Mushroom, citrus, raspberry… understanding how to apply coffee descriptives in a meaningful way is not intuitive. It’s an art that takes time, tools, and tasting to master. Just as you learn to detect subtle differences in your favorite pasta sauce or brownie mix, with a little guidance, you’ll soon be able to distinguish and identify the elements that create a coffee’s flavor. In the coffee world, “flavor notes,” the specific taste notes present in a coffee when consumed, contribute to but do not define a coffee’s “flavor”. Flavor is the collective sensation and impression we perceive based on the coffee’s aromatics, acidity, body, and flavor notes. To understand flavor, it is essential to understand the contribution and qualities of these four elements.
Aroma is the introduction to your cup. Your relationship with a coffee’s aroma should be like walking into a kitchen and knowing what is in the oven without needing to peek. While I am sure you are familiar with the aroma of brewed coffee, it is often easier to pick up subtle aromatic notes in unbrewed coffee. Before brewing your grounds, take the opportunity to smell them. Once brewed, smell the coffee again to see how it has changed. Often unbrewed grounds highlight the high notes while brewed coffee is dominated by base notes. As you sip the coffee, try to trace the changes in aromatics as you swallow the coffee (that subtle scent that shifts up the back of your throat to your nose) and in the aftertaste. The words you use to describe these aromatics — floral, sweet, earthy, nutty etc., become part of the coffee’s flavor profile.
Acidity is most easily identified by the close or aftertaste. Coffees with high acidity produce a lingering, tingling sweetness that may feel dry, sharp, or pleasantly tart in your mouth. This tingling sweetness, similar to what you may experience after eating an orange or sipping a lemon flavored drink is often described as lively, crisp, vibrant, or bright. Coffees with low acidity produce a duller, more muted chocolate taste.
Body describes how a coffee feels in your mouth — such as delicate, heavy, creamy, or good. Good body means that the coffee is neither delicate nor weighty. Body also encompasses viscosity and texture. While you may not often sip and ask “how does this feel in my mouth?”, we encourage you to start! If your coffee has a consistency slightly heavier than water, it would be considered light. If it feels like maple syrup or honey on your tongue, it would be considered full-bodied; if it feels like molasses, it would be considered heavy-bodied.
Flavor notes are the taste sensations you experience when drinking a cup of coffee. While you are unlikely to taste specific flavors such as chocolate or raspberry, the coffee should produce a series of flavor sensations such as the cocoa residue left by chocolate or the tangy sweetness you experience after eating a raspberry. Flavor notes are closely linked to aromatics and develop as they travel along your tongue. Sweet tones or upper notes are often most easily identified by the tip of the tongue while heavier notes or base notes are most prominent at the back of the tongue.
Collectively, aroma, acidity, body, and flavor notes create a coffee’s flavor or profile.
Looking at the flavor wheel, below, you’ll notice broad categories in the inner ring of the circle which break down into subcategories on the outer ring of the circle. Capturing notes in the outer ring requires well-trained taste buds so we suggest trying to identify flavor notes in the inner ring. Once you’ve mastered identifying the flavor note categories, you can test your taste buds to see if they can pinpoint more precise notes. Aromatics also conform to the flavor wheel so if you find yourself struggling with taste, first see what you can identify with your nose.
To learn more about interpreting coffee flavors, check out our blog entry.