An Introduction to Tasting Notes

You may have heard people claim to taste notes of orange, blueberry, or graham cracker. Upon taking a sip, you experienced none of these things. Obviously, those "coffee snobs" must be making things up, right? While tasting notes can be a bit subjective and influenced by confirmation bias, complexity and objectivity do exist. Some notes are tasted, and others are more of an aroma. 

When talking about flavor notes such as orange, apple, graham cracker, etc., coffee drinkers don't necessarily mean that they literally feel as though they're drinking those things; instead, the coffee has hints -- notes -- of flavors that can only be described by referencing other tastes. Putting a name to coffee flavors is a bit like trying to describe a color in that you must compare it to things to which others can relate. You can, indeed, use subjective terms to describe coffee, but it creates a much more nebulous understanding. Because of this, coffee roasters have come together to define a set of flavors that coffee can produce. This is known as the flavor wheel. 

It's probably beneficial to describe the basic notes of "coffee". Most think of it as roasty, possibly because it's the easiest and most consistent flavor that can be curated. While they may not be able to put a name to the notes, the classic, understood flavors of coffee are "cocoa", "nutty", and perhaps a bit of "graham cracker". These are all common, hard-to-mess-up flavors, and are the end point of many coffees before they become burnt. The reality, of course, is that all coffees are just as much "coffee" as any other. Brazilian coffee is one of the largest producers of coffee and varieties from this region tend to feature the aforementioned flavor notes. Since most people have likely had Brazilian coffee, this is why many come to understand the taste as a definition for coffee as a whole. To further complicate matters, most, but not all popular coffees from different countries are descended from the same tree, though that is a whole topic on its own. 

As you try various blends, origins, and roasts, compare the flavor notes on the bag to the flavor wheel above. You'll taste hints of each flavor, and perhaps, a few others. Coffee flavors are affected by a myriad of factors. The amount of sun and rain, the temperature, processing methods, and roasting all have a major impact on the final product. From year to year, every crop of coffee changes a little bit. Big brands often roast past the point of complex flavors in order to achieve a basic, reliable product. Doing this squanders a lot of potential, but no roaster can extract flavors that don't exist within the beans already. Each crop is imported with a set of possible flavors, with certain ones being more highly favored. The roaster then performs several sample roasts, decides which are worth extracting, and aims to bring out the best offering. The variance and uncertainty adds an element of scarcity, excitement, and inherent value to each variety of coffee. 

There are some who taste high-end coffee and find their traditional roasts preferable. If you've given artisanal coffee a go and simply prefer the simpler, darker notes, there's nothing wrong with that! Many elitist coffee connoisseurs act as though there is an objective scale to the best coffee. While rarity and quality can be measured, what matters most is that you enjoy what you drink without limiting your options. Maybe caramel creamer is essential to your morning routine, but don't write off a fancy cup of single-origin Rwandan before you try it. If you're just starting out, our Mexican Chiapas is a good starting point. 

While tasting notes can be subjective and even sometimes fabricated through suggestion, there are still objective flavors. Just like vintages and varieties of wine, every bag of coffee is unique. With practice, one can train their palette to pick up the details and elevate your coffee tasting experience. 

Written by Michael Chrystal
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