Flavour notes in coffee. Everyone has an opinion about them. Recently, I got involved in a discussion on this subject over on one of the coffee forums.
It turns out that some people really object to the use of flavour notes. Others are ambivalent, finding them "a bit useful, maybe, sometimes" - usually qualifying that with something along the lines of "as long as they're taken with a pinch of salt".
I'm not sure how useful people outside the coffee industry find them, but my sense is that most people are in the 'meh' camp. What I do know is that flavour notes can alienate people.
The people that are against have a few objections.
they think that flavour notes are fabricated by people in the coffee industry and used as a sales/marketing tactic.
when they drink the coffee, they don't taste the same things described in the notes. This either reinforces the first point or makes them think that their sensory skills are lacking.
We hear people say that they think roasters are trying to describe the coffee in good faith but that these things are all subjective, and therefore pointless.
I've thought about this a lot over the years. I've always felt that using flavour notes is problematic. For years now, we've printed 'This coffee reminds us of......' rather than 'this coffee tastes like....' on our bags. It's something of a disclaimer, I admit.
This morning we got a review on our site - it said 'a better than average bean, nice milk chocolate notes, a nice brew'. The score? 2/5 stars. The reason for the low score was that the customer hadn't experienced the flavour notes we had described.
This got me thinking. It sounded as though the coffee had been enjoyable for the customer, and that they thought the quality had been good, but the mismatch between the tasting notes we had provided and what their taste buds were telling them had spoiled the experience for them. Not ideal.
Let me take a step back in time and tell you about my journey with flavour notes. When I first came across them, long before I worked in coffee, I thought they were pretentious nonsense.
At the same time, I had fallen in love with coffee but didn't have any vocabulary to describe what I was tasting. My eyes had been opened to this wonderful world of excitingly different and delicious beans, but I struggled to find reference points of any kind to help me understand what I liked, or what I should buy. Hearing people talking about tasting cherries left me confused. I wasn't sure whether these guys were being serious, or whether I was not sophisticated enough. It was off-putting, to put it mildly.
Fast forward a few years and I'm running a coffee business. Flavour notes are unavoidable, they're everywhere. We use them every day to communicate with the people who help us source our beans.
Over time, you do become 'calibrated' with these other coffee professionals, and this helps us to jointly develop a shorthand, a code, a way of figuring out (without tasting them all) which coffees we might be interested in buying.
I'm genuinely unsure if this whole process is about my palette improving, or whether it was me becoming indoctrinated into a way of describing flavour that facilitates easier and more efficient communication between coffee professionals.
Let me give you an example of how this might all work, to make the point clearer.
Mrs Importer: We have a juicy Kenyan, it has blackcurrant notes and lime acidity.
Translation: Classic Kenyan. Less acidity than usual (otherwise it might have been described as 'lemon' acidity, the most acidic of the acidities). People will struggle with it in espresso, worse if milk is added. The acidity will likely be too much for them, unless they're into super acidic coffees.
Blackcurrants (a code for 'classic Kenyan flavour') makes me think of drinking fruit cordial (especially when accompanied with the word juicy). When you under-dilute fruit cordial, it's sticky and sweet, almost like a jam (the word 'jammy' is used a lot to describe Kenyans ). This is code for the 'chewy' mouthfeel commonly found in Kenyan coffee.
Taking the translation a step further.....
Kenyan season is here, and we want a good, classic Kenyan coffee (because who doesn't?). The way this one is described is industry shorthand for a good, classic Kenyan of the SL28/SL32 variety. The importer may include a trustworthy quality score, which allows us to conclude that this coffee is a high-quality, classic Kenyan coffee. Yep, we'll try this one out.
You can see how a few words can be used to communicate a lot. This is undeniably useful in the initial 'filtering' stage. The importer could have said 'good quality, classic Kenyan', but that wouldn't be satisfying somehow.
Within our team, we'll communicate with each other using similar shorthand.
"I'm getting tropical fruit notes".
What does that mean though? Can you describe the flavour of any tropical fruit? Give it a try. Take a minute and try to describe in words how a mango tastes. I'd suggest it's an impossible task (especially if you're not allowed to compare or contrast it's attributes to any other fruit)- but you'd be able to tell a mango from a grape if you tasted both blindfolded, right?
