Generally, when someone hears about a coffee flavor they think of the newest blended drink or flavored latte, but really it goes much deeper than that.
Quite simply, “Flavor Notes” are what gives a good cup of coffee its taste. And I don’t mean the hazelnut syrup, or whip cream. No, these are the flavors of the bean themselves, and when brewed they’re what makes a cup of black coffee bitter - or sweet, or something in between. They are often subtle and it doesn’t take much to drown out the minor notes, but the major notes will linger well after cream or sweetener is used.
But how do you extract that flavor? It actually starts well before you pour that cup of coffee and starts with the bean itself, and even further - into the region where the bean was grown. That means that beans grown in different regions will have different tastes even when brewed in the exact same way!
There are chemicals in the beans that are dormant until the roasting process, but once it begins the chemicals begin to break down into certain flavors. Before roasting there are actually close to a thousand compounds in coffee, but that number dwindles to roughly thirty after the bean has been roasted. These are the notes and aromas that we can detect. In fact, there is a coffee flavor wheel that can be used as a guide for our taste buds.
Much like wines, flavor notes are hints of flavor, often you may detect something, but the flavor isn’t strong enough to be totally distinct - until you think about what it is supposed to be. Fruitier beans tend to be lighter and sweeter on the tongue with it taking a second on the tongue to reveal it’s blueberry tang. Some roll to the back of your throat and leave an aftertaste reminiscent of a red wine, and others are more nuttier in their flavor or even have the slight tang of tobacco. However it takes an experienced palette to distinguish most of the notes, and if you’re just a casual coffee drinker you may laugh at coffee packaging when it lists, “caramel, nut and chocolate” as flavor notes, but it tastes nothing like the chocolate caramel syrup you use in your coffee. It doesn’t mean those flavors aren’t there, they’re just subtle enough to go unnoticed.
Often you can best taste the flavor when you drink coffee by itself. Without food, cream or sugar to distract or drown out the pure flavor.
However, most people don’t drink their coffee in a void. So many things factor into the taste of coffee, besides what you could add to the drink. Household smells, if you’ve just eaten, in fact even the temperature of the water used to brew or the elevation it’s brewed at can lead to subtle changes in flavor!
So next time you brew a cup of coffee, see if you can detect some of those flavor notes from different brewing methods or different roasts or even coffee grown in different regions! Not all coffee tastes the same, so go out and have fun trying new flavors and explore the world through your mug!
Written by MJ Blanchet