Can You Really Taste All Those Flavor Notes In Coffee?
Have you ever seen coffee descriptions and thought, “Seriously, you can taste that?!” Specialty coffee is known for its wonderful complexity and intentional flavors. The roaster gets to share what they taste in the coffee as “flavor notes.” Occasionally, we see very specific flavor descriptions like Plumeria, frankincense, and lemon verbena.
We enjoy and recognize complex and varying flavors in coffee, but sometimes roasters get a little overexcited. Regardless, if you expect to get the most out of your fresh roasted coffee, we want to help! Here is an introduction to the flavors of specialty coffee and how to best enjoy them at home.
The SCAA (Specialty Coffee Association of America) and flavor scientists simplified 1000’s of flavor compounds into a coffee flavor wheel. The coffee flavor wheel took decades of effort and guides the coffee industry to a universal language of flavors. Every coffee flavor you’ll encounter is located somewhere on this wheel. No matter how close you look, you will never find frankincense or lemon verbena. But you will find frankincense within a category named Green/Vegetative, further narrowed to “fresh” & “herb like” and lemon verbena as “lemon.”
Coffee Roasters market their coffee with mouthwatering and creative flavor names. Lemon verbena sounds more exquisite and appetizing than plain ‘ole lemon. Plus, for those of us who experienced lemon verbena, we think sweet and mellow lemon. Some super tasters may be able to identify lemon verbena, but most of us are content to enjoy simple lemon notes.
Specialty coffee roasters go to great lengths to find and roast the most flavorful coffee beans. The flavor notes listed on a coffee bag exist in the beans when they arrive in your kitchen. Coffee beans are roasted produce. Unlike other beverages, you are responsible for creating the finished product. This means recognizing that coffee is much different than most other beverages and requires effort on your part.
Grind, brew, and drink coffee in a way they you enjoy. Keep it simple or go all in but recognize that it takes effort and equipment to recognize the full flavor potential of specialty coffee. There are many variables at your control and each one will affect the notes you taste. Not to stress you out, but freshness, grind, water, and how you drink your coffee all change what flavor notes you can expect to enjoy. This is not an exhaustive list, as some sophisticated coffee drinker will happily share, but more than enough to get you started.
Fresh Roasted- After coffee beans are roasted, a roaster may wait a day to bag them while they off-gas CO2. Shortly thereafter you can grind, brew, and enjoy your coffee. It depends on roast level, but the prime time to brew these beans is one to six weeks after the roast date. You can use the bag to store the coffee beans. Make sure to keep the bag sealed and keep it away from heat.
Fresh Ground- You must fresh grind your coffee if you want to maximize flavor. Grind your coffee within a day of using it; best case scenario is within ten minutes. There are studies that demonstrate more than a 40% loss of aromatic and volatile compounds within fifteen minutes of grinding. Equate this to a 40% loss of flavor. Yes, grinding right before brewing is quite important. There are a variety of grinders on the market and we suggest a burr grinder for consistency. It’s paramount to grind every bean into similar sized particles. This allows for equal extraction, and results in more complexity and less bitterness in the final cup. Adjust your grind size to match your brewing equipment and use a scale to accurately weigh the grounds.
Quality Water- 98% of coffee is water and this will affect your coffee. Start with quality water that is fresh and flavorless. If you continually struggle to make coffee that tastes the way you expect it to, it may be worth it to try a product called Third Wave Water. Third Wave Water is a combination of minerals that you mix with distilled water. It actually makes better coffee (non-paid endorsement). Finally, use a thermometer to assure your water is the correct temperature for your brew method.
Brewing- There are many brew methods and each one has its advantages and disadvantages. Spend some time familiarizing yourself with the proper technique for your equipment. If you use a standard drip brewer, you may struggle to identify some of the complexity and unique flavors in your high-quality bag of beans. Looking to try a brewing option better suited for specialty coffee? Investigate a pour over, AeroPress, or French press. A simple brew method to understand the flavor nuances in a bag of coffee is by cupping the coffee. Cupping coffee is the standard way to sample coffee for the coffee industry. To cup coffee, all you need is fresh ground coffee, 200-degree water, a scale, and a timer. Cupping multiple coffee next to each other is one of the best ways to improve your palate.
Drinking- Coffee will meet you where you are but enjoy it in solitude if you want to really taste it. Noises, car driving, and mixing with food will distract you from your coffee. At first it may seem strange but try to gently slurp your coffee while you drink it (not in public unless you crave everyone’s attention). You will recognize more flavors when coffee hits every taste bud at the same time and your olfactory will go into overdrive with coffee soaring to the back of the mouth. Focus on the coffee flavor, acidity, and aroma. Most coffee drinkers only focus on the caffeine and miss the experience. As the coffee cools, you’ll recognize new and more pronounced flavors. Pay attention next time and taste for yourself.
Too much work for you, no worries! Drink coffee in a way that you enjoy. This is a great place to start if you desire to get a little more out of your beans. As always, You Do You!