Coffee tasting notes can be a nuanced subject. But why do we have them, and what do they mean? This simple guide talks through their purpose, and how they can help you make a confident choice when you buy your next coffee. Read on to learn more.
When you buy one of our coffees, whether it’s from our mainstay collection, a single-origin feature, decaf, or a special edition release, you’ll always find three key tasting notes on the information cards, as well as on the website.
SO WHAT ARE COFFEE TASTING NOTES?
Red apple. Cashew. Dark Chocolate. No, these aren’t ingredients; rather, they’re examples of the gastronomical perception that we have when drinking a cup of coffee. Tasting notes provide a reference to how a coffee might taste, enabling you to better decide if that flavour profile is of interest to you. Sometimes we’re asked if a coffee contains nuts or has actual honey in it, and it’s not surprising, really. From dietary choices, to allergies, such caution is understandable, but rest assured: we’re not adding anything into our Loring roasters, except coffee. It’s coffee, and coffee alone, that goes into the bag you receive through your letterbox or pick up in one of our coffee shops. And it’s full of incredible, naturally complex and delicious flavour.
HOW ARE TASTING NOTES CHOSEN?
Time for the science. The tasting notes in coffee, much like wine, are shaped by numerous factors. The soil acidity, rainfall, temperature, and altitude of the landscape where the coffee is cultivated. The type of coffee varietal grown. The ripeness of the coffee harvested. The coffee process (washed, natural, etc.). The storage and drying of the coffee. The roasting and brewing. These all shape the flavours that present themselves in that final cup.
Taste describes the five basic perceptions—the sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savoury notes we experience. These notes, experienced when we eat and drink, come from our mouth and nose. When we describe the coffee we’re tasting, we look to the distinctive flavours that come to mind. The tasting notes are the unique, natural flavour elements that coffee beans have. Roasted Arabica has thousands of unique, extractable chemical compounds that produce many different flavours. When we taste strawberry notes in coffee, we’re tasting the same – or very similar – compounds to those found in actual strawberries.
“We have tasting notes to help highlight the specific characteristics of the country of origin, the process, and the coffee itself. These flavour notes usually relate to sweetness, acidity, and bitterness, and what we’re reminded of and associate with the cup, when we taste the coffee—this might be the acidity of a Granny Smith apple, or the sweetness of milk chocolate,”
Amadeusz Wanat, our Head Roaster.
It’s not just about identifying what flavours you enjoy, but learning more about your coffee preferences, too. If you’re drawn to floral notes like jasmine, then you might find yourself a fan of coffee from Ethiopia, while if you enjoy notes like wild strawberry, then exploring natural process coffees might just tick your personal tastebud preferences.
WHAT IS THE SCA FLAVOUR WHEEL?
Our tasting notes are based on the Coffee Tasters Flavour Wheel—a sensory aid designed by the Speciality Coffee Association (SCA) as a tool for the coffee drinker, helping them analyse, describe, and reference coffee, and further their sensory journey. We pick the three notes that best help describe the coffee—these tasting notes provide a first impression for you—an elevator pitch of what to expect from that coffee. If the coffee is fruit dominant, we’ll select two fruit-based descriptors that best fit. For example: blackcurrant, lime, caramel. Generally, we tend to profile more fruit in the tasting notes, and end with the sweet-based flavour notes.
LEARNING TO TASTE COFFEE
If you’re a keen and curious coffee drinker, you may have spotted some unusual tasting notes out there. From Hubba Bubba bubble gum to Parma Violet sweets, it’s amazing what you might find—and discover for yourself. Taste is subjective and a personal experience, and everyone’s palate varies: we love gathering around the cupping table, just to see what a coffee might reveal to every taster. While it takes time and practice to become skilled at tasting and identifying specific flavours, it’s an entirely enjoyable practice—and easy to do from the comfort of home. Our Director of Coffee, Freda Yuan, has written an expert guide to coffee tasting, perfect for having on hand next time you get ready to brew.
HOME COFFEE TASTING (CUPPING)
Ready to put your tasting notes to the test? Grab a pen and paper, and the following bits of brewing equipment, and get ready to try out your own home coffee cupping. You can cup as many, or as few coffees as you like.
- Cupping bows (with a capacity of 200ml)
- Cupping spoons (at least two)
- Rinse cups and hot water (to rinse your spoon between use)
- A copy of the SCA flavour wheel, to use a guide to flavour
- A selection of coffee
- Timer (your phone is fine)
- A couple of spare vessels, to place your used ground and used spoons.
- Grind 2g of your first coffee. This is to prime the grinder and ensure no contamination with old coffee. Discard these grinds in a spare vessel, then grind a further 11g, using a coarse setting, so that your ground coffee resembles sea salt.
- Set up two cupping bowls per coffee. This is to help spot defects. Place the ground coffee in each cupping bowl and assess the fragrance of each coffee.
- Fill your kettle and heat the water to 93-94c. Start your timer, and pour 200ml of water into each cupping bowl. When poured, assess the aroma of the coffees now they’re wet.
- Time for ‘the break’. At 4 minutes, begin breaking the ‘crust’ in each cupping bowl. To do this, use a cupping spoon to push the coffee grounds to the back of the bowl while smelling the coffee to assess the aroma. Make sure to rinse your spoon between each different coffee, or use a fresh spoon.
- Using two spoons, remove the coffee grounds and foam from each cup, discarding in the same vessel as your initial waste grinds were placed. This is called ‘the skim’.
- Allow the coffee to cool for 10 to 15 minutes. You can then begin tasting the coffees. Scoop a spoonful of coffee, and slurp, allowing the liquid to spread along your tongue; this will help you to taste the full range of flavours. Use the Flavour Wheel to help you match the flavour that comes to mind as you taste each cupping.
- As the coffee cools, you’ll find you can taste different – and often larger – ranges in flavour. Make sure to rinse your spoon between each different coffee, to prevent cross contamination. Not wanting a heavy caffeine hit? If you’re cupping late in the day, you might wish to spit out each coffee, after tasting, into a spare, empty cup.
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