*We often get asked by folks in the coffee industry why we describe our coffees through a two tier system of "taste notes" and then "flavor notes." This post is about that.
Albert Einstein said that "most of the fundamental ideas of science are simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a way that is comprehensible to everyone." We believe this to be true of coffee as well. Simplicity does not water down our craft, but instead puts our conversation on a level playing field. An example of this can be found in the unique way we've chosen to describe our coffees.
By first identifying our coffee's general "Taste Notes" before moving on to more specific "Flavor Notes" we've found tremendous success in our Brew Bar and online store. Our goal is to communicate in a way that is inviting and appropriate for coffee lovers of all types. If someone just wants a delicious drink made quickly, our taste notes are more than enough to get them there. However, if someone is looking to dive in further, we're completely prepared to move to that tier as well.
To help us identify these notes we've developed the Coffee Taste & Flavor Spectrum below. Inspired by similar charts from the whiskey and wine worlds this graph starts with the most inclusive coffee-specific descriptors: Rich/Delicate and Earthy/Fruity.
1) Is the coffee Rich or Delicate?
Rich flavors might include things like caramel, molasses, chocolate, leather, plum, cola, currant, or fig among many others. Whereas delicate flavors might include lemongrass, hibiscus, graham or apricot, orange, lime, and coconut.
This question typically is the most enjoyable for us to nerd-out about since it also takes into account the complexity of the coffee. As seen below, the more Rich or Delicate the coffee is, the less flavors we're able to experience simultaneously.
Rich flavors tend to be cloying in nature and will very easily overcome more delicate notes. These "tyrants" are usually front and center when we taste a coffee. Delicate flavors, however, tend to layer nicely along side one another allowing for higher degrees of complexity to be experienced. It is important to note however that delicate flavors can also be subject to wash out or fading on the opposite end of the spectrum and consequently have less complexity as well.
Side note: The above concepts of cloying/washout and complexity have heavy implications for our sourcing and roasting, but we wont get into that here.
2) Is the coffee predominantly Earthy or Fruity?
The most important word here is "predominantly." All coffees will lean one direction or the other, but rarely will that mean that it will exclusively show elements of Earth or Fruit. For example many Ethiopian coffees from the Yirga Cheffe region sport chocolate (earthy) at their base and lemon (fruit) in their acidity.
This is also the point in which having a working knowledge of specific flavors comes into play. If we're going to say a coffee is earthy we need to know what flavors fit that category versus that of the fruit side. Below you can see how we would place many of the most basic "flavor notes" along the Coffee Taste and Flavor Spectrum.
3) Finally, once we've determined those elements we add in the third and final descriptor which has to do with the coffee's mouth-feel (body). Is it smooth, soft, or round? Is it creamy, velvety, or syrupy? The way a coffee feels is a distinct as any of its other characteristics and plays a crucial role in our overall experience of it. Many times the coffee's body is what breaks the tie between it landing in the rich versus delicate debate. This final piece rounds out our "taste notes" and for many people moves them from 2D to 3D.
When in action these "taste notes" may look like this:
or any number of combinations in between.
This is certainly not an abandonment of flavor's being written down. If you look in our online store or on the shelf displays in our Brew Bar we always include actual flavors in the last paragraph of each coffee's story. These "flavor notes" often look more like this:
The point is always a simplicity that is inviting and appropriate.
We hope the next time you taste one of our coffees you take a stab at placing it on the Coffee Taste & Flavor Spectrum before looking to see what we said about it.