What are tasting notes and how do we identify the ones we use on our coffee bags?
We often get asked about the tasting or flavor notes on our coffee bags. 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.
First and foremost, we do not flavor our coffees! Flavored coffee is definitely a thing. If you’ve ever experienced it, you know what we mean. Who can forget the smell of artificial hazelnut at a mall coffee shop in the ’90s?
Counter Culture has never flavored our coffee, and we never will. The flavors occur naturally and are inherent to the coffees. They change based on where or when it’s grown, how it’s processed, how it’s roasted, its variety, and even how it’s brewed. Roasted arabica coffee is one of the most chemically complex beverages out there. It has thousands of unique, extractable chemical compounds that produce many different flavors! So when we’re tasting notes of “strawberry” in a coffee, we’re tasting the same, or very similar, compounds that are in actual strawberries.
Identifying Tasting Notes
With so many flavor possibilities in every coffee, how do we narrow the list down to three for the front of the bag? Sometimes, tasting notes are obvious, like smokiness in a very darkly roasted coffee. Other times, the flavors are more subtle. Our coffee department tastes hundreds of coffees a day and are experts at identifying the particular flavors that each coffee naturally exhibits.
The flavors we select to go on the front of the bag are the ones that are the most obvious to everyone during a coffee cupping right before the coffee is released. Many members of the coffee department taste the coffee together and write down as many words as they can to describe their experience. The lists are compiled, and the words that are used most frequently are usually the words that will end up on the bag. Those are the flavors our team believes are the most clear and obvious to best describe the experience anyone would have drinking that coffee.
Some will say that flavor notes are made up, more poetry than science. While that isn't true, subjective and personal experience do play what you’re tasting—after all, you can’t recall a flavor if you’ve never tasted it before or don’t know the words that describe it. And you can’t identify any flavors if you don’t take the time to practice.
It takes a lot of effort to become skilled at tasting and identifying specific flavors, but the great thing is that anyone can do it. It takes practice, time, and patience, but if you have taste buds in your mouth and a nose on your face, you, too, can learn to identify coffee flavor and smell!
Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel
We think a flavor wheel is a great tool to get you started in calibrating your taste buds. It provides a common language and descriptors of different plants, sweets, and spices accessible to anyone eating a western diet. If there’s a word on the wheel you aren’t familiar with, you can almost certainly go to a market near you and find an example of that food or spice and try it! Then you’ll have a reference, and when someone describes that flavor in the future, you can taste the coffee with them and know what they are talking about.
If you want to practice tasting coffee and develop your palate and vocabulary, try brewing two coffees then go back and forth tasting the two. 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. It takes practice and patience to get good at this, but the nice thing is you’ll be drinking coffee the whole time!
Want to learn more about tasting and the flavor wheel with us? Check out one of our in-person and virtual classes. We'd love to calibrate with you.