Speciality Coffee Associations coffee flavour wheel. A rainbow coloured lexicon of coffee tasting note discriptors. Image of coffee flavour wheel hanging on white brick wall.

What’s the deal with tasting notes?

As I sit down to enjoy my coffee, the barista places it in front of me and proudly declares, "You'll taste hints of rhubarb, vanilla, and passionfruit curd." I pause for a moment, wondering if coffee can have such complex flavours. However, as I take a sip, I'm surprised by the subtle sweetness and floral notes, and for a moment, I think about rockmelons.


Although I enjoy the taste, I can't help but wonder if I'm missing something. Should I be able to taste the passionfruit curd? Is my palate not sophisticated enough if I can't? As a coffee roaster, I've been writing tasting notes for years, and I still find it fascinating. I've often spent time debating whether a coffee tastes more like white or yellow nectarine and have been known to say things like, "It tastes like grape, but not grape - more like artificial grape, like purple gummy bears or something."


It's certainly an interesting exercise to try and find ways to describe a drink that is already unique on its own. So, how did coffee notes come about, and is the roaster always correct?

The Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) created the coffee flavour wheel in 1995. It has become a well-known tool in the coffee industry for determining the taste and flavours found in coffee. The wheel is a rainbow-coloured circle-like diagram that represents the most extensive and collaborative research on coffee flavour ever completed. The SCA updated it in 2016, and it is now used worldwide to describe the experience of linking taste and smell without determining the quality or value of coffee. The wheel identifies 110 flavour, aroma, and texture characteristics present in coffee and provides references for measuring their intensity. Peter Giuliano, the Chief Research Officer of the Specialty Coffee Association and Executive Director of the affiliated Coffee Science Foundation explained in his conversation with the ‘Perfect Daily Grind’ (https://perfectdailygrind.com/) that this tool has changed the way the industry thinks about and describes coffee flavour. It is based on 25 years of scientific research and was designed specifically for coffee roasters and industry professionals alike.


This is why coffee enthusiasts love to talk about tasting notes; it's our tool, our language. Although it might sound a little crazy at times, and often roasters do take some creative flare with their descriptions, the history behind it is quite remarkable. It's scientific and purposeful.


When we purchase coffee, we seek an experience that is influenced by several factors, including the coffee's varietals, origin, environment, and processing. All of these elements contribute to the coffee's flavour and aroma.


Your roaster may have tasted sweet tropical fruit notes with floral and acidic undertones, followed by a creamy mouthfeel. This might have led them to describe your coffee as having the flavours of passionfruit curd. However, you may have a different opinion on the taste, and that is perfectly fine. When it comes to coffee, many descriptors can be used to describe its unique taste and flavour. It's important to sift through these descriptors and find the ones that best match your preferences, even if they are a little exaggerated. Tasting notes can help you analyse your coffee and identify your preferred flavours, making it easier for you to find similar coffees in the future.


Although tasting notes are often used as a sales pitch and point of difference between coffees from the same farm or region, they are mostly just a bit of fun. So, the next time you enjoy your coffee, try to identify the different notes and flavours that you can taste and ask yourself, "What notes can I taste?"


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