Coffee Basics: What are tasting notes and where do they come from?

We often get asked about the tasting or flavor notes on our 12 oz bags of coffee. When people see “fruity” and “milk chocolate” on a bag of Hologram or “caramel” and “nut” on a bag of Big Trouble, there’s sometimes a misconception that we’ve added flavoring to our beans. So in this post, we’ll be talking about what tasting notes are and how we pick them!

Is Counter Culture Coffee flavored?

The answer to that is no! We’ve never flavored our coffee and never will. The flavors are natural characteristics inherent to the coffees!

So where do the flavors come from if they’re not added?

Much like wine or beer, coffee can have many different inherent flavors based on where or when it’s grown, how it’s processed, how it’s roasted, the kind of variety, and even how it’s brewed. Roasted arabica coffee is one of the most chemically complex beverages out there and has thousands of unique chemical compounds that result in many different flavors! So when we’re tasting notes of “strawberry” in a coffee, we’re tasting either the same, or very similar, compounds that are in actual strawberries.

How does Counter Culture pick the tasting notes that go on the bags?

Sometimes tasting notes are obvious, but other times, they’re more subtle. Our coffee department tastes hundreds of coffees a day and are experts at identifying the particular flavors that each one naturally exhibits. To pick out flavors, they taste and compare coffees side by side and use our Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel pictured above. For most of us however, it takes more effort to think critically about how a particular coffee tastes.

The flavor notes for our coffees are listed under the names of the coffees on the front of the bags.
To pick out flavors for yourself, try this exercise:

Brew two coffees as similarly as possible, then go back and forth between the two, tasting each one. You might notice one tastes fruitier or nuttier than the other. This is a good time to bring out the flavor wheel! Start towards the inside of the wheel, with the broader categories, and move towards the outside to pinpoint more specific flavors. As with most things, it takes practice! If you live near a Counter Culture Training Center, our free Tastings at Ten events every Friday morning are a great way to gain experience. To download a PDF of our flavor wheel, visit our resources page here.