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Coffee Tasting Notes Explained

Tasting coffee

“These beans have tasting notes of dandelion, orange pith, algae and rose water”


This might be a bit of a tongue in cheek example but as coffee drinkers we’re all likely to have seen obscure descriptions like this on coffee packaging. Maybe we’ve judged them a bit (“how pretentious”) or become irritated when we once again fail to pick up the effervescent hints of champagne promised by our morning brew (“is it just me?!”) A first world problem, sure, but an interesting topic nonetheless.

 

If you’ve signed up to one of our coffee subscriptions at The Local Coffee Club you’ll have seen that we always include information about our coffee beans with each delivery. This usually includes details about the roaster, where the coffee beans were grown and any tasting notes that have been highlighted. For instance, our latest Scotland coffee beans were grown in Brazil and have tasting notes of chocolate, hazelnut and caramel. However, it’s come to our attention that many coffee drinkers (us included!) often can’t detect these flavours, so in this article we’re going to delve a bit deeper into the world of tasting notes to see if we can find coffee enlightenment. We’ll refer to our latest Scotland coffee beans as an example throughout, but in reality this applies to all of the coffee we send out in our subscription.


Scotland coffee beans

First things first, what are coffee tasting notes? Simply put: the perceptions that we have when drinking a cup of coffee (…it does get more in-depth than this, we promise!) To be clear, no chocolate, hazelnut or caramel was added to our Scotland coffee beans during the growing or roasting process. Rather, these foods provide a reference point that we can use to decide if that flavour profile is of interest to us. Like wine, coffee is bursting with natural flavours that vary according to a number of factors. These include...


Soil - the levels of minerals present in soil (potassium, magnesium, zinc etc.) differ wildly according to location. These minerals are absorbed by coffee plants as they grow, which impacts on the chemical composition of the cherries they produce. This in turn influences the flavours (acidity, sweetness etc.) and aromas of coffee in its final roasted form. 


Rainfall - to grow optimally, coffee plants require high humidity (more on this later) and regular rainfall (approx 75 inches per year). Sufficient rainfall ensures well developed cherries that create high quality, delicious coffee. Low levels of rainfall are bad for plants and will cause low yields of very small beans. The volume of rainfall over a given period can also impact plant health and taste. For example, persistent rain tends to go hand in hand with cooler temperatures that slow coffee maturation. This longer ripening period can lead to greater sweetness and acidity. 


Temperature and altitude - the “coffee belt”, which essentially follows the equator, is home to a series of countries that benefit from the kinds of temperatures and altitudes required to grow great coffee. Lucky them. Not jealous at all. The ideal temperature for Arabica coffee cultivation is between 15-24 degrees Celsius, while Robusta plants tend to prefer hotter, drier climates (24-30 degrees Celsius) and can’t tolerate lower temperatures. At the equator, sunlight falls more directly on coffee plants, meaning farmers can grow their produce at higher altitudes and lower temperatures than they might otherwise be able to. This is important, as coffee grown at higher altitudes tends to be sweeter with greater acidity (lower temperatures cause plants to store sugar in their cherries as a sort of protective mechanism). Plants grown at lower altitudes will produce a more full bodied, bitter brew. We generally only send subscribers Arabica coffee beans at The Local Coffee Club. You’ll also notice that we often highlight the altitude - metres above sea level, or masl - they were grown at (e.g. our latest Scotland Coffee beans were grown at 1100 masl). Hopefully this helps to explain why!


Landscape - the location of a coffee farm will have a huge impact on its produce. For example, if this month’s Scotland coffee beans were grown on a dry, Eastern facing plantation with lengthy daily sun exposure they would taste a lot different to beans grown on a Western facing farm with more shade, rainfall and humidity. 


Factors affecting coffee taste

Coffee varietal - this describes different variations of the arabica plant. A British way to understand this is to think about apples. There are loads of different types of apple trees that produce different types of apples, each with their own unique taste (think Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, Bramley, Royal Gala, etc.) It’s the same with coffee, just the names might be a bit less familiar (Bourbon, Typica, Caturra, Catuai, Geisha etc.) Farmers choose to grow certain varieties  based on how suitable they are for the environment they’re working in.


Ripeness - believe it or not, our Scotland coffee beans started life as tiny white flowers on a coffee tree. After growing in optimal conditions for a sufficient period of time (usually ~8 months), the flowers matured into vibrant red or yellow coffee cherries. Skilled coffee farmers then determined their ripeness by colour or touch, with suitable beans having a deep red or bright yellow hue, and being easy to squeeze out of firm, plump cherries. Correctly identifying ripeness is a hugely important stage of coffee cultivation, with only those picked at the right time having the flavours and aromas we love. Pick them too early and they’ll have a bitter or sour taste, pick them too late and they’ll have a fermented, rotten flavour. 


Process - basically, how the layers of fruit around the seed (bean) are removed. Coffee cherries comprise an outer skin (also known as the “pulp” or “exocarp”), sticky mucilage (“mesocarp”), papery layer (“endocarp”) and silvery skin around the actual seed. “Processing” refers to the way these layers are removed, which can… you may have guessed this by now… impact on the flavour of coffee! There are two main processing methods: natural/dry processing and washed/wet processing: 

  • Natural/dry processing first involves water (weird, huh), with cherries plopped into large tanks that separate the ripe from the unripe (higher quality cherries sink, lower quality, undeveloped cherries have air gaps around the seeds and float). Ripe cherries are then dried in the sun, usually on raised beds. The cherries shrivel up as they dry before the outer layers are removed using a hulling machine. Coffee that’s processed naturally should have a heavy body, sweet flavours and low acidity

  • Washed/wet processing again involves placing coffee cherries in water to find the ones that are ready to go. Ripe cherries are passed through a depulping machine that removes most of the outer skin. Depending on the farm, the resulting beans are then either washed immediately to remove the remaining mucilage, or left to ferment in large tanks of water where enzymes will break down the mucilage. Drying then takes place in the sun or by machine. Washed/wet processing results in a lighter body, fruity flavour and well defined acidity

  • BONUS METHOD: honey/pulped natural processing. This involves mechanically depulping coffee cherries at a wet mill but leaving the sticky mucilage attached while they dry (the sticky texture is sometimes compared to honey, hence the name!) While “sticky mucilage” doesn’t scream “delicious drink”, it does have the effect of creating a nicely balanced coffee which we can definitely get on board with


Factors affecting coffee taste

 

Storage - we only send out coffee beans at the local coffee club. While this may be a little less convenient than ground coffee and put some people off, there’s method in our madness. Notably, once you grind coffee it starts to lose its flavour rapidly (literally in minutes!) This is the result of oxidation, which occurs when coffee grounds make contact with light and moisture in the air. For this reason, we recommend buying coffee beans (obviously), storing them in an opaque, airtight container in a cupboard, and not grinding them all up as soon as you receive them. Instead, you can save time in other ways: why not sleep in your work clothes? Do you really need to shower every morning? Get your priorities right. 


Roasting - perhaps unsurprisingly, the way  green coffee beans are roasted has a huge impact on their flavour. There are three main levels used by roasters: light, medium and dark:

  • Lighter roast styles tend to be applied to inherently flavourful coffees. They highlight acidity and bright, complex flavours. This is evident in our Scotland coffee beans (roasted light to enhance the natural flavour of the coffee)

  • Medium roast coffees are loved for their rounded flavour profiles. They’re less fruity than lighter roasts, a bit sweeter and should have a richer consistency (though not as rich as dark roasts)

  • Dark roast coffees are lower in acidity than light and medium roasts and have a rich, bittersweet taste. Coffee that tastes like coffee

 

Brewing - as the end user, this is the most obvious way we can personally influence the taste of coffee. Enjoy brighter brews? It could be worth trying a pour over. Prefer richer coffee? Maybe a French Press is the way forward. Like your coffee with milk? …so do we! There are hundreds of different variables that can impact the way you make your coffee so this one really comes down to how far down the rabbit hole you want to go!


Coffee brewing methods

Right, list complete - you now know why coffee has different flavours. However, how do you make sure you can taste them? How would you go about getting those chocolate, hazelnut and caramel perceptions from this month’s Scotland coffee beans? The answer is coffee tasting (or “cupping”) This is a fun process that involves smelling and tasting various coffee samples and matching your perceptions to the Speciality Coffee Association (SCA) flavour wheel. To make this easier, there are some useful guides on YouTube that take you through the process. Everyone’s pallet is different and it takes a lot of practice to become skilled at identifying specific flavours, but there’s no harm in giving it a go!


So there you have it: a comprehensive-ish guide to coffee tasting notes cobbled together using a variety of questionable internet resources (not really but we doubt we’re getting referenced in Foods any time soon!) In all seriousness, we’re not Q graders so please don’t blame us if you’ve just spat out your morning brew in disgust at our failure to mention Kopi Luwak or the future potential of cloud seeding. In actual all seriousness, we’re always open to learning more about coffee, so any feedback or further info in the comments is always welcome :D

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