January 2, 2024

Coffee flavour notes should be exciting, but they still need to be accurate


Tasting notes play an important role in specialty coffee. Not only do they help guide consumers’ flavour expectations, but they can also allow roasters to form a more cohesive brand identity.

Alongside the rise of specialty coffee has been a preference for lighter roast profiles. And with this shift has also been a wave of more novel and innovative taste and mouthfeel descriptors – including “crème brûlée”, “structured”, and “melted chocolate ice cream”. 

These flavour notes are certainly exciting, and are sure to spark a lot of interest from both seasoned and new specialty coffee drinkers. At the same time, however, it’s crucial that tasting notes remain accurate – or roasters could risk losing the loyalty and trust of their customers.

To learn more, I spoke to Dakota Graff, Director of Coffee and green buyer at Onyx Coffee Lab, and Manny Carrera, owner of Argyle Coffee Roasters.

You may also like our article on whether tasting notes for specialty coffee are going too far.

A woman enjoys a cappuccino at a café.

Tasting notes serve an important purpose

As an industry, we often assess and score coffee based on the balance of five key attributes. These are:

  • Acidity
  • Sweetness
  • Bitterness
  • Mouthfeel (or body)
  • Aftertaste
    • We sometimes talk about umami (a Japanese word that is often used to describe savoury flavours in food, as well as full-bodied textures) characteristics in coffee, too

Additionally, though, we also use specific flavour notes to describe what we experience when drinking coffee. In 2017, World Coffee Research published the second edition of its Sensory Lexicon, which formally identifies 110 flavour, aroma, and texture attributes in coffee – ranging from chocolate and brown sugar to pineapple and fermented.

Tasting notes are usually selected by roasters and green buyers during cuppings, and are printed on the majority of specialty coffee packaging.

The idea behind this is to create reference points to describe coffee flavour and aroma. This is so that roasters can communicate to consumers how a particular coffee tastes.

In turn, flavour notes can serve two important purposes: reassuring the consumer that they will know what to expect and to help introduce new people to specialty coffee. In both cases, the consumer can enjoy their drinking experience even more.

A bag of coffee at a coffee shop in the USA.

The subjectivity of tasting notes

Although they are certainly useful, flavour notes are also subjective and largely based on the opinions of a small number of coffee professionals. For example, while one person may taste strawberry jam in their cup, another may taste fresh strawberries – and they could both be “right”. Ultimately, what you taste is dependent on your palate and the foods and cuisines you have been exposed to.

Moreover, the resources we use to identify tasting notes, like the Specialty Coffee Association Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel, are more relevant for people in consuming countries such as Europe and North America). And even with the development of localised Flavor Wheels in places like Taiwan and Indonesia, for example, criticisms still remain about the lack of inclusivity with flavour notes in specialty coffee.

Manny Carrera is the founder, owner, and head roaster at Argyle Coffee Roasters in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, US.

“We never really wanted to put flavour descriptors on our bags because we felt it would alienate some customers,” he says. “People just felt terrible when they weren’t able to pick up baker’s chocolate or pineapple acidity, so we chose not to print them on our packaging.”

Instead, Manny explains that Argyle prints “what we taste” on their bags to acknowledge the subjectivity of coffee flavour notes. He believes this language provides consumers with more room to identify their own tasting notes with less influence from roasters.

A competitor determines coffee tasting notes at a coffee competition.

The rise of unconventional flavour notes

It’s been hard to ignore the more and more unusual and unorthodox flavours appearing on specialty coffee packaging. Tasting notes such as melted chocolate ice cream, banana pudding, crème brûlée, and orange creamsicle have been referenced by certain roasters, as well as World Coffee Championship competitors. While these descriptors can certainly be exciting and help to draw people in, they also have the potential to alienate certain consumers.

“Tasting notes should be about welcoming people further into specialty coffee,” Manny tells me. “I think it’s possible for roasters to take flavour notes too far in an attempt to stand out.”

Similar to the “what we taste” concept, Manny explains that he often refers to coffees using flavour descriptors like “traditional”, “modern”, or “exotic” to better explain sensory characteristics to less experienced consumers.

A bag of coffee at a coffee shop in the USA.

Acknowledging the importance of subjectivity

More than 800 volatile aromatic compounds have been found in coffee, which creates a somewhat endless number of possibilities when it comes to identifying flavour. Developing your palate and having more exposure to a wide range of different foods and cuisines certainly helps with this.

Dakota Graff works at pioneering roaster Onyx Coffee Lab in northwest Arkansas, US.

“We don’t taste without referring to other benchmarks or references, and so unfortunately, our coffee flavour lexicon is complex, but also limited to personal experience,” he says. “[There are always] extra opinions when it comes to flavour.”

Improving accuracy while maintaining interest

One way that Dakota believes roasters could better communicate tasting notes – while also acknowledging personal preferences – is to follow in the footsteps of other craft beverage industries such as wine and beer. 

For example, a consumer buying beer first decides on the type of beer they would like to drink, and several factors may influence their decision. They may want to buy sour beer or IPAs in the warmer months, and opt for stout and ale in the colder seasons, for instance.

It’s also likely that the consumer will already have expectations about what each type of beer will taste like, largely based on region or method of production.

In line with this, Dakota emphasises that educating consumers (especially those who are new to specialty coffee) about how origin, processing methods, and roast profiles can impact coffee flavour could help to improve accuracy of descriptors – and thereby enhance the customer experience.

Ultimately, when identifying and selecting tasting notes, a better approach for roasters could be to develop a more thorough understanding of the preferences of their consumers in conjunction with the flavours they are tasting.

A man samples the aromas of various coffee beans at a café.

Flavour notes on coffee bags are important for both roasters and consumers, and even producers. And while tasting notes certainly need to draw consumers in, roasters also have to ensure descriptors are accurate and balanced.

If not, roasters risk losing consumer trust and loyalty – something which many cannot afford to do.

Enjoyed this? Then read our article on how producers and roasters can develop specific flavour profiles for coffee.

Perfect Daily Grind

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