How To Taste Coffee Better with Julien Langevin
In this audio extra, the nation's best coffee taster talks everything from competition diets to concrete strategies that will make you a better taster.
This week, I wanted to release some bonus content just for Boss Barista paid subscribers—thank you so much for your support!
Following last week’s podcast interview with Julien Langevin, the 2022 United States Cup Tasters Champion, we recorded a few extra, off-the-cuff questions. In this short audio extra, Julien breaks down how he tastes and assesses coffee, how his diet has changed to prepare for the World Cup Tasters Competition in June, and how anyone at home can get better at tasting coffee.
Read on for his tips, and get tasting!
Ashley: So Julien, for people listening, how can they taste coffee better?
Julien: Oh my gosh. Taste a lot of different coffee: Taste dark roasts, taste light roasts, taste under-developed roasted coffee, taste over-developed—I don't even know if that's the thing for us to…
Ashley: That could be, that could be!
Julien: Taste other people’s coffee, taste coffee spiked with different acids, taste coffee with milk in it. Taste coffee with no milk, but sugar—just taste all different kinds of coffee.
Ashley: For people at home who maybe don’t work in coffee shops every day, or maybe just brew one pour-over at home, is there a way for them to unlock maybe another level of being able to taste their coffee? I agree with you. I think tasting side-by-side is the single most important thing you can do to build your palate.
Especially when you’re starting out. The thing I always tell people: I used to host a weekly cupping for a general crowd. Like anybody off the street could come in and I would tell people, “I don’t want you to say a flavor. I just want you to tell me that this tastes different than this, because this is X or this is Y,” and, “This is sweeter. This is heavier. This is that.” Just being able to contrast the flavors is what I want you to start [with].
Julien: Oh yeah. I don’t even think, especially when I’m doing triangulations, I do not think about flavor. Flavor is like, the last thing that comes to my mind.
Actually, it’s funny, because when I first started tasting, I was really good at calling out flavor descriptors, but now as I’ve tasted more, it’s actually like one of the more challenging things for me to do, because I immediately A) assess roast quality and B) I will go to mouthfeel, acidity, bitterness, sweetness—like any of those qualities before I’ll even be like, “Oh, that tastes like strawberries.” You know?
Ashley: Yeah, that makes sense. I think when people look at coffee bags, there’s so much pressure to like, “Okay, this tastes like molasses and gingerbread and chocolate. Okay. I need to get those flavors.” But I think what you’re saying is that you can taste a coffee and just look for balance. Like, does this taste sweet?
Julien: Oh, yeah.
You can also just feel like, “Oh, I like that,” or, “Oh, I don’t like that.” It doesn’t have to be this super intellectual process. You can literally just be like, “Oh, that feels good on my mouth or it doesn’t.”
Ashley: When you’re looking at those three cups of coffee in front of you, do you have a protocol for yourself internally where you’re like, “Okay, this is how I’m going to taste these three, and this is how I’m going to make a decision about which one is the odd one out?”
Julien: Yeah. I always taste the middle cup last, so I’ll go like left, right, and middle. It’s kind of funny, cause triangulations are like a logic problem. So obviously two are the same; one is different. So if you can determine the two that are the same, then you automatically have the different one.
I haven’t taken my Q [grader exam] but they’ll apparently teach you in the Q to solve it like that—or I call it in my head fact-checking, like I’ll fact-check what I think I’m tasting against the other ones. And yeah.
Ashley: Is there anything you’re looking for in each cup? Are you trying to be like, “This tastes heavy in my mouth, or this tastes … I’m getting a lot on the back of my tongue,” and then you get to the next one, and you’re like, “I’m not getting that in this one.” How are you trying to do that fact-check?
Julien: It’s interesting. A lot of people I’ve talked to, they’re like, “Oh, I only look for this,” or, “Oh, I only look for that.”
I mentioned it before, it’s kind of like a synesthesia thing where I do a color association, or a lot of times it’s almost like a—I don’t want to say a sonnet, like in my mouth where like the journey—the flavor, or the coffee—takes in my mouth.
It lasts like a few seconds, but it’s like a tingling. It’s really hard to describe, but it’s like the rhythm of the mouthfeel is like the only way I can describe it, where it’s how, in what order, in what way does the coffee affect, physically, your sensors in your mouth.
