How to Understand Coffee Flavors

Do you know what coffee flavors are in your cup? While utilizing adjectives to describe coffee can be fun to attract new customers or make your product stand out, having a true understanding of what you’re trying to describe in your offerings can help you serve your customers by providing a clear picture of what to expect in their cup. Coffee Trader Mike Ward and our Trader’s Assistant Signe Owen are here to help you learn to describe what you’re finding in the cup through conducting different sensory taste tests, just like a recent one here at the Royal New York office!

Sensory cups prepared for a sensory taste test at Royal New York

Why Understanding Coffee Flavors Is Important

Cupping and identifying notes of coffee flavors can be a nuanced and subjective process, no matter how objective you try to be. In fact, the flavors you discern in your cup can be impacted by different factors. If it’s your first taste of coffee that day, what you’ve eaten prior, and even the variety of foods you’ve been exposed to in your life can affect your palate memory!

Similarly, our traders at RNY occasionally need to refresh their palate memories to ensure that they always have a thorough understanding of our offerings. Because cupping is extremely important in our day-to-day process, we decided to put our traders’ senses to the test. Conducting a sensory taste test is an effective way to calibrate taste and allows traders to compare and experience flavors that they encounter every day in coffee.

However, sensory tests aren’t just for traders; they can help you, too! Developing your palate can greatly improve your buying process, roasting, and descriptive marketing skills. Once you’ve mastered the craft of understanding the way any coffee hits your palate and can properly relate that to different foods, you’ll be able to confidently build blends and provide descriptors to your wholesale clients, online customers, and especially by-the-cup drinkers who ask “What’s on drip?” any given day.

The Foundations of Developing Your Palate

The best place to start is with the basics, so let’s begin at the grocery store. You can use the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon to guide you through the correct aisles. The Sensory Lexicon provides precise items for reference when considering certain foods. These items will allow you to create baselines for future reference while cupping. By taking the time to understand the baseline flavors for staple coffee descriptors, you’ll be able to paint a unique picture of your offerings for your customers.

Likewise, this skill will be invaluable when purchasing coffee. For instance, let’s say you’re a buyer looking to fill a gap in your blend. Though you have your base Brazilian coffee nailed down along with your sugary Guatemalan, you’re in need of something to add more complexity to the cup. Utilizing your newly refined skillset, you can explain to your trader that you need a citrus component to introduce some brightness to your blend. Since you’re more familiar, you know that you don’t want something as bright as a lemon; you want something with more structure to its acidity, like an orange! This significantly narrows the list of offerings, giving you a better-fitting list of options.

In addition to the Sensory Lexicon, there are new tools available from FlavorActiV. These kits include everything from the Lexicon, as well as some common coffee defects like ferment, mold, and phenol. Each kit comes with a certain number of capsules that can be added to a base solution. After you’ve introduced the capsule to your solution, you can proceed with cupping as usual. While FlavorActiV is an easier method for familiarizing yourself with the Lexicon, it does come with a premium. Choose whatever method best fits your education budget and go on from there!

Our Test at RNY

Paper with sensory test answers and pen

As another point of reference, we’re going to break down just how we put our traders’ senses to the test. We first collected 16 fruits that are commonly used as cupping notes for traders to taste. To make sure the test was as objective as possible, traders wore blindfolds so they couldn’t rely on sight to influence their experience.

The following ingredients were tested in the listed order: strawberry, blueberry, blackberry, green apple, red apple, pear, apricot, peach, plum, tart cherry, sweet cherry, orange, lemon, lime, grapefruit and lemongrass. Each ingredient was cut into bite-size pieces, assigned a number 1-16 and put in a small cup. Like a cupping, the foods were grouped by category and arranged from least to most pungent. After blindly eating each item, every trader would write down what number they believed it was.

When everyone completed the exercise, blindfolds were removed, and notes and answers were compared. This was a fun activity that allowed traders to be together and simultaneously test their palates for accuracy!

Conducting Your Coffee Flavors Test

Now that you have your foundational descriptors to reference, you can move on to cupping coffees with your team. A fun and educational approach to mastering your craft is through supporting fellow roasters by purchasing a couple of bags. We recommend buying a few bags from different roasters, all from the same origin and processed using the same method (washed, honey, natural, etc.). Once you have the bags, you can set up a blind cupping. Assign a number to each bag and put that number on the bottom of each respective cup. Mix up the cups, pour the water, and you’ll be ready to go!

To make this as accessible as possible, start with 3-4 bags before moving on to a new origin. During your cupping, write down the description for each coffee that is listed on either the bag or the roaster’s website. From there, it becomes a game of multiple choice. Is cup number four from bag one? Is cup number one from bag two? After noting your answers, lift the cups and see how many you were able to match.

Royal New York specialty coffee cupping

Throughout this process, you’ll begin recognizing trends with specific notes. For example, a light roasted coffee likely has floral or citrus notes, while a dark roasted coffee probably has notes of molasses or brown sugar. Every cupper’s palate is unique, but your understanding of coffee flavors will deepen as you become even more familiar with cupping coffees and identifying them solely on their notes. This understanding will also extend to recognizing baseline notes offered by different origins which will come in handy when placing orders with your trader.

Using Your Newly Refined Palate

Discuss your cuppings with your trader! If you’ve recently ordered samples and brewed them in your space, reach out to your trader to describe your findings and whether your believe a coffee is a good match. Traders sample coffees throughout the day, so these conversations are not only normal, but welcomed. These discussions help traders understand your preferences as a buyer and assist in recommending the right coffee for your needs.

This approach will also be useful if you choose to pursue the Q Grader exam. Understanding acidity levels and what makes them palatable versus unpleasant will give you a solid foundation for grading. During the exam, you’d recall that an under-ripe lemon is excessively sharp and unbalanced, resulting in brightness without pleasantness. With that in mind, you would assign it a lower score compared to a ripe lemon or lime; both would have more developed sugars, which would lead to a more balanced acidity.

Comprehending your palate and the impact of specific flavors will become a valuable tool for you and your purchasing team. By developing a training game or another fun way to educate yourself and others, you’ll be creating a roadmap to better serve your vision for your menu and effectively describe the coffees to your customers.

As always, don’t hesitate to ask your trader for their thoughts on any listed offerings or observations from cuppings! We’re always here to offer support at any point during your process.

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