Is it language that is letting us down here? It's not our ability to taste, it's our ability to describe in words what we're tasting. Here at FCR, we know what we mean when we say 'tropical fruit notes' because we have shared memories of other coffees that have struck us in the same way - and that comes from an understanding shared with other coffee professionals.
Perhaps it's nothing more than an attempt to describe the indescribable. Or are we merely using words to lead us to memories of similar coffees that we have tasted before? Those of us that have been immersed in this world for long enough have agreed upon which words should be associated with which coffees. I see this all the time with people new to the industry. The initial confusion and frustration gradually subside as they start to 'get it'.
Sometimes customers will say 'I want coffee that tastes like coffee'. But what does that mean? Ask them to describe the flavour profile they have in mind, and all will struggle.
Sometimes, a note is used to help us to convey something else that stands out in a coffee. Other elements are easier to describe than the more nebulous 'flavour' - like the acidity, or the finish, for example. Raspberries or rhubarb may be used in an attempt to describe a sweet/sour aspect, for example.
'Caramel' comes to mind when thinking about a smooth, sweet, lingering finish but 'dark chocolate' hints at less sweetness and a touch of bitterness in the finish. 'Black tea' may be suggesting even more bitterness or harshness in the finish. None of these descriptors means that the coffee is good or bad. In reality, they're all elements that people either seek out or try to avoid, depending on their preferences.
We're not saying 'this coffee tastes like black tea' - we're saying 'this coffee's finish is short, bracing, crisp, sharp or dry.' We're using what most people have experienced before (i.e.the dry/sharp finish in a typical black tea) to describe a characteristic we find in this coffee.
If we kept things more general, I suspect that flavour notes wouldn't be as problematic as they are, but when we start talking about sun-ripened papayas and under-ripe kiwis, we may have a problem. Whether it's a genuine attempt to convey nuance, us disappearing up our backsides, or a 'who can come up with the wackiest flavour note' competition, it all starts to get harder to take seriously.
As roasters, we shouldn't forget that even small differences in water chemistry, equipment, or brewing technique can have a huge impact in terms of perception of flavour and other characteristics. At FCR, we cite those factors as reasons that we don't dispense brewing recipes. In that context, aren't our assertions that this coffee tastes like strawberries a tad hypocritical?
The coffee industry is partly responsible for all this, with its attempts (well-intentioned as they may be) to establish a 'lexicon' - a commonly agreed upon framework and language for describing the flavours found in coffee. The 'flavour wheel' (example here) has been used to train coffee professionals to think in a certain way about the coffee they are tasting - and there are undoubtedly benefits to that, as I've mentioned.
It's when the context changes that flavour notes may become less helpful. I mentioned that flavour notes when used between coffee professionals have other functions, it's not purely about trying to capture sensory data in language. They are shorthand, a code. It works well when everyone knows how it works. For those of us that are immersed every day in this, it makes sense to use the shorthand. For everyone else though? I'm not sure how helpful it is.
I don't think that coffee professionals are making this stuff up (usually), but I do think it's easy for us in the industry to forget that whilst tasting notes are undeniably useful in some situations, they make much less sense in others.
What should we be doing instead?
Honestly? I'm not sure. Writing this is the first step for us. We need people to understand that tasting notes are subjective and complicated. As professionals, we need to be humble enough to understand that they may be of limited value when trying to help customers decide which coffee they should buy.
Quality scores (with reservations) are less subjective as long as roasters aren't scoring their coffees and the people doing the scoring are trained and supervised properly. We've talked about that before (here) and we have committed to publishing quality scores when we have them.
I think we'll run an experiment. We'll temporarily remove flavour notes from the bags and make them less prominent on the website. I'll continue describing my experience of the coffee in the description, and that may or may not include flavour notes. I want our customers to know why I decided to buy that coffee, and why I thought they would love it.
We'll think more about how we can best help our customers find the coffee that they are likely to enjoy, and we'll try to find better ways of describing it for them, shifting the emphasis more towards the impact of processing, the varietal, the origin and other factors.
You know what though? If I do come across one of those natural Ethiopians that in a flat white tastes uncannily like a strawberry milkshake - I'm going to have serious difficulty keeping that to myself.
As always, we would love to get your take on all this over on our Discord server.