And that’s what I look for when I do a triangulation. It’s weird because as simple as you can make it, the better off you’ll be. But also you want to assess everything about the coffee—you don’t want to, in my opinion, only be looking for one quality, because that might not be present in any of the coffees you’re tasting.
Ashley: It seems like you’ve really tailored your way that you taste to the way that you just experience flavor in general, because everything that you said about the sonnet that performs, essentially, on your tongue, I was like, “Yeah, I get that.” Because if you watch any cooking competitions, they talk about that too.
About how they discover new flavors with every bite, or they talk about building flavor. And I feel like we don’t really talk about that a lot in coffee, the idea of building flavor or what complex flavors look like on top of each other—it seems like we actually have a very one-dimensional way we experienced flavor, which is like, we look for balance and we look for these tasting notes.
Everything you said reminded me of watching a cooking competition and being like, “That’s how they talk about flavor.” And it seems like you’ve identified that as a strategy that works for you.
Julien: Yeah, which is funny because I don’t really—people ask me a lot, they’re like, “Oh, are you really into food and tasting food?” Actually, I have a very—and especially now that I’m prepping for worlds—I have a very limited diet. So it’s like funny, but I guess makes sense.
And it’s funny that you mentioned that we have such a one-dimensional view because coffee is so multi-dimensional in its flavor, just like chemically. So yeah, that’s really funny.
Ashley: Tell me about your competition diet. I can guess because I’m like, oh yeah, you’re eliminating things that are over-powering to like, make sure that your palate stays really sharp so that things pop out to you more. But can you talk a little bit about that?
Julien: Yeah. Going into the U.S. [competition], I cut out anything that was super acidic or—I haven’t eaten spicy food in a long time, anything super acidic I feel like I cut out, but going into worlds, I’m also cutting out salt and pepper, basically any seasoning, and then I’m doing some water calibration, so yeah.
I dunno, maybe it might be overkill, but I’m pulling out all the stuff.
Ashley: I’ve heard of roasters who cut out sugar ahead of the Q to see if they can perceive sweetness more acutely. So like, that’s something I’ve heard.
Julien: Yeah, I have a sweet tooth, so I don’t know if I’ll do that, but I’ve heard a lot of stuff about the Q. One person told me that people eat only oatmeal going into the Q. So when I went to qualifiers two years ago, I only ate oatmeal, but I was so miserable. I was so hungry and just sad.
So something I learned from that was it’s more important to feel normal, I think, than it is to have that kind of sensitivity, I guess. It’s more important when you, for Cup Tasters specifically, to feel as normal as possible in such an abnormal situation like tasting coffee on a stage.
I talked to some people at nationals and they were like, “Yeah, I didn’t even eat this morning,” but they were like competing at 1 p.m. and I was like, what? Like, what is—no! Like, just eat food and then get coffee back on your palate. All that matters is you have coffee on your palate before you taste and, in my opinion, you’ll be fine, but whatever, it’s whatever.
Ashley: You talked a little bit about how those triangulations can kind of be structured. It can be coffees from a different country, or it can be coffees from the same country, but different regions. Do you know anything about some of the cups that you tasted?
Julien: I honestly don’t know. It was funny—I was talking to one person and they were like, “Oh those were like super dark,” but it’s so weird. I’ve heard this before I even went to qualifiers: You always want to practice with a range of roast levels because you never know what’s going to be up there.
I was talking to one guy who went to nationals before and he was like, “Yeah, the coffees were super light and fruity and it was so easy to tell the differences in flavor,” but I mean, the coffee [that] is up there, they give an Agtron rating, it’s like 55 to 70 on an Agtron is the range.
So you’re not going to have too much variance. I don’t think they were dark, in my opinion, they were probably solid medium roast. But the company I work at, we do a lot of medium roasts, so the coffee I was practicing with was probably similar roast levels.
My advice is to always just practice with a range of coffee because you never know who the sponsored roaster is going to be. You never know how they’re going to—in my opinion, I couldn’t tell you where the coffee was from; I’m not that well-calibrated to that specific thing, but I will say they were all roasted very well. Like there was no underdeveloped or spotty coffees. They were just well-roasted, medium-roasted coffees, from my perspective.
Ashley: Well, I hope people listening to this will feel more confident tasting coffee.
Julien: Cool, me too.
Photo by Matthew Temple