Goodbye Flavour Notes

SUNDAY, 8 MAY 2022

It has been roughly a year since we decided to stop using flavour notes. They did hang around stubbornly for a while haha, as they are such a common way for coffee to be communicated.

This change has been driven very much by me. I have been thinking about the flaws of flavour notes in coffee for a while. I made a video on the topic, which I have been told by different people has been quite triggering, whether it's a divisive debate in a roastery or even an internal debate with oneself about personal experiences with using flavour notes.

The topic is surprisingly complex.

When referring to flavour notes, I am referring to the use of specific food and drink items as references for flavours that could be interpreted in the coffee. For example, raspberry, bergamot, apple pie.

These have often become a marketing ploy as much as a true attempt at describing the coffee. With the selected flavour notes acting as a bold, eye-catching sales approach as opposed to a useful navigation key.

There is also what could be called a cup profile approach. For example, a medium bodied coffee with high acidity and complexity. These kinds of descriptions tend to be more accurate but also potentially less useful as they tend to be broad and apply to multiple coffees.

Where I end up on this topic is that it’s really about tying a flavour experience to a specific provenance. For example, the most useful knowledge for all involved is, "I tasted this coffee and the origins of those flavours were...". I realise this means more learning and potentially less immediate guidance, but I truly believe it's more useful. After all, Kenyan coffee tends to have a unique taste, one that is not well communicated with blackcurrant and chocolate.

I also think the coffee world doesn’t have the prescriptive provenance that wine can have, so its also really interesting to know if a cup profile is “typical” or “atypical” for that origin or variety etc.

It is funny that flavour notes tend to present a feeling of security or guidance. However, they rarely deliver on that promise, due to both the subjectivity and lack of structure around their use industry-wide – not to mention variance in brewing and water etc. A cafe in Belgium put out some questions to their customers. The first being, “do flavour notes influence your decision making when buying a bag of coffee?”, to which the answer was 90% yes. This was followed by, “do you taste the flavour notes that are written on the bags?”, to which the answer was 90% no. It is quite humorous, but also very interesting. I presume they are being used as a choice metric as they are there and offer a navigation tool even if they aren’t actually useful.

Myself and the team still find ourselves using flavour notes here and there, especially if they are very pronounced and obvious, which I actually find is a less common occurrence and just a really hard habit for us all to get out of. But the team have really found themselves learning more about flavour and its provenance since we aimed to stop relying on flavour notes in the descriptive process.

I am not sure whether you the reader of this article are an avid defender of flavour notes or are actually pleased to see them challenged, but give contextualising the flavour of each coffee a go, I promise it's worth it.