uniqueness of each coffee, yet they can be easily replicated in different settings. Either in wildly different cafés around the world or in a home settings; these descriptors should be recognisable by coffee professionals as well as enthusiasts. 

The guide is meant to be used as three separate tools, each guiding you to at least one descriptor per element. The result is a clear, structured and explainable description of the coffee. Here we will break down each tool one-by-one. 


In specialty coffee acidity usually gets all the credit. However, the complexity and range of sweetness one can find in specialty coffee should not be underestimated. For me, sweetness forms the basis of each coffee. To define the sweetness in a coffee I use a scale with four quadrants. In my experience sweetness can lean towards more elegance or more richness, this is the horizontal slider. Additionally, the perception can be further influenced by a perceived weight of the taste, this is the vertical slider. 

To get a feel of the horizontal slider think about the difference in taste of Honey and Dark Chocolate. In this case honey is usually perceived to be a more elegant sweetness and Dark Chocolate is richer in it's sweetness. For the verticle slider we venture a little bit in the field of mouthfeel, although this is not the mouthfeel descriptor. An example here is the difference between butter and maple syrup. Both are quite elegant, yet butter has an aspect of heaviness and a mouth coating sensation to it. You may call it viscosity as well. 

Now, when I struggle to describe a coffee, I first use the horizontal slider and then continue from there with the vertical slider. Usually this will narrow down my search and the suitable descriptors presents itself. Then, I can try the coffee again and confirm if that was correct. If not, I check where the coffee sits against the 'failed' descriptor and continue my search. 

The beauty of this tool is that can also help to value certain types of coffees. If a coffee has descriptors in several quadrants you can call it 'layered'. Imagine a coffee that tastes like Vanilla and Pecan Nuts. However, the further apart this less likely it is you will find that flavour combination. 


Acidity is approached very differently than sweetness. Many different acidities are present in brewed coffee. In this guide we focus on the three main acidities presents and two less frequent ones. The most common acidity is citric acidity, followed by tartaric and then malic acidity. Additionally lactic and acetic acidity can be found. 

I approach a coffee first by determining the most prevalent type of acidity. Then within this acidity type, a group of different fruits exist that are reminiscent of this acidity. At Paso Paso, each of our coffees will always have at least one descriptor for acidity. 

Citric acidity is characterised by it's bright and lively acidity. The most common taste found with citric acidity is lemon. Most other citrus fruit also fall in the citric acidity group. Some other fruits that present citric acidity are green apple and green grapes. In fact, almost all fruits and all brewed coffee contain citric acid. This is also why these descriptors are commonly found in many specialty coffees. Washed Ethiopian coffees tend to have a bright citric acidity to them. Currently Paso Paso's Jorge Vasquez Washed is a perfect representation of citric acidity. 

Tartaric acidity has a distinct sharp and bitter taste to it. A lime and grapefruit are the best examples of this. Other fruits that have tartaric acidity in them are many berries such as blackberry and raspberry. Most washed Kenyan coffees are known to have tartaric acidity. Currently Paso Paso' Diego Baraona Pacamara Black Honey has a nice complex acidity to it including tartaric acid. 

Malic acidity is a bit milder than the previous two acidities and can be found in fruits that we consider to be more sweet then acidic. A red apple, peach or melon are good examples of fruits with malic acidity. Natural coffees tend to display malic acidities. Currently Paso Paso's Syoum Family Natural is a malic acidity bomb.

In reality most coffees will have citric acidity supported by other acidity types. It is only when the other acidities overpower the citric acidity it is that they become notable. If a coffees present multiple acidities in a somewhat equal intensity they can be very complex and most people will appreciate that a lot. 

The other two acidities in the guide are lactic and acetic acid. These are quite rare but can be found in experimentally processed coffees. They generally present themselves with the taste of yoghurt for latic and vinegar for acetic acid. Not all people like these types of acidity in their coffee. I do enjoy lactic acid if it's balanced by a sweetness that combines well with it. Acetic acid is usually a no-go for me due to overpowering bitterness, but I always keep an open mind to new experiences. 

Mouhtfeel is the third element of coffee I evaluate. In this guide it is presented as a slider, from low body / light mouthfeel to high body / heavy mouthfeel. I consider 'round' to be the middle ground of this slider. The descriptors here are not the only possible options, however provide already quite a wide range. 

Mouthfeel is heavily influenced by both sweetness and acidity. A coffee more on the right and top side of the sweetness scale will likely have a heavier mouthfeel and coffee with a more intense citric acidity or any type of tartaric acidity will likely be more to the left on the mouthfeel scale. 

Some of the descriptors on this scale are more rare and refined as other. I rarely call a coffee silky, velvety or jammy. But when I do it is a very specific and highly appreciated quality of that coffee. It is difficult to explain in words what the sensation of any of the descriptors may be. Rather, I will give some example foods or drink that cause a similar sensation. 

  • Delicate: White Tea
  • Silky: Hot Milk
  • Juicy: Lemonade
  • Round: Plain black pre-specialty coffee
  • Velvety: Warm Goo-ey chocolate chip cookies
  • Creamy: Whipped Cream
  • Jammy: Jam or Marmelade
  • Syrupy: Thick suger syrup (not maple syrup)
  • Chewy: Thick hot chocolate


This rounds up the rationale for the first ever Paso Paso - Specialy Coffee Tasting Guide. We're very happy to share this with the world. Beyond fundamentally changing how supply chains work we also want to inspire positive change in other facets of the coffee industry; sensory skill is one of them. We will continue to use this guide to describe all of our coffees. We hope you find this useful and put it good use. 

This is the very first edition and we expect to update this as we go. We are open for all feedback, suggestions and critique to continue to improve the specialty coffee industry together. 

Download the Full Resolution PDF Here.

Pre-Order the 50x70cm print here. 

Back to blog