The last two weeks I have been thinking a lot about using flavour notes in coffee. 

It all started from a situation at the roastery, when a new coffee arrived with very precise flavour descriptors (passion fruit), and I was asked to roast it – for the owner to try it and decide if he wants to buy it or no. And he was not feeling it, tasting the coffee brewed in V60 immediately after being roasted, and the question arose if I roasted it well, if this particular descriptor does not appear. 

Funny enough, the day before I watched a video Why Flavour Notes in Coffee Kinda Suck by Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, where he talks in depth about how subjective flavour notes are, and how people can get discouraged and even “deceived” by not finding the notes in the cup.

So I experienced it all on myself basically the next day, and it made me think. A lot. I got into conversation about flavour notes with some coffee professionals, coffee roasters, coffee shop owners, even Maxwell himself, and some passionate coffee lovers – asking if having flavour notes on a packaging helps, if it is useful, and if they have ever been in a situation of not finding the descriptors, and feeling bad afterwards. 

I have been there myself – not finding the descriptors that were “promised”, but finding other ones. It took me a while to put it all together in my own head, looking from the perspective of the coffee lover and from the other side – of the coffee professional. 

The most important questions I will raising and trying to answer here: 
  • Are coffee descriptors set in stone? Is it something that you will taste for sure the way it is described on a coffee bag? 
  • Do we really need flavour descriptors on a bag of coffee? What is it – helpful information or marketing?
  • How to make it easier for the customer to buy coffee and enjoy it without feeling incompetent or unable to make a good choice?

Are coffee descriptors set in stone? Is it something that you will taste for sure the way it is described on a coffee bag? 

No they are not. For many reasons.

The flavour notes perception depends on so many factors – the way the coffee is tasted, the water that is used, the temperature of the water, the grinder that is used, the extraction and strength of the coffee made, it depends on who is tasting and how well they feel their body, how good they are at tasting and many others. The last one is an important factor, because even though we all eat and drink, and our capacities are more or less the same – the person who regularly cups and scores a lot of different coffees will taste better than a person who does not. 

The other thing is the flavour library. A person who consciously exposes herself to different tastes, smells, food, products on a regular basis, will taste better and will notice more of the nuances of the taste. 

And one more thing – being imparcial. I always say that coffee tasting is very similar to meditation. You let your thoughts go, and just feel, concentrate on one cup at the time, no expectations, no other information but your senses at that particular moment of time

The key element of cupping and tasting is controlling your mind and your expectations and being fair. That’s why it is super important to cup blind, to taste coffee without knowing anything about it – to be free from all the expectations. 

It is as important for the roaster, as it is for the coffee lover. I find it very useful to “forget” about the flavour notes on the bag. And taste the coffee, see how it is changing. It gives you a completely different perspective – that coffee depends on many factors, that it tastes different depending on how you make it, that it gets old. You feel it yourself, you taste it.

The only way of feeling exactly the same flavour notes as written on a bag: is to make the coffee exactly the same way, with exactly the same parameters and equipment that were used when evaluating them. 

And even doing that it could go wrong. How? The taster can have more or less experience than you, she may have a different flavour background (be from a Nordic country when you are a latin american), or even this – the notes might be taken from the green coffee importer evaluation. 

So I think it would be very useful if we stopped treating flavour notes as something solid, and saw them more as our flavour guides. 

That is how I get coffee: I do look at the flavour notes, but I don’t expect them to be “exact”. For example, this is the coffee that I got a month ago, 

It is naturally processed Anaerobic Pacamara from Colombia, that the seller evaluated at 89+ points, and found the notes of strawberry, raspberry and passion fruit. 

I get it – because I feel intrigued by the flavour description, and by the processing. I get a sneak peek of it – ripe forest berries, tropical fruits. I also expect some alcoholic notes from the 120 hour anaerobic fermentation, and some sweetness and body

But when the coffee arrives, I forget it all. I am all about smelling it, brewing it, enjoying it. I cup it blind, with other coffees (and I forget the score, and the notes the roaster gave), I brew 3-4 different recipes in V60, in Aeropress. I taste it all, hot, cold, when the coffee is fresh, when the coffee is getting older. 

