Interpreting the Info on your Coffee Bag (Part Eight - Tasting Notes)

June 24, 2019

Does it really taste like lemon?

This is Part Eight in a series about the information on your coffee bag and what the heck it all means.

Tasting Notes

Tasting notes give an idea of the coffee’s flavor. Typical tasting notes reference other well-known flavors such as citrus, berries, nuts, and chocolate to describe the taste of a given coffee.

Tasting notes are extremely prevalent in wine (think big fruit, tobacco, with an oaky aftertaste) and increasingly showing up in the beer world too.

Tasting notes may be what the coffee roaster actually tastes in the coffee or information the importer or seller provided about the bean. The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) publishes a "Coffee Tasters Flavor Wheel" and accompanying flavor lexicon that work to establish standards for flavor notes. Some individuals are highly trained to recognize these flavors. Q-graders are certified individuals who are trained to recognize and name these flavors, among other coffee characteristics such as mouth feel and degree of sweetness.

Can’t taste what the coffee is claiming to taste like? It might not be you.

Although there are defined standards for specific coffee tastes, the practice can still be very subjective. Imagine trying to establish a consensus on the difference between a “brown sugar” flavor and “dried fig.” Individuals providing the flavor notes may be highly trained in sensory science, not trained at all, or anywhere in between.

Further complicating things is the fact flavor can be influenced by so many factors, such as roasting and brewing. Coffee roasters can make adjustments to how the coffee is roasted in ways that change acidity or sweetness. They can even cook a flavor right out of a bean by roasting very dark. If the flavor notes used came from the importer and not from tasting the finished product, the two may not match.

Brewing method and equipment also affects flavors. In addition to under or over-extracting, different brew methods can bring out different qualities in a coffee's flavor. I've brewed the same coffee on an Aeropress, pourover, and french press just to marvel at the noticable yet subtle differences. If you have access to different equipment, try brewing your favorite coffee multiple ways and try them side by side.

The age of the roasted coffee can also impact flavor. Coffee more more than a month or so old may lose most of its distinctive flavor. So that coffee that tasted of ripe strawberries when it was fresh from the roaster may be just sweet and slightly acidic 2 months later.

Finally, tasting notes can also have a marketing bent to them, as roasters seek to describe their coffee with rich, descriptive terms that all but guarantee you'll want to try it. It may not be deceptive, but you can bet that "puppy kisses" isn't a flavor note that Q-graders train to recognize.

Tasting note at a glance

What it is: Descriptors of flavors that may be present in the roasted coffee

Why you might care:Tasting notes can help you identify coffees you know you like or would like to try. However, take tasting notes with a grain of salt because you don’t know who selected them and what other factors may influence what you’re tasting.

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