Tasting Flavor Notes in Coffee
by Alexander Choppin
August 1, 2019
You’re at your favorite local coffee roaster, looking for a bag of beans to take home. The array of labels can be confusing enough, with names of people and places from across the world. But in smaller print, you notice a peculiar list of words.
Nectarine, Lemon Zest, Black Tea.
Floral, Jasmine, Honeysuckle.
Fruity, Sweet, Dense.
That all sounds tasty, but doesn’t really make any sense on a bag of coffee, does it? Shouldn’t coffee just taste like coffee?
These terms are flavor descriptors, and they’re used to explain how one coffee will taste as compared to another. Obviously, the beverage you brew will taste like coffee, but looking a little deeper one can notice subtle differences. These terms are the subtle notes that the roasting team behind this coffee have noticed!
Sensory Analysis is the proper term for what these people do when they come up with those notes, and it’s a fascinating practice that’s worth a deep dive. For now, though, let’s explore briefly what goes into the flavor notes on a bag of beans.
Where flavor notes come from.
As you know, coffee is an agricultural product, which means it is a complex organism with its own unique flavor expression. Each growing region, each harvest, each process may produce different results, much like wine. Roasters use a standardized system for tasting and evaluating coffee called “cupping.” It’s basically a fancy version of sipping on single cups of coffee. While doing so, tasters are considering different kinds of flavors that they notice in the coffee itself. Using an expansive and well-calibrated palate, any person can connect a particular sweetness in a coffee with a fruit they’ve had before, or a kind of sugar, etc.
Get enough people doing this together, and common impressions come forward. If five tasters analyze a coffee and notice “brown sugar” then it can be reasonably inferred that a common impression drawn from this coffee is the flavor of brown sugar!
What might you taste?
It’s important to remember that these are impressions. Every person will taste things a little differently, and it’s perfectly okay not to notice “squash blossom” when drinking a cup of coffee. Your impression is just as – if not more – valuable!
If you don’t have a razor-sharp palate and years of coffee tasting experience, that doesn’t mean you enjoy coffee any less!
First off, it’s perfectly okay not to even want to taste further than “good coffee.” If you do want to dive deeper, but you’re not confident enough to pinpoint “yuzu” don’t despair! Just dial back a little bit, or “zoom out” so to speak. Yuzu is a complex and exciting citrus fruit, and even if you’ve never had one before, chances are you have eaten some kind of citrus. If you taste a coffee and notice that there is a certain “citrusy” quality to it – bingo! You’ve just nailed a flavor descriptor! Nine times out of ten, naming “citrus” as a flavor note will easily impress your friends.
Is “citrus” still too precise? That’s fine too! “Fruity” is a valid flavor descriptor. Even “sweet” works. No matter where your palate is, you still have your own unique impression of a coffee.
How do I replicate those flavors in my brew?
This is a question we see in Baratza Support all the time – you drink a coffee at a shop and decide to bring a bag home. It’s the same coffee, but it just doesn’t taste the same. What gives?
Well, we often like to say that buying quality coffee is the first step towards awesome coffee at home. The second step is the grinder itself. If you’ve got a burr grinder then you’re almost there. A few simple tips and tricks for brewing coffee can help get you dialed in to awesome coffee.
Understanding extraction, and the variables that effect it, will take you far in making café-quality coffee at home. And at any point on your journey, you can always come here to dive deeper.
Coffee doesn’t just taste like coffee.
Wherever you are on your coffee journey, you can dive in and explore the bounty of flavors in every coffee. Will you taste the same notes on the bag? Or might you find your own flavors? However it goes, it’s a delicious experience.