The flavour descriptors I found? Let me bring them on:  red plum, tropical fruits, maraschino cherry, rum, nutty, acetic acid, dark chocolate, cedar. At its highest, I rated it at 90, cupping, blind

Is it exactly the same as the flavour notes described? No. 

If I remembered them, I would be trying to find them, and probably you would see them in mu cupping form. But as I was cupping blind, I was only writing what I was feeling. 

I rated it at 90, when the roaster gives it 89 at their page. Pretty close. What can I get from it? A complex, well structured excellent sweet coffee with a twist. Scoring is usually closer to the reality and gives much more stable results.

You can be 100% sure that if you play fair, you probably won’t find all the flavour notes “promised”. If you concentrate on finding them, your brain will make you believe you did find them. 

But using the flavour notes something to guide you when choosing a coffee seems to me as the right tactic – you choose the profile, not the guarantee that you feel strawberries there. 

Do we really need flavour descriptors on a bag of coffee? What is it – helpful information or marketing?

Why do we, coffee roasters, use flavour descriptors? A habit? Everybody does it, so it is something that is expected from us? We genuinely want our customer to choose something that he has higher chances of enjoying? Is it a good marketing instrument?

I guess using flavour descriptors helps us to resolve all the issues mentioned above. But there was something I was not considering before watching the Why Flavour Notes in Coffee Kinda Suck video. That it can be very discouraging for the person to not be finding some flavours. 

And I started to think of the cases when it happens. What do they have in common?

Like the case above, for example, with the passion fruit. 

Would it happen if they named the profile simply “tropical”? Or “exotic”?

Probably it wouldn’t sell so well, as passion fruit.  Probably the business needed somebody with the capability to taste on their side, to decipher the coffee, analyze it for real, for defects, quality, flavour profile, and actually give their verdict about what to expect. 

So it was easy to choose, yes, but the expectations also were higher, and there was no margin for error – the existence of passion fruit flavour was tested with a simple outcome “Does or doesn’t it exist?” All the other parameters were not taken into the consideration or analysed.

Isn’t it the same as we behave when we buy the coffee with very precise, crazy descriptors? We expect the roaster to fulfill the promise, from the very beginning the promise is given and it looks like there is no margin for error. The coffee either has the honeybaked apple, or it does not. 

And there are only 2 possible outcomes from this experience. And none of them is good. First one, when the customer does not find the “promised” taste, and either feels deceived, or incompetent. The second, when the customer feels all the flavours exactly the way they were described, which means he was not actually tasting the coffee, but his brain tricked him into believing the coffee description. He was too busy finding the flavours, instead of really enjoying the coffee. I have been there.

Both of the outcomes do not fulfill the purpose of getting to know more and more of the specialty coffee world. Because the whole thing is enjoying always changing flavour, seeing the beauty of details, seeing how much you can do to change the flavour (in a certain range, of course), how much depends on you. And how beautiful the coffee is – it is a living thing, it changes, it is fluid, it is different. 

We do need descriptors on a coffee bag – to help to guide the customer, but only that. To guide, not to promise that she will feel these exact flavours, because it is a promise that cannot possibly be kept. We simply don’t taste the same way.

It bring us to the next question, that I will just start answering:

How to make it easier for the customer to buy coffee and enjoy it without feeling incompetent or unable to make a good choice?

How to combine interesting and attractive marketing and customer satisfaction?

How to use flavour notes to guide and lead, but not as the only salesforce (“raspberry jam with hints of watermelon and mint”)?

Should we use simpler descriptions? Should we appeal to other ways of impressing? Should we look at the complete multisensory experience (the packaging, the colors, the placing of the information on the sticker)?

The question is still open, the conversation has started. The Specialty Coffee Industry is growing up, and it needs to look for some new ways of approaching the coffee lover, and probably changing the way we are working with flavour notes is one of the necessary steps.

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