If you’ve browsed the supermarket coffee aisle in the last few years, maybe you’ve noticed an influx of new bags of coffee from small, quality-focused companies. Often, these bags present the coffee consumer with a host of terminological conventions that seem indecipherable next to a tin of, say, Folgers. Whereas that tin of Folgers won’t give you much information beyond vague marketing platitudes (Smooth! Bold! 100% Arabica!), these newer coffees tend to load their bags with a dizzying amount of information, including the farm or region from which the coffee was sourced, the altitude at which it was grown, what botanical variety of coffee was used, and how it was processed. While admirable, this drive to be as informative and transparent as possible about the coffee inside the bag might also be alienating to the non-connoisseur. This is one downside to the recent expansion of the specialty coffee industry into mainstream retailers. In the past, if you wanted to buy a bag of specialty coffee you would seek out a coffee shop where (ideally, at least) enthusiastic baristas stood nearby, ready and willing to act as coffee evangelists and educate you on all manner of confusing coffee terminology. Nowadays, you can find more good coffee on the shelves of supermarket chains or the websites of online retailers, but without any helpful baristas nearby to offer expert guidance. Still, it is of course a net positive that good coffee is easier to find.
One addition to coffee labels that often generates confusion is tasting notes. Most bags of specialty coffee bear labels that boast of notes of raspberries, or baking spices, or nougat. Perhaps you’ve bought a coffee based on its tasting notes, brought it home, brewed it, and tried in vain to detect the notes of persimmon you were promised. You might then conclude in frustration that the whole thing was a cheap marketing ploy. While this is an understandable response, flavor notes should not be written off altogether. For one, they’re not just invented out of whole cloth but arise from behind-the-scenes deliberations between knowledgeable industry professionals tasting the same coffee and comparing notes. These coffee professionals have cultivated extremely perceptive palates, and they put these to work tasting new coffees and establishing a vocabulary with which to describe them. While taste is subjective, a consensus can often be reached by establishing which flavor notes multiple tasters detected. For instance, if I’m the only taster who experiences notes of clove in a coffee, this descriptor will likely not make it onto the coffee’s label. If, however, both I and a colleague taste notes of plum, this might eventually be listed as a flavor note. In an attempt to acknowledge the subjective nature of taste, some companies label their tasting notes with phrases like “you may taste,” or “we tasted.”
It’s important to keep in mind that flavor notes merely denote the approximate taste experience of a given coffee. Coffee is made up of thousands of chemical compounds that comprise its distinctive flavor, and as such it is capable of yielding a diverse array of flavors, many of which are familiar. A coffee with notes of grapefruit won’t taste like hot grapefruit juice (thankfully), but it will likely have an acidity and distinctive flavor which is comparable to that of grapefruits.
If you want to develop your palate for coffee and start experiencing tasting notes firsthand, I’d recommend getting two very different coffees and tasting them side by side without milk or sugar. One obvious pairing is a Peruvian coffee and an Ethiopian coffee, as the deep chocolate notes of the average Peruvian are noticeably different from the delicate floral notes of an Ethiopian. Make sure to brew them using the same recipe, and taste them thoughtfully, jotting down some notes as you sip. Ignore the flavor notes provided on the bag, and try to come up with your own. Focus on sweetness, acidity, mouthfeel, and don’t stress if you can’t come up with any specific flavors. Merely tasting the difference between two coffees is a good start, and with some practice you’ll soon develop a palate capable of detecting individual flavor notes.
Author, Michael DeGeorge