Written by Andreas Willhoff
I’ll admit it: flavor notes can be intimidating. At their best they can help someone find the perfect coffee, but at their worst they can put up a barrier between the roaster and the consumer. The barista often acts as a liaison between the two, but if you’re buying coffee from a grocery store or roaster’s website, the flavor notes are all you have.
It happens to me all the time. I look at a bag of coffee that says it has flavors of cherries, and I think, “I like cherries.” But when I finally get around to tasting that coffee, I taste no cherries. Did I brew it wrong? Maybe my palate isn’t as good as the roaster’s? Or is it my equipment? The truth is, any number of things can get in the way of tasting those specific notes. It can be anything from your grinder, to the age of the coffee, to the chemistry of the water used. Whatever the cause, it often leads to one of two conclusions: I don’t know what I’m doing, OR they’re just making this stuff up.
Either way, it’s not good. So, in order to help bridge the gap, I would like to offer some tips. Having a better understanding of both how to taste coffee and how to use flavor notes to your benefit will help make the process of buying coffee easier.
Flavor notes are very heavily based on personal experience.
Due to the timeline from the crop harvest to the launch of a new coffee at your local roaster, flavor notes often have to come from the very first sample batch of a coffee. These are much smaller batches, and some of the flavors that come out of them are less present when moved to a larger production batch. Additionally, the flavor notes are usually not changed as the green coffee ages, meaning those notes can be outdated. Though the specific notes might change, the basic idea of that coffee should remain.
Flavor notes are very heavily based on personal experience. Flavor and aroma are tied to memory, so a lot of these notes come from the roaster’s life experience. Don’t feel bad if you don’t taste orange blossom or panela in a particular coffee. If you’ve never tasted an orange blossom, don’t expect to taste it in coffee. You may taste something completely different based on your experience.
Instead, focus on the basic experience. Every time I taste something, I taste for the same three things. Acidity, sweetness, and bitterness. Learning to taste for these flavor components will train your palate. Once you have those three notes, you can throw mouthfeel into the mix. How the coffee coats your tongue plays a big role in the flavors you perceive.
Deconstruct the notes on the bag to simpler categories. Move any notes of lemon, apple, grape, peach, or blueberry to the broader category of FRUIT. Orange blossom could probably be moved to FLORAL. The broader the category, the easier it is to detect.
When you do taste a specific flavor (and believe, me you will) don’t worry about it aligning with the notes on the bag. The fact that you taste something is exciting!
- Don’t worry if you never taste a specific flavor. In the end it’s about whether or not you like the coffee. Does it taste good to you? Yes? Great!
Learning to taste for these flavor components will train your palate.
Just like wine and whiskey fanatics, fans of coffee like to wax poetic about their drink of
choice. This often includes a complete breakdown of the entire tasting experience, which is fine. And while we as an industry always try to communicate these things clearly to you, our excitement for this complex beverage sometimes gets the better of us, so please forgive us if we get a little esoteric in our descriptions. I hope these tips help you navigate the murky waters of tasting coffee, and ideally improve your experience. We want to bring you into our circle, not keep you out.