When you move from buying bottom-shelf brown swill from your local grocery store to the bags of coffee with the hip designs on at your nearest Third Wave coffee haunt, you being to notice some things on the side of the bag. ‘Notes of raspberry and lemon’, ‘a lightly acidic coffee with a touch of chocolate’. These things are called tasting notes, and they seem very strange, even farfetched, for a beginner.
So how do you read coffee tasting notes properly?
Well, the first thing to realize is that coffee needs to be freshly roasted and freshly ground for the inherent flavors to be brought out. Stale coffee will taste bland. As a rule of thumb, you should be aiming to brew coffee beans within 15-30 days after they’ve been roasted and should be grinding the coffee beans a few minutes before making the coffee.
Once those conditions are met, coffee has the potential to come alive with flavor. It’s good to start by reading the tasting notes on the side of the bag of coffee beans, flavors like vanilla, blueberry, chocolate or lemon are all not uncommon.
If you’re noticing undesirable tastes such as bitterness or grassiness then that’s usually (but not always) the sign of a poor brew and you should look at changing the extraction of your brew.
This might seem a little daunting at first, which is why you need to read the rest of the article. I’ll even do a little coffee tasting of my own and describe it to you, not claiming I’m an expert or anything, though!
What everyone gets wrong about tasting notes
Coffee will taste like coffee. It is coffee. It has to. But there is a vast world of bitterness, acidity, body, flavor, and aroma that can all depend on what is in your cup.
Firstly, a word of caution. Be careful not to confuse tasting notes with an actual flavor – there is a marked difference. A cappuccino that is made with a small squeeze of fresh tangerine will not have ‘notes of tangerine’. It’s orange flavored.
What tasting notes describe is the subtle deviation from the normal taste. For example, notes of melon are characterized by a coffee that has a hint of sweetness and a fruity flavor. It’s not going to taste anything like a long swig of fruit juice. It’s still coffee.
Additionally, tastes are subjective. What you taste will always have a personal quality because your own reference points for tasting will be different to someone else’s reference points. What you describe as having a grapefruit aroma someone else might say had a citrusy aroma. The general taste – sweet and citrusy – is there, but encompassed by different words.
So bear in mind that tasting notes are a guide. The bag may talk about ‘notes of blueberries’ and you may completely disagree and that’s ok.
Types of Note
There are a few different categories we can use to group tasting notes. Saying your coffee tastes like toffee is quite different from saying your coffee has good body. Although both are descriptive and useful, they are describing different things.
Here’s a rough idea of some of the main characteristics that tasting notes will touch upon.
Comparing the flavor or characteristics of the coffee to things like fruit, chocolate, flowers, nuts and so on.
“this dark roast has a chocolately feel”
Bitterness or Acidity
Discussing the bitterness or acidity which are often, although not always, considered negative elements of a cup
“the acidity is mild resulting in a very smooth cup”
Describing the texture of the coffee. A coffee can vary in its thickness, kind of like the difference between full-fat and low-fat milk. It’s important to remember that different brewing methods can result in very different mouthfeels. Regardless of coffee bean, a French Press will have much thicker mouthfeel to a Pour Over.
“the coffee is full and flavorful with excellent body”
The different types of roast (light, medium, dark) give a general overview of some of the characteristics of the coffee that come from the roasting process. Lighter roasts tend to have softer and more distinct flavors whereas darker roasts may taste more bitter and burnt.
“the flavors are really noticeable with the soft tasting city roast”
Here’s a picture of Mexican Altura that I picked up from Matador Coffee Roasters in Arizona. On the packet the notes are:
MILD ACIDITY AND SMOOTH TO THE PALATE, PERFECTLY BALANCED WITH HINTS OF CINNAMON AND CITRUS FRUIT
I’m going to brew a cup using a French Press and drink it black. Here’s what I think. Disclaimer: I am no expert.
“The acidity is present and probably a little more noticeable than I’d like. The taste is sweet, almost juicy, with a soft mouthfeel. The citrus notes are definitely there too. Actually, it’s a very flavorful coffee and one where the flavor is overpowering to the point where I would not describe it as smooth.”
What words can we use?
The following is the SCAA’s coffee flavor wheel. This was made in 1995 as an attempt to comprehensively cover the flavors present in coffee. This gorgeous design was made by Counter Culture who are an awesome third wave coffee roasters you should totally check out.
It’s easy to get intimidated looking at it. That’s ok. It’s meant for professionals who describe flavors – cupping experts. So don’t worry if you are not sure if your coffee tastes like papaya or not!
There are useful features. The table on the left for instance. It’s useful to know that words like ‘full’ and ‘velvety’ are used for a thick, full-bodied coffee.
And most of all, remember, these are not flavors from the coffee but the subtle deviation from the normal coffee taste.
5 Step Guide to improving
Now you know what to look for, here’s how to do it. Follow these 5 steps and you’ll be well on the road to appreciating coffee in a whole new way.
1. Pay attention.
Drink your coffee slowly. Concentrate on the taste. Take a couple of minutes out of your morning to relax and enjoy the wonderful drink in front of you rather than scanning through emails about nonsense from people you don’t care about.
2. Buy better coffee.
It goes without saying that a locally roasted coffee bean is going to beat the pants off the mass produced rubbish you get at the grocery store. There’s plenty of awesome third wave roasters who sell on the internet these days, too.
3. Read the notes and compare them.
When you’re sitting down with the latte you made from your Costa Rican light roast, read the tasting notes. Notes of grapefruit? Have a sip, see if you can taste it. A heavy mouthfeel? Drink and see if you agree or not.
4. Drink it black
The Rolling Stones sang about a red door and wanting to paint it black. Well, I see a beige coffee and I want that to be black. Black coffee is pure and the taste is undiluted. I’m not saying to give up your caramel frappe if that’s what you really love, but trying your coffee black a few times might open the door to a world of flavor you never knew existed. If the bitterness is too overwhelming then even using a smaller amount of milk can help.
5. Try new things
If you change things up, you might appreciate the difference in your cups of coffee. Buying two bags of coffee beans or trying different methods of making coffee. If you mix things up and compare the results you will get a clearer insight into how coffee can be different.
What most people think of coffee tasting notes…
I’m sat in the front room of my parents’ house. It’s early morning and my dad is sitting down to drink his coffee. He’s a couple of sips in. Drinking quietly.
I have the bag in front of me – it’s Starbucks Kenyan Single Origin. I look at the information on the side. Tasting Notes – Juicy and Complex. Reading on… Unmistakeable notes of grapefruit and blackcurrant found in no other origin.
“How’s your coffee, Dad?”
“Yea I guess.”
“What do you think of the notes of grapefruit?”
“Well, I don’t taste any grapefruit.”
“It says here they’re unmistakable.”
“What about the blackcurrant, it’s not found in any other origin, you know?”
“Yea it’s all nonsense that kind of thing. There’s no blackcurrant in here.”
If you’re like my dad then you’d probably look at the side of a pack of coffee beans and scoff. To be honest, I was the same a few years ago. But if you’re willing to put in a little effort there’s a whole world out there. A world of detailed cupping notes and their ability to help you enjoy the depth of flavors of great coffee.
Note: This conversation did actually happen, as close to how it went down as I can remember. Which is probably not that close.
I’m describing coffee here but the same principles can be applied to wine or craft beer or whiskey or brandy. (Well, alcohol, I guess.) Training yourself to recognize and appreciate different flavors is a skill that will never lose its appeal, and any progress you make discovering the different myriad tastes in coffee will transfer over to anything else with a rich tapestry of tastes. And if nothing else, differentiating between basic tastes is a useful skill. No-one likes the guy who doesn’t know the difference between cinnamon and coriander!
Enjoy this article? Absolutely hate it? Either way, I’d love to hear from you.