Grab a bag of specialty coffee from the shelf in your favourite coffee shop and you will see on it: sweet strawberry, raspberry, tropical fruits, chocolate. Somebody new to specialty coffee might think: what is this? Are you sure it is coffee beans? Or maybe it is artificially flavoured coffee?
Coffee is one of the most complex food products known with more than 800 aromatic compounds, and it undergoes multiple production stages before we get that magic brown beans. Let's have a closer look.
A coffee bean contains various acids like malic, citric, tartaric, acetic, etc. In combination with other substances (sugars, essential oils), certain combinations of these acids create tastes and aroma in our perception of association with specific products. For example, raspberries contain the same acids as an apple - malic, tartaric, citric, but in a different ratio, so in one coffee, we will feel the acidity of raspberries, and in the other - apples. Likewise, it works with citrus fruits, nuts, spices, and other yummy (and not so) things you can feel in your coffee.
However, the descriptors like "raspberry" or ''chocolate'' are not a direct indication of raspberry or apple flavor. The tasting notes indicate that you can feel something similar to these products in this coffee due to its chemical composition. Your taste experience, your current mood and how well you prepared the drink might also affect your ability to catch those desired descriptors.
That seems straightforward, but where do these descriptors come from and why do different coffees test different?
The processing method plays an essential role in the final coffee taste profile. Washed coffee usually has bright, complex acidity and a lighter body, and naturally processed beans contain a lot of sweet and fruity notes. Let's look at washed processed Ethiopia Chelchele and natural Ethiopia Hambela. Though these coffees are grown in the same environment, with almost the same soil and altitudes, the tasting notes are different due to different processing methods. Ethiopia Chelchele is delicate coffee with sweet lime, peach, Oolong tea, and coffee flower notes. Hambela is sweet with notes of red berries, black tea & bergamot.
Some experimental fermentations can create notes of alcoholic liqueurs, spices and umami in a coffee cup.
Terroir (noun: the complete natural environment in which a particular coffee is grown, including factors such as the soil, topography and climate).
Climate, altitude, soil type and composition, the difference between day and night temperatures, the number of sunny days form the coffee's chemical composition, and finally, the taste and aroma. For example, coffee grown in an environment with a big difference between day and night temperatures will have complex acidity and higher sugar content as it matures more slowly.
Let's forget about coffee for a moment and speak about apples. What kind of apples came to your mind first: sweet Golden Delicious, bright and aromatic Pink Lady, or crispy and sour Granny Smith? Isn't it interesting how the tree variety affects the taste of these delicious fruits?
In analogy with fruits, coffee tree variety also impacts the taste. Some coffee enthusiasts love the Geisha variety for floral, fruity notes and delicate body, and others prefer super sweet, balanced Bourbon.
Roasting is the final and also most exciting stage of coffee production. It has a massive impact on the taste: the light roasted coffee is fruity and floral, while the darker roast is less acidic, with notes of caramel, chocolate and nuts predominantly.
How you describe the next cup of coffee will depend primarily on your taste experience and flavor vocabulary. The more different fruits, berries, spices and nuts you constantly taste and remember, the more you will discern and feel in the cup.
Using Coffee Flavor Wheel while enjoying your delicious brew might also be very helpful. This tool is based on the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon and helps coffee professionals and home baristas describe coffee flavors using a common vocabulary.