What is Coffee Flavour?
November 10, 2021

How do you define the flavour of coffee? We all might have a preconceived notion of what that answer is. You might think of your favourite FiXX, prepared just how you like it. You might think of "coffee flavouring" in cake terms or even ice cream. Or you might answer that question with another question like, what type of coffee? 

 

We all know that coffee is a somewhat all-encompassing term for a variety of flavours. But in reality, how the hell do you actually define the flavour of it? Or anything else, for that matter. Take apples, for example. We might all have an idea in our heads of what "apple" flavour is while at the same time knowing that a Granny Smith taste wildly different to a Golden Delicious or a Jazz apple. And if you don't know what a Jazz apple tastes like? Well, then you need to stop reading and go source yourself one. But I'm not here to promote how awesomely sweet, crisp, and crunchy the Jazz apple is (seriously, people, they're fantastic!). I'm here to talk to you about the flavour of coffee. How it's described. How to taste it, and the tools people use to define it. Read on to find out more. 

 

 

Taste Vs Flavour

 

 

First things first, taste and flavour are two different things. Let's get that out of the way now. Taste is one of the five senses and is what your tongue experiences and transmits to the brain. As a substance enters your mouth, it begins to interact with bumps on your tongue called papillae. These bumps are home to your tastebuds. As the molecules dissolve in saliva, the pores on your taste buds absorb, identify and categorise them. And this is broken down into five different sections. Sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. And if you're not familiar with it, umami is the savoury taste. Think of your mushrooms, meats, cheeses. Our brains are all hardwired to recognise these through evolutions way of preventing us from poisoning ourselves (or, if you prefer, because God is really good at designing people).

One of the first things many of us taste is milk, which is naturally sweet. From that point on, our brains recognise sweetness as a safe taste. It's one of the reasons kids love sweet things so much and why sugary treats tend to act as comfort foods throughout our lives. Then consider bitterness. Our brains have evolved to recognise this because most toxins are naturally bitter by taste. This explains why no child ever has said, "Brussel sprouts? Yummy!". Over time we learn that bitterness doesn't always equate to poisonous by observing our peers and parents' eating habits. For many, though, the jury is still out on Brussel sprouts. 

Our nose is also hard wired to recognise odours that should be avoided. Knowing when meat smells off isn't something we've ever needed to be thought. It's instinctive. However, like bitterness, there are exceptions to the rule. For some people, anyway. Think of parmesan or blue cheese. They're hardly going to appeal on a blind smell test, but combined with other senses, things change. And this is where the idea of flavour arrives. 

Flavour is a multiple sensory experience. How something smells, tastes, feels, even how it looks adds to our perception. Our brain combines as many senses as it can to build a comprehensive picture of the flavour of something. This is why when you eat your favourite meal while you have a blocked nose, it's not the same. The taste hasn't changed, obviously, but because your sense of smell has, your brain can't create the same flavour picture as it usually would. Because of how these senses entwine, we can go into a bakery, smell freshly baked bread, see a loaf, hold it, feel its warmth and comprehend how it will taste.  

 

So, taste is one of the five senses, and flavour is our understanding of more than one of these senses working together. Drinking coffee entwines aroma and taste. This much is a given. How it looks and even how it feels in our mouth add to the enjoyment too. But how do you describe this flavour, and why is it important? Well, it was these questions that led to our first subject. 

 

 

Cupping

 

 

Coffee cupping, or cup-testing as it was called originally, is an industry standard for evaluating coffee. It is full of ritual and etiquette but is relatively new in terms of coffee history. Before its adoption as an evaluation practice in the early 20th century, green coffee beans were generally traded based on colour and size. Of the two dominant coffee plants that we consume (Robusta and Arabica), Robusta has the larger of the two beans. It is also naturally stronger in caffeine content but has a lower flavour profile (you can read more about the coffee plant here). A green broker named Clarence E. Bickford of San Francisco recognised the smaller beans as having a better flavour and began developing cup-testing to prove this. As the practice caught on, it was advanced and developed by countless other coffee professionals. In 1932, an article was published in the Tea & Coffee Trade Journal by B.D. Balart titled "Removing the Guess Work from Coffee Cupping". This appears to be the first document to articulate and propose a formal procedure. And it was an important step. When it comes to tasting, coffee is a moving target. With the same coffee bean, grind size, water temperature, and ratio can dramatically affect the flavour. To have an agreed practice to judge coffee was essential when assigning value. 

 

The process itself is straightforward, albeit ridged in protocol in a professional sense. But you can replicate it at home. There are thousands of videos online showing how to do this. You don't need any fancy equipment. In fact, that was one of the cornerstones of its establishment. It needed to be easily replicated anywhere in the world. You can get as thorough as you want, but essentially, all you need is two or more coffees measured and brewed identically to compare side by side. Once you have this, it's easy to pick a preference. If you have a favourite, expand on why. There is no need to be over specific here. Don't go searching for notes of bergamot or hazelnut straight away. Write down what you like about each one or what you don't. Is one sweeter than the other? Is one more bitter or acidic? Your language doesn't need to be exuberant because it certainly wasn't at the beginning of cup tasting. There were seventeen accepted descriptors back then, ranging from the basic (smooth, rich, acidy) to the sometimes hilarious (rank). And though rank is no longer considered an official term, I think we all have a good idea of what constitutes rank coffee. But the need for an improved and common language soon became evident. Finding one was easier said than done.    

 

 

Le Nez du Cafe

 

The 1990s was an exciting time for coffee. Its position in the social hub (in America anyway) had been cemented thanks to Starbucks. Say what you will about their coffee, but their place on the ladder of coffee history is undeniable. The cafe or coffeehouse was the new hangout spot. Friends and Seinfeld ruled the airwaves, and both shows depicted time well spent drinking coffee with mates in a local cafe. People had begun to care about their coffee. This new appreciation consequently led to a thirst for knowledge. About origin, roast type, processing. But still, the language felt restrained. Two things revolutionised this in the mid-1990s; The Coffee Taster's Flavour Wheel (which we'll come to shortly) and Le Nez du Cafe. 

 

Le Nez du Cafe was a brainchild of Jean Lenoir, a self-proclaimed "son of the vine", who was born in the wine-rich region of Burgundy. His passion for every aspect of French wine shaped his life and drove him to share his enthusiasm. He immersed himself in Oenology (the science of wine and winemaking) and befriended the most famous Sommeliers in France. In 1981 he released Le Nez du Vin, a collection of 54 aromas condensed into liquid form, accompanied by a beautifully illustrated reference book. It was designed to be used as a tool for training a tasters nose to the different but dominant aromas present in wine. And the reception it received was one of instant admiration from both specialist and amateur lovers of wine. Fast-forward to 1996, when Jean Lenoir lands in Colombia for a French cuisine festival organised by the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia (FNCC). This would be an eye-opening experience. The world of coffee and the skill of its growers brought a new but also familiar admiration to Jean. And it didn't take long for the realisation to come. The world of coffee needed a similar tool. And so he set to work. Alongside biochemical engineer David Guermonprez and taster Eric Verdier, they pin-pointed 36 aromatic coffee notes. And in October of 1997, Le Nez du Cafe was launched in Colombia to mark the 70th anniversary of the NFCC. 

 

The coffee industry finally had an invaluable tool for training your olfactory memory. Or, to put it less fancy, your sense of smell. It would help all those who encounter the feeling of knowing a scent but couldn't quite put their finger on it. It would standardise certain smells that meant different things in different places (chocolate being the perfect example). From that point on, when people said they got notes of chocolate, it was the aroma from Le Nez du Cafe they were referring to. The recognition of aromas enriched the tasting vocabulary and gave people the ability to clearly share their impressions with others. This, in turn, informed us about variety, geographical origin profiles, what effect different processes and roast types had on coffee. Le Nez du Cafe was the right tool at the right time for coffee. It is still used today by SCA (Specialty Coffee Association) for sensory skills training. But the SCA also had their own tool they developed around the same time. And the chances are, you've seen it before.

 

 

Coffee Flavour Wheel & Lexicon

 

 

Coffee is one of the most chemically complex things we consume. On the last count, there were over 850 aromatic flavour compounds detected in coffee. To give you some perspective, wine has approximately 200. How the aromas, tastes and mouthfeel can change from one coffee to another can be mind-bending. So finding a common language to describe these flavours was an industry objective for quite some time. In 1995, the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA, then the Specialty Coffee Association of America, SCAA) produced the first Coffee Tasters Flavour Wheel. It is a colourfully illustrated graph with different descriptive words to be used as a tool for coffee tasters. Like Le Nez du Cafe, it was an aid for developing a vocabulary that was straightforward to use and understand. The idea of using a wheel graph to do this, however, was not a new one. The first flavour wheel was developed for beer in the late 1970s, with another arriving for wine in the mid-'80s. And though other wheels were and continue to be developed, the SCA's version was somewhat universally accepted by the coffee world. The idea is pretty simple. While you sip your coffee, look at the centre of the wheel. As you consume, you try to think about the flavour more broadly. Is it spicey, floral, fruity? If it is fruity, what kind of fruit? Berry-like? Citrus-like? As you find more answers to fit your musings, you'll be naturally drawn from the centre towards specific flavours. Even if you're not confident with your diagnosis, you'll be in the right ballpark. 

 

As popular as the original was, it was not without its critics. The idea for these tools was for them to be a descriptive aid, not a prescriptive one. It wasn't about describing the quality of the coffee. It was about developing language. In 2009, the decision was made to reinvent the wheel. But to do this, what was needed, was a lexicon. An agreed reference point, like a dictionary. One that people could turn to time and time again. Like Le Nez du Cafe did for aroma. When we say notes of chocolate, this is what we mean. 

For this, the SCA turned to World Coffee Research (WCR). Over the next twelve months, WCR orchestrated a massive collaboration between professional sensory scientists, roasters, green bean buyers and the SCA. Both the Sensory Analysis Center at Kansas State University and Texas A&M University were involved. In the end, over 105 coffees were sampled from 13 different countries. It took the panellists over 100 hours of evaluation to settle on and agree upon 110 attributes. These attributes made up the first World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon. 

 

Now that the SCA had its lexicon, they set to work on their new design. With the help of the Food Science and Technology Department at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), they arranged the data of the lexicon into flavour clusters. The result was a visually pleasing kaleidoscopic picture of coffee flavour. With the help of many many others, the SCA had turned this once complex tool into an iconic symbol. 

A visual representation of the richness and depth of coffee flavour. 

 

 

So, that's that then? 

Well, no. Criticism still exists towards the flavour wheel and the lexicon. Through no fault of their own, the flavours and references are all American-centric. And, of course, they would be. It was developed in the U.S., after all.

An example of this is in the lexicon and its reference towards blackberries. They associate this flavour with a specific blackberry jam, widespread in America but nowhere else. We in the west might think, well, that's ok, I still know what a blackberry tastes like. Well, blackberries don't grow in most coffee-producing countries. Asking a Kenyan coffee farmer if they are getting notes of blackberry might be like asking an Irish farmer if their potatoes have notes of Jackfruit. That's not to say there wouldn't be an equivalent that the Kenyan farmer would understand. Of course, there would. It's finding that translation that is the next step on this journey. 

 

Coffee is universally loved and consumed, unlike much else. Finding a global, common language based on a sensory experience is wildly complicated. And despite the criticism, the SCA and all others involved in the flavour wheel and lexicon deserve massive applause for rising to this challenge. 

 

As with everything we consume, the flavour we experience is down the molecular compounds and how our brain perceives them through the senses. These are set by many different factors, including origin, variety, processing, roast level and how the coffee is brewed. How our brain then uses language to describe this flavour is also influenced, quite literally, by our very own origins. Language is not static. It is a living, breeding thing. And so, too, should be the flavour lexicon and wheel. What comes next in this incredible journey remains to be seen. But I, for one, cannot wait to see the results. 

 

So there you have it—a complex answer to a difficult question. Like trying to explain the length of a piece of string in a language, the whole world will understand. So how do you define the flavour of coffee? It seems the obvious answer to that question is, with incredible difficulty. All I can say with certainty is, this FiXX I'm drinking right now is delicious. And so too are Jazz apples.

 

Thanks for reading.

Kevin  

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