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Understanding flavours

Have a look at any bag of coffee and you will most likely see flavour notes somewhere on the package. These flavour descriptors may guide you in your purchasing, or could completely baffle you. How does one taste Jasmine in a cup of coffee?

A lot of the shared language in the coffee industry is based on the Specialty Coffee Association’s flavour wheel. Most coffee roasters would have used this flavour wheel to pick the descriptors that will appear on their packaging.

We really like the flavour wheel designed by CoffeeMind.

This may be familiar to you already: we reference it in our How to roast pdf. We like the groupings that have been created on this flavour wheel, as it simplifies the process of tasting then finding language that is relatable. We also noticed that the wheels are also grouped similar to the five tastes: Sweet, Sour, Bitter, Umami, Salty.

A coffee may have elements of all five of these tastes, but might swing more towards one more than another. Here in lies the importance of using descriptors: it can help us define more of what a person can expect from a cup of coffee.

Sweet: Lavender-Elderflower, Apricot- Almond

This part of the flavour wheel has the descriptors that are most commonly used for medium roasts, as acidity is usually less pronounced in medium roasts. You may find that these flavours are also more likely to be present in Natural and Pulp Natural Coffees. No one person is 100% scientifically certain why there tends to be inherent sweetness in these types of coffees. However, there are theories that involve the length of time that the fruit is in contact with the seed, the coffee bean.

As with varying degrees of roast, there are varying degrees of sweetness within coffee. Light sweetness is closer to the floral notes of Elderflower, and heavy sweetness is closer to that of Caramel. These degrees of sweetness can also be mirrored in the body and mouthfeel of the coffee. Is it juicy in texture like Melon? Is it full and creamy, reminding you of Milk chocolate or Caramel?

Sour: Strawberry-Mandarin

Sour descriptors are usually reserved for Light roasts, as acidity is more pronounced in light roasts. This grouping of flavours also tend to be present in Washed process coffees. As with Natural and Pulp Natural coffees, there are theories that the pronounced acidity is tied to how long the fruit is in contact with the seed.

Sour flavours are often described as ‘bright’ and add a ‘zing’ to the coffee. You may also feel a sensation on the front sides of your tongue, or an impulse to pucker your mouth. The body or mouthfeel of a coffee with sour flavour descriptors might feel similar in texture to herbal tea or fruit juice.

Bitter: Walnut-Licorice

Our ability to taste bitter flavours can be traced back to our evolutionary roots. Toxins can be quite bitter and our ability to taste toxins helped us survive and evolve. Yes, coffee can taste bitter, but that is usually balanced by sour, sweet and umami flavours. Without bitterness, coffee would not be the experience that it is.

Coffees with Bitter characteristics tend to be on the darker end of the spectrum of roast. In a dark roast, you may find that acidity ( or ‘sparkle’ as I like to call it), and sweetness have been diminished. We may also experience Bitter tastes in coffee that may be suffering from defects. The most prevalent bitter tastes that we may experience in tasting coffee are Walnut, (similar sensation to an oversteeped black tea), Burnt toast, and baking spices, such as cinnamon and clove. You may also experience a drying sensation once you have swallowed the coffee that you are evaluating.

Umami: Coriander-Tomato

Umami, also known as The Fifth Taste, was first identified in 1908, but wasn’t used in scientific descriptions of flavour until 1985. It is the ‘new kid on the block’ in the realm of flavour descriptors. Umami is also referred to as ‘savoury’ and you can see that reflected on the Coffee mind wheel: Umami flavours range from Coriander to Tomato.

You might be thinking: I don’t want my coffee to taste like soup. But fear not, Umami is a complimentary flavour and plays a supporting rather than starring role in most coffee origins and processes; It is more like a treasure that is discovered within the layers of flavour of a coffee.

Tips on picking up on Umami characteristics are that the mouthfeel will be long-lasting, coating the mouth. Umami will often have a mouthwatering effect, too.

Salty: Industrial, Roasted, Cereal

Industrial, Roasted and Cereal may all sound unpleasant, but within those categories, we see Earthy, Tobacco and Malt descriptors. These flavours are created by aromatic compounds called Phenols, which often lend themselves to compliment coffees. You may have experienced Phenols before when smelling a Scotch whisky. However, Salty flavours in abundance in a coffee is a sign of processing or roasting defect. We can observe these flavours and aromatics in a lot of different types of coffees, but they tend to be most common in Semi-Washed coffees from Indonesia.

Salty flavours tend to linger and stick around for a while on the palate. You may pick up on these flavours, after you have swallowed your coffee. You may experience a drying sensation, similar to Bitter, or a mouthwatering effect, similar to Umami. If either sensation is overwhelming the other flavours that you have already tasted, you may be tasting a defective coffee.

Below are some tips to increase your confidence in tasting and describing coffee.

  • Try brewing the same coffee multiple ways. Some flavours may present themselves more prominently in one brew method than another.
  • Hold the coffee on your palate before swallowing and take some time to think about what the flavours might remind you of.
  • Smell the coffee before tasting. Sometimes, flavours on the tongue might elude you.
  • Taste lots of different types of foods. The more you have tasted, the larger your vocabulary will be.
  • Don’t worry too much if the coffee simply tastes like ‘coffee’. Generally speaking, the higher quality the coffee, the more complex it will be. Sometimes, it is nice to have a simple cup of coffee and to not worry too much about its complexities.

Happy Tasting!

Further resources:
SCA interactive flavour wheel
Video on de-colonising flavour by Ārāmse, on James Hoffmann’s YouTube Channel
The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit