Imagine you have just walked into your favorite coffee shop and you decide you want to order a pour-over coffee. So you ask the barista what’s brewing that day and the response will frequently be a few coffee origins by country. To help you understand what each coffee tastes like, they will then list each coffee’s flavor notes. These could be anything: chocolate, almond, peapod, toast.
These flavor notes were likely chosen by the roaster during a series of cuppings, the industry standard for evaluating coffee by smell and by taste, and communicated to the baristas.
So the flavor notes aren’t arbitrarily chosen, even if it might seem that way.
Flavor notes describe the taste of the coffee in recognizable ways. It is going to be different for everyone, we process taste differently. We aren’t going to tell you what you are tasting is wrong. Memory is also key when tasting coffee - you are going to try to relate it to other food or drink you have had in the past. So if I try a coffee and say it tastes like cilantro, but you have never tried cilantro, you won’t likely agree with me.
This all said, there are a number of things that create the flavor of a coffee. Ultimately, it is a long list that really each need their own blog post for. A few on that list are varietal, the growing environment, processing, and roasting.
There are also a number of compounds and acids that get formed during roasting and get released when grinding and brewing that result in certain smells and flavors. Citric will result in a lemon or orange flavor, phosphoric will be a bit sweeter like a mango or you might find malic acid which will be similar to a stone fruit or a green apple. If there is acetic acid, which is found in vinegar, in a coffee it will typically result in an unpleasant taste for the coffee.
So there is a lot that impacts how you taste coffee. A cupping is a great time to try coffees in a standardized way to hopefully get the best read on what the coffee tastes like. A helpful guide is the Specialty Coffee Association Flavor Wheel, which is a collaboration with World Coffee Research to put together this lexicon of taste. At Commonwealth Joe, we also have made a Flavor Hexagon, which simplifies the Flavor Wheel, to let customers see more easily what flavors we see in our own coffees.
If you are having trouble getting a flavor note and really want to get it, pairing coffee with food is also helpful. We like having a caramel candy with Shenandoah Spring to get some of the sweetness out.
Ultimately, flavor notes are just a way to understand the coffee you are drinking.
Sign up for a cupping here to experience the flavor wheel for yourself.