Coffee is a profoundly complex, nuanced beverage. Over 1,000 compounds have been identified that contribute to flavor and aroma in coffee. That’s far more than whiskey or wine, the standard examples for multifaceted flavor dimension. Key variables such as cultivar, environment and climate conditions, plant husbandry, harvest practices, post-harvest processing methods, and roast development all play a role in determining what kinds of tastes develop in coffee. The incredible spectrum of potential flavor is part of what drives our personal journey of discovery and gives coffee its place among the most celebrated culinary delights we consume.
Isolating the key flavor attributes that make each coffee distinct is one of our favorite activities. In a quest to better understand and describe those distinctions we evaluate every lot rigorously, studying it closely to identify the individual traits that together define its core character. Every day in our QC lab coffees are cupped, brewed, scrutinized and deconstructed in an ongoing effort to know them and quantify them in ways that help us understand the essential flavor elements that make each coffee unique and memorable.
You can use this as a guide to identify coffees that match your preferences and experiment with different flavor combinations. The categories and descriptors below can serve as landmarks to help decipher coffee’s complex intrinsic flavor and steer you towards coffees that deliver the taste experience you are seeking.
Organic acids are what give coffee its sparkle and soul, and the nearly endless permutations of these acids —the same ones found in fruits, like citric, malic, and tartaric acid — are responsible for the fruit-like tastes that can be found in the best quality coffees. Citrus flavors are often associated with brightness in a coffee, and can manifest in different ways. Some coffees have distinct lemon or lime-like acidity and tartness, while others have a citric quality more suggestive of mandarin or grapefruit. Apple flavors can range from the sweetly malic (like ripe red apple or cider) to the dry tartness of a Granny Smith. Delicate Melon notes — honeydew, cantaloupe, or watermelon — are more elusive but gorgeous when they appear. Juicy Stone Fruit tastes (think apricots, plums, cherries and peaches) are some of our favorites, and when we find them in coffee we get especially excited. Same goes for Tropical flavor notes like lychee, starfruit, and guava. When there is distinct tartaric acid in coffee it reminds us of grape or berry. Dried Fruit tastes like black currant, raisin and dried fig also appear from time to time in delightful and surprising ways.
Sugary & Confectionary
The sweetness of a coffee is essential to its overall quality — the best coffees have persistent sweetness that balances the acidity and lingers in the finish, complementing and elevating all of the other taste attributes. Sometimes the sweetness in coffee is similar to the kind we associate with clean light sugars or sucrose. In other instances it comes across in ways that suggest honey or maple. When there is more caramelization we interpret the sweetness as being more like that of dark sugars, molasses, caramel or raw sugar cane. Other dessert-like flavors we make reference to in coffee bring up descriptors like buttery milk chocolate, and almond. Darker roasts sometimes evoke the clean, satisfying bitterness of dark chocolate or raw cacao.
Some of the most intoxicating and aromatic tastes that appear in coffee are those that live in the floral realm. These Floral notes —such as jasmine, rose, carnation or citrus blossom — are cause for celebration and bring with them special delight. They are usually less overt than some of the other flavor attributes in coffee, and appear most frequently in heirloom varieties and coffees grown at especially high elevations.