Pinning down taste in a few words

Pinning down taste in a few words

By Rachel Beebe

Last week we changed the way we present the tasting notes on our coffees.

Previously we chose three flavour words for each new coffee, usually one or two describing the nature of the acidity, one sweetness word and one mouthfeel word. Typically they’d be something like, “plummy, hazelnut, creamy.” We’re not the only specialty roaster to use three-word tasting notes. I just googled three top UK speciality roasters that came to mind and all three do the same. 

The debate about tasting notes and flavour descriptors has raged for years here in the Steampunk roastery. Every time we launch a new coffee (usually monthly) we’ve debated at length which three words to use in its tasting note. 

“Oh, there’s definitely stone fruit in there. Peach, I think,” I offer, slurping loudly. 

Ludwika counters, “No, it’s more apricot than peach,” 

“Mmmm,” I concur, adding, “Actually I’m getting dried apricot, not fresh.” 

“You know, as it cools it’s more lychee,” Cath throws in. 

This sounds like a joke. It’s not.

But we’ve not just argued about which words to use, we’ve also argued about what kind of words to use. Ludwika favours nouns that reference clearly what flavour the coffee has: i.e. cherry, almond, honey. Rachel prefers adjectives that give a sense of what the coffee is like, for example: lush, vibrant, round. And with only three spots to fill, you can imagine the fervency with which we both argued for our style of word. There’s no shortage of strong opinions around Steampunk. 

Three is the magic number

I’d be interested to know why and when the three-word tasting note came into fashion. I remember living in Brooklyn (where all trendy things originate, obviously) in the early 2010s and beginning to find three word descriptions for dishes in the hip new restaurants opening up. And you might be familiar with the “rule of three”: a three-facet structure is rhetorically more powerful than two or four. Think Julius Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici.” Or the American Declaration of Independence, “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Then there’s the prevalence of three in folklore and children’s stories: three little pigs, three billy goats Gruff, three fairy godmothers.

Regardless of its long history and its widespread use, we came to the conclusion that the three-word tasting note is altogether too reductive and restrictive. We love great coffee because when it hits your palate you can’t help but stop everything and let the flavours wash over you, unfold and linger. What we’re aiming to do is communicate an experience that is multifaceted and immersive. Three words just doesn’t cut it.

Our friend, and coffee lover, Michael James Lewis has even drawn a tongue in cheek version of the flavour wheel which playfully references all the ways that coffee makes us feel which we have recreated in prints, totes and t shirts. (Featured in the main image for this blog post.)

A holistic approach to tasting coffee

In her fantastic book, Sip ‘n’ Slurp, Taster’s Cup champion Freda Yuan discusses the importance of mindfulness when tasting coffee. If you really want to experience the flavours in a coffee she recommends increasing your sensory awareness by working to be present in the moment and empty your mind of preconceptions. Only then is it possible to tune in to the whole landscape of your sensory perceptions. Aroma, taste and mouthfeel weave together to create an entirely unique flavour experience. 

Which brings us to a core problem with tasting: it is subjective. The specialty coffee industry has a system to ‘objectively’ assess the quality of coffee, but at the end of the day our taste experience depends on our ability to perceive aroma and flavour paired with the mental database we’ve built up over our lifetime of what things taste like. And smell, which is actually the sense we’re mostly relying on when we ‘taste’ coffee, is linked closely to memory and emotion. Think of the scent your partner wears and the effect it has on you, even if you smell it when your partner isn’t around. Or a smell you associate with a childhood memory. Smell is evocative. But the same smell will evoke different things for different people. 

Communicating taste

Once we, as roasters, are clear on what we’re tasting, we then rely on language to express and communicate it, and this highlights the next problem with tasting notes: the layers of meaning built into almost any word. Cath has written about this here before in her Blog post Complex vs Mellow: choose your coffee. She talks about the painful process of renaming our espresso options in the cafe. Originally they were called simply Espresso 1 and Espresso 2. But those arbitrary names didn’t communicate anything to the customer about what they were ordering. So, we entered the minefield of trying to find a name - a single word! - that describes an entire flavour profile without piling on too many other connotations.

In that blog post Cath references a great video, Flavour Notes Must be Stopped that runs down the many drawbacks of using specific flavour notes. Definitely worth a watch. It points out a few interesting flaws including the problem of customers expecting to taste what it says on the bag and maybe being disappointed or having those expectations cloud their ability to taste and enjoy what is actually there. 

Cultural context

We should also think about how where we live impacts our frame of reference for flavour. There’s an entirely different range of fruits, flowers and common foods in different countries around the world. When Ludwika was in Burundi last spring working in Migoti Hill Coffee Company’s cupping lab she picked out pieces of raisin, dried apricot, date and coconut from her granola to taste with the folks working there, who had never tasted them.

Apricot is a common flavour note we in the UK use for coffee from Burundi, but the team working in the cupping lab hadn’t ever tasted apricot! 

I would recommend this excellent video, Decolonising Coffee Through Flavour, that talks about the Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel, a tool developed by the Specialty Coffee Association and World Coffee Research. The Wheel is the industry standard for referencing flavour notes in coffee, but the items in the lexicon advantage folks in the US and Europe, where the wheel was developed. This is a problem for an industry whose product is grown and processed in Africa, Asia and South and Central America. 

Flavour and price impact

Interestingly, that system I mentioned before that coffee professionals use to assess quality in coffee is undergoing an overhaul right now. The Speciality Coffee Association is revising their standard cupping protocol to take a wider view on the attributes considered when assessing a coffee. The current cupping form asks the cupper to simply assess objectively the quality of the aroma, acidity, mouthfeel, etc. The new form will allow a cupper to consider descriptive sensory attributes (what does this taste like? i.e. flavour notes), affective attributes (do I like this coffee?) and extrinsic attributes (how was this coffee grown, is it sustainable and ethical?). This new form will have a huge impact on the industry when it’s released next year because the SCA score is a big part of how coffees are priced by importers. So flavour and how we describe it has a far wider implication than just in our enjoyment of a coffee, it impacts people's income.

More than just a label

Coffee labels will never have enough space to fully describe the flavour of any coffee we roast. If I had my way I’d publish a three or four page screed on each of our coffees and how it tastes. As it is, we’ve upped our word count from three to about 20, and this allows us to more fully communicate what to expect when you brew one of our coffees. We hope the new tasting notes help you understand why we love each one of our coffees and help you make more informed decisions about which coffees to choose.


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