The Variety of Coffee Flavours and How to Understand Them

Coffee is one of the most complex beverages in terms of aroma and flavour – scientists are counting hundreds of flavour compounds found in roasted coffees, making it especially flavourful and intriguing to taste. For easier flavour navigation, SCA (Specialty Coffee Association) has created the Coffee Taster's Flavour Wheel – a descriptive diagram showing the variety of taste profiles coffee can have. It helps pinpoint the exact notes and guides the tasters when trying to understand their coffee. However you may wonder, how do those hundreds of flavours develop, what growing and natural conditions do they require, and what defines the notes and how we taste them brewed in a cup of coffee? Find the answers in this article below.