What Tasting Notes Really Mean

Tasting notes are on almost every specialty coffee bag out there. From peach to red gummy bears, they draw on the entire food world to articulate what a coffee is like.

With over 800 compounds in a cup of coffee contributing to its flavour, each coffee has the potential to taste vastly different from the next. When choosing which coffees we want to roast and share, we end up tasting the coffee time and time again. During this process, we pick the notes that end up on the bag.

When tasting, we are always mindful of everything that shapes our experience. Roasting can turn a highly acidic coffee into something completely muted and quiet. Brewing coffee with incredibly soft water can leave it tasting bland and almost lacking in clarity, while incredibly hard water can make it taste dirty. A cup made with a high ratio of coffee to water can turn a coffee that is sweet and round into something like gravy. How sensitive coffee is to the process of making it means flavour is not something we will all experience the same.

To guide us in articulating the flavour experience of a coffee, we’re fortunate enough to have helpful tools. In 1995 the Specialty Coffee Association created a flavour wheel to help coffee tasters and fans better explore the flavours in their coffee cup.

The flavour wheel was further refined in 2016 and works by starting out in the centre where more generic notes are. The more you can get out to the outer layers, the more clear the coffee flavour is in the cup – which usually means the beans are better quality. The wheel also includes a defect section to make describing defects better, which gives us insights into what went wrong during production.

At Kiss the Hippo, we use the flavour wheel as a starting point for describing the flavour of the coffee we roast. From there, we try and connect the coffee with flavours familiar to people in the UK. That means a sticky, highly sweet strawberry flavour might be described as strawberry jam, or a buttery note with an apple and brown sugar twist may become apple pie.

In doing this, we have to recognise that flavour is as much cultural as anything else. The version of a red apple someone from Yorkshire thinks of when they read the word ‘apple’ will likely be different to someone from California. This means that there is no universal way to really describe a flavour experience – there is only the way each of us experience something, and then draw on our lived experience to describe it.

Flavour becomes not something that is objective, but an opportunity to understand our subjective experience. This is why we don’t guarantee you will experience the flavour notes on the bag, because nobody can.

What we’re looking to do is start a conversation. To say, this is what this coffee made me experience. How about you?


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