How to Taste Coffee

JOURNAL

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

With over 800 compounds in a cup of coffee that contribute to its flavour, each coffee has the potential to taste so 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 what notes that end up on the bag.

When tasting, we’re 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 clarity, while incredibly hard water can make it taste dirty. A cup made with a high ratio of coffee to water can bring a coffee that is sweet and round into something like gravy. And because coffee is so sensitive to the process of making it, flavour is not something that we will all experience the same.

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

The flavour wheel was further refined in 2016, and works by starting out in the centre with the more generic notes. The further you can get out to the outer layers, the clearer the coffee flavour is in the cup — which usually indicates beans of a better quality. The wheel also includes a defect section, to make it easier to describe defects and therefore gain 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 coffees we roast. From there, we try and connect the flavours we find with those that people in the UK will most likely have experienced. That means a sticky, highly sweet strawberry flavour will be strawberry jam, while a buttery taste with an apple and brown sugar note may become apple pie.

In doing this, we have to recognise that flavour is as much a cultural thing as anything else. The version of a red apple someone from Yorkshire thinks of when they read the word ‘apple’ will likely be different than someone from California. This means that there is no universal way to describe a flavour experience — there’s only the way each of us experience something, then articulating drawing 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 — and can’t — guarantee that you’ll experience the flavour notes on the bag.

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

Kiss the Hippo Team