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The communication of flavour

April 15, 2012

‘What does this cup of coffee taste like?’

To communicate about taste successfully it is essential to consider how flavours are most commonly perceived, bearing in mind the inherently variable nature of tasting and hopefully achieving the highest percentage of communication possible.

Many variables will affect this exchange – genetics, mood, previous experience, last food or drink consumed and so forth and so on.  It can very easily seem like an unattainable goal and there is a temptation to leave the tasting up to each individual – making of each coffee what they will.

A problem arises with the rarity of the flavours in speciality coffee and how they fit into the wider context of peoples coffee experiences.  If somebody has not tried a bright, citrus like espresso before or even a particular farm for instance, it may actually show a lack of understanding and service to just serve it without any flavour information and no attempt to create a specific context for that coffee.

Serving an array of coffees with unique and individual character has really given me a better appreciation for the worth of tasting notes within other industries.

A more developed understanding of particular products in popular culture means that people are often choosing on taste without realising it. With a small amount of knowledge in wine, people will often consider grape variety and region when purchasing and they are therefore aiming for certain flavours.

The difficulty with speciality coffee is that the general rules for regional flavours/tastes – which have been made based on commercial coffee – do not apply. The idea of a Brazilian coffee tasting round and nutty is not useful when tasting a single estate Brazilian, 100% Catuai varietal that is lighter on body with melon and cedar notes.  The variety of flavour possibilities within this one country alone is huge.

So the idea is to hopefully get people choosing on taste description and then noting the origins and details of the coffee afterwards.

At this point we haven’t even taken into consideration all of the variables occurring between the farm and the finished cup.  Roasting, water, age and brewing all dramatically impact the cup.  Here in lies what has always seemed to me to be one of coffees biggest challenges.

It cannot be bottled up and offered straight to the market, it relies on careful handling by many hands to realise its potential and that potential itself may have varied and equally valid outcomes.

I will often dial a coffee in looking for balance and a good extraction, I will then taste the coffee and find the flavour notes we are getting vary hugely from those the roaster has written on the bag.

It never fails to amaze me how certain flavour notes found in a certain coffee, brewed to specific brew parameters at 7 days from roast has then lost certain defining flavours at 10 days from roast whilst others have emerged.  A given coffee seems to retain the same overall character but that character itself is highly and surprisingly malleable.

At the moment we need to be careful that the flavour notes do not vary wildly from the drink the customer consumes.  We are running the risk of disappointment as well as a sense that it’s all a bit superfluous. This will lead to skepticism regarding speciality coffee, an emperor’s new clothes labelling.  And rightly so, for this is what bad communication will lead to.

To talk to customers effectively about the flavour of a particular brew we need to have tasted that roast on that day brewed to the same parameters using the same water etc.

The question then is how best to describe this flavour?

For us, a mixture of references to other commonly consumed food and drink (orange like, hazelnut, biscuit) combined with broader descriptors (juicy, creamy, bright, round) has been the most useful.

Using only a few very specific flavour notes seems to be misleading as they give a very specific and narrow idea of flavour, which in reality the coffee rarely or never exhibits.

A coffee is not going to solely taste like liquefied plums and cherries for example – more experienced coffee drinkers may be overwhelmed by a particular plum and cherry note.  But we need to step back and think objectively. To someone less experienced in coffee, would the cup taste of just plums and cherries?

One of coffees’ wonders is the complexity of its flavour compounds and I feel flavour notes should reflect this. The broader descriptors help indicate that the character of each cup isn't simple and that it’s many flavours work together to form a complex web.

Filters present a challenge as their flavour changes so much as they cool down.  In our store we let everybody know that the flavour will really benefit from a cooler drinking temperature, but without a thermometer and a ready steady go on hand we are not sure at which temperature the drink will be tasted.  Although I must admit that the fact the filters change so obviously when cooled and en mass develop sweetness is enough to validate the whole idea of tasting in the first place.

Milk drinks are another great way to focus on tasting.  Great espresso and great milk can produce extremely tasty drinks that are also able to display and showcase coffees’ flavour and variety.  Once explained it seems obvious, the addition of another ingredient will completely change the taste of the drink.  The relationship between milk and coffee is complicated and rarely does the finished beverage just taste like espresso with milk added.  On our coffee board we describe how a six-ounce cup of a particular espresso and steamed milk will taste.  I have found this to be one of the most useful descriptions, not only because a lot of people drink milk with espresso but also because it implies that all of the flavour notes have a functional intention as opposed to some marketing pomp.

The very presence of flavour notes accompanying the coffees indicates to prospective customers the care taken over the product. There is an obvious desire to engage the customer in the tasting journey.

Talking about taste has the ability to allow for a richer coffee experience, logging our tasting history more easily.  Naturally, talking about flavour can be daunting, especially in specialist shops. We do our best to make it a comfortable discussion but by definition it may not be for everyone, which is fine.  That’s where service plays it role; engaging and aiding that customer who knows they just want something smooth to start off with.

Flavour isn’t easily definable and tasting notes should serve as a guide only.  It doesn't matter if you don’t get a specific blackcurrant note.  Customers will often taste a coffee and note that it tastes very interesting; they personally would not have interpreted it in exactly the same way but can see where the tasting notes have come from. It’s about embracing that curiosity, embracing that excitement of flavour in a complex drink like coffee.

I realise the value of flavour notes when a customer comes back for the 5th or so time and mentions that they should probably steer away from the second coffee down on our board that day, as it has flavour notes of banana and strawberry.  They have noticed that certain naturally processed coffees aren't on the whole as much to their taste as washed coffees.

This shows that a discussion of flavour can work as a guide to navigate coffees’ complexity.  From here then comes the discussion about roast dates, varietals and processing…. or just the enjoyment of a carefully prepared and considered cup of coffee.


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