When you buy a bag of coffee, whether it be from the grocery store or coffee roaster, there are usually tasting notes printed on the label. You’ll see tasting notes of chocolate, nuts, fruits, flowers, even burnt. Have you ever wondered where they come from?
To clarify, these flavors aren’t added in. They are actually the coffee bean’s natural flavors. Like wine or beer, coffee can inherit flavors from where it’s grown, how it’s processed, roasted, and brewed.
How Does Coffee Get Its Flavor?
Coffee is arguably one of the most complex foods humans consume—it has 1,500 chemical compounds.(Source)
Here’s what gives coffee its complex flavor and tastes.
- Terrain. The land where coffee grows plays an important role in dictating what flavors will be in the coffee. Factors such as the pH in the soil, amount of precipitation, elevation, temperature, sun, etc. influence the resulting taste. For example, Kona coffee is grown in volcanic soil on the slopes of the Mauna Kea volcano, giving it a unique taste no other coffee has.
- Cultivation. Like terrain, fertilizer and pesticides (if any are used) also influences the taste.
- Variety. Like wine (pinot noir, cabernet, etc.), coffee has varieties: bourbon, gesha & hundreds more. These varieties have different characteristics based on where they’re grown and how they’re cultivated.
- Harvesting. To quote Brandon Damitz, “Coffee is a fruit. What's sweeter: green, unripe bananas or yellow, ripe bananas?” Ripeness also applies to coffee. There are different colors of ripe coffee, but ripe coffee will be sweeter, cleaner & smoother if properly grown, harvested, processed, roasted & brewed.
- Processing. This is one of the biggest factors determining flavor and aroma. Four main techniques are used: washed, wet-hulled, honey, and natural, which you can read more about here. In general, natural processed coffee tastes juicy and syrupy, washed processed coffee tastes clean and crisp, wet-hulled processed coffee tastes heavy-bodied, chocolatey, and nutty, and honey processed coffee tastes juicy, syrupy, and acidic. One of the best natural processed coffees is our Santa Felisa Gesha Natural Heap, which has floral, caramel, and watermelon notes!
- Storage. The longer coffee is stored, the heavier the body and musky the flavors get. This depends on how well you store it, but generally coffee lasts 10-14 months if stored properly.
- Roasting. There are 3 main coffee roasts: light, medium, and dark. Traditionally, light roasts are brighter, fruity, and floral. Medium roasts are well-rounded, ranging from chocolatey and nutty to fruity. Dark roasts are bitter and chocolatey.
- Brewing. There are a variety of factors in brewing that can drastically change the taste of your cup of coffee. Including but not limited to:
- Grind: both size and consistency
- Water: temperature, hardness/softness, pH
- Time: length of contact/exposure of coffee to water
- Pressure: espresso, AeroPress, mocha pot, siphon
- Type of immersion: drip, full-immersion (i.e. french press)
- Filtration (or lack of)
SCA’s Coffee Taster Flavor Wheel
With so many tasting notes, the Specialty Coffee Association created a tasting wheel that helps organize and categorize coffee flavors. While it may look intimidating, the SCA flavor wheel is a helpful tool to start trying to identify different tasting notes in coffee.
The wheel is like a map, where you try to get from point A to point B in terms of flavor. Start at the center with the general descriptors like “fruity” and move outward to the specific notes like “cherry.” It might take some practice in the beginning, but once you get familiar with the flavors, it’ll be easier to differentiate tasting notes. (Source)
What Do Tasting Notes Tell Us About Coffee?
Tasting notes are descriptions of the flavor, aroma, and character of a coffee. Once you identity flavor notes you like, you’ll know what type of coffee you love. It tells us a lot about the region where the coffee was grown or processed in, as different regions are known for different flavor profiles. It also hints at the coffee roast, as different roasts have a general taste profile.
Why Can’t I Taste Some of the Flavor Notes?
Taste is subjective, and like any skill, tasting takes practice. You might be able to pick up that coffee tastes “nutty,” but is it hazelnut? Almond? Peanuts? Additionally, the person next to you might taste something different, as no two people will taste the exact same thing. You can try tasting the difference with our Downtown Blend coffee, which has notes of roasted nuts, cedar, and sweet herbs.
Flavors also fluctuate depending on the climate, similar to how fruit grown in different areas might produce slightly different flavors based on the climate, soil, etc.
How to Get Better at Tasting Coffee
Tasting coffees is not a test, it’s a method of comparing and contrasting coffee flavors. When you can differentiate between coffee tastes, you can appreciate the nuances each coffee offers.
Some ways you can get better at tasting coffee at home include coffee cupping, practice using the flavor wheel, online tutorials, and/or free tastings with a professional present. Anyone can start practicing their tasting skills and it’s a fun activity to do at home.
If you want to practice at home, we suggest booking an online tasting class with our coffee experts. You'll learn the basics of coffee tasting and walk away with a better understanding of coffee flavor profiles.
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