A Better Sensory Guide


Photo: Patrick Tomasso.

Barista: Hi! How are you today?

Guest: Oh, pretty good. I’ve never been here before.

Barista: Welcome! What are you in the mood for?

Guest: Well, I’m not sure. What do you recommend?

Such a golden opportunity, this interaction that plays out daily in coffee shops across the land. The conversation could unfold any number of ways and, whether dealing with a brand new customer or a returning one—this moment is a chance to either draw the person in or make them want to turn and run. The barista must at once be the welcoming committee, company advocate, product expert, and a skilled listener who’s able to read people in order to gauge understanding and meet them where they are.

Techniques for Baristas

Although consumers are increasingly coffee savvy, each specialty shop is like a unique culinary kingdom with its own set of rules. When embarking on a sensory journey, it’s best not to assume (a) that everyone wants an exhaustive tour, (b) that people will automatically like what you like or what is most popular, or (c) that they even understand what they’re ordering. You can be sure the guest is there for something delicious that matches their taste preferences, and it’s your job to help them along. Here are a few techniques baristas can develop to become more effective sensory guides:

Give guests a lay of the land. Learning to provide a quick overview of your menu can help simplify options. Once you know what type of drink they want—a traditional espresso-based drink, something with flavor, brewed coffee—you can then offer more specific choices and descriptions.

Step away from your own preferences. It doesn’t matter that you think drinks with Ecuadoran cocoa are the bomb or that nothing equals the wild berry and floral notes of the natural Ethiopia Sidama. Joe Customer may hate chocolate or prefer a nutty coffee with cream and sugar. Even if they ask, “What’s your favorite?”, I like to bring it back around with, “What do you usually enjoy?”

Practice objective descriptions. As a sensory guide, think about taking customers on a flavor journey. When they ask, “What is it like?”, get away from responses like, “Oh, it’s really good!” or even worse, “It’s not my favorite.” Instead, move toward a straight-forward depiction focusing on the highlights. “Our lavender honey latte is a mildly sweet drink featuring local wildflower honey with a light floral taste,” or, “Our Uganda is an earthy coffee with molasses and cocoa notes roasted medium-dark.”

Training Your Senses

There are also many ways baristas can become more confident in their sensory skills and more competent at guiding customers.

Set up (blind) cuppings. Understanding SCAA cupping protocols is practical knowledge, but depending on your goals you can likely simplify your cupping routines (see page 24 for more on cupping tools). Setting up a panel of three to four coffees and challenging your fellow baristas to correctly identify them is super effective. This exercise helps you learn to recognize the qualities of each coffee and prepare to talk with customers.

Keep it interesting by varying the theme of the cuppings—only light roasts, various washed coffees, or all African beans. Consider trading coffees with nearby shops or trusted colleagues so everyone expands their learning. If your shop roasts, ask about ordering some samples to gain exposure to origins not in your current lineup.

For advanced practice, select several single-origin coffees and blend them with one constant. For example, you could use Mexico, Ethiopia, and Guatemala for the cupping, with Sumatra as the constant. Using 8.25 gram cups, you might blend 5.25 grams of the primary bean with only 3 grams of the Sumatra. Cuppers can then challenge themselves to identify the origin along with the common addition.

Seek sensory opportunities. Smell and taste everything! You should be familiar with all the drinks on your menu as well as your beans prepared using various brew methods. Consider periodic pastry pairings, and try tastings of chocolates, spices, or fruits so you can really focus on distinctions. Le Nez du Café or other aroma kits are also great learning tools.

Triangulation brewings are quite fun and easy to set up. You just need two cups with the same coffee and one of a different origin. The challenge is to correctly identify the “odd man out.” The more similar the coffees, the tougher the exercise.

Depending on how “science-y” you want to get, there are inexpensive super taster test kits with paper tasting strips that enable people to discover if they can detect various, often bitter, compounds. This helps you understand your own sensitivities, which are often genetically determined, and also drives home the point that others may experience tastes differently.

Be a lifelong learner. Whether you’re currently taking classes or not, an academic approach to coffee helps promote continual learning and professionalism. Our industry is constantly evolving, especially when it comes to sensory topics. Become familiar with the new Sensory Lexicon and Flavor Wheel. Read trade publications and books on coffee. You could even start a book club and discuss with your coworkers! There are also applicable online resources including apps and how-to videos.

Finally, keep the sensory realm accessible and encouraging for everyone. Things always taste better when people enjoy the experience!

Teresa Pilarz is an SCAA specialized instructor and chief caffeinator at Espresso Elevado.