I’ve had quite a few folks thank me for the relatively detailed tasting notes I provide on the website for the coffees I purchase and roast. It’s always nice to get such feedback. But the bottom line is that I don’t know what most of you think about the notes themselves. One worry is that people buy a coffee based on the notes, and then are bummed (or annoyed) when the coffee doesn’t actually taste like the description, and so don’t come back. I wonder how many customers I’ve lost out of such disappointment.
I think this is particularly tricky because the main flavor of coffee is . . . well, coffee. The flavors and aromas that I note are a means to sort and make sense of what are often relatively nuanced characteristics. Sometimes certain qualities jump out of the cup—the ferment or berry in a big, fresh Ethiopian natural—but others are harder to find, or identify. And to a certain degree, their identification is the product of expertise, or interest. As with most things, the more experience you have with or in something, the better you become in figuring out what it is you are tasting, or hearing, or watching. For instance: if you’re a baseball fan, like me, you know that Manny Ramirez’s swing is (or was) perfect. But if you don’t know (or care) all that much about baseball, his swing might as well be that of Dustin Pedroia. Or consider Mixed Martial Arts. Where you see a person’s mastery of a Jiu Jitsu “Kimura lock from the guard position”–I just Googled that–I see two guys rolliing on the ground, humping and bear hugging.
There are tools that coffee cuppers use to develop their own palates in order to make better sense of what they taste and smell. Here’s one of them: the coffee cupper’s flavor wheel.
coffee tasting flavor wheel
It acts as a guide for categorizing what it is we encounter when we sip and sniff. It might seem kind of over-the-top and geeky (I mean, garden pea and cucumber? seriously?), but if you were getting your checkbook out and deciding whether to spend five or ten grand on Coffee Lot X, you’d get geeky in a hurry.
And take note: even though it’s a “flavor” wheel, it’s smell that’s where the action really is. Why? Because our nose and throat, smell and taste, are physiologically connected, and because coffee is extremely complex on an aromatic level. Aside from breaking your caffeine fast, one of the reasons that first sip of coffee in the morning is the best (assuming it’s not too hot) is that 1. your palate is probably relatively clean (yah, morning mouth—I know. Still . . .) and 2. your mug is full, so when you take that first sip, you are aerating the coffee over the lip of the mug, and so getting those aromatics to open up. You’re smelling it and tasting it, and at the same time.
I also have something called “Le Nez du Café.” It’s thirty six bottled scents that correspond in some way to the flavor wheel. Everything from lemon to cooked beef. The point is to create a kind of aroma memory bank in your brain, so that when you smell or taste something in a coffee, you can classify and identify it. Get a bag of Skittles or Jelly Bellies the next time you’re at the store, and conduct a blind taste test with a buddy. See how many flavors (or colors: “that was red!”) you can identify by taste/smell alone. It’s the same concept.)
A different potential issue with my notes is that they might actually work too well on occasion. That is, I tell you what you are going to smell and taste, and that’s what you smell and taste. This may not sound like a problem at all, but in such cases the notes become prescriptive, and eclipse surprise or discovery. It’s like reading the Cliffs notes for a Hemingway novel, and then finding yourself unable to notice anything except that clipped, sparse sentence structure.
The truth is that there is no one description for a coffee that is correct, and different people have different palates and olfactory systems that allow them to pick up all sorts of stuff. Consider the following descriptions, from some high-powered coffee cuppers, buyers and roasters for a particular coffee in the Best of Panama 2010 auction:
89.00 Some floral.
||Soft, round cup. Slightly brothy. Nice tea-like tannins. Dry. Winey.
||Dark chocolate with hazelnut essence.
||Nut, blackberry, sugar cane, vanilla, cocoa, cherry.
||Fragrance nice cocoa, flavour chocolate vanilla bean. Nice body. Low citric acidity.
||Sweet, silky, good balance.
||Slight toast. Bit dry finish. Sweet, heavy coffee.
Blackberry, cherry, floral, wine . . . no description is exactly alike, and the range of scores themselves show that there was not consensus on the overall quality of the coffee itself. Eighty nine is a really good score, but seventy nine would only put it on the threshold of what’s acceptable for specialty coffee. (I’d never purchase a coffee that I scored a 79 myself.)
On the other hand, if you compile all of the descriptions you can get a pretty good sense of the flavor profile, and there is some commonality there. It doesn’t seem to be particularly acidic or bright, and has flavors and aromatics that tend toward the “sugar browning” portion of the coffee flavor wheel: chocolate, nut, brown sugar. (Hey—this coffee sounds sort of like our Bolivia ASOCAFE.) And you can also see how different cuppers value different characteristics: one person’s pleasant “brothy tannins” are another’s “dry toast.”
So: I know that it’s helpful to have some kind of info on a purchase before you make it, especially when it’s expensive. I probably wouldn’t buy an album if the cover just said “Colombian music.” I’d want a little more info before I plunked down thirteen bucks. Why should it be any different for coffee.
But don’t let my descriptions boss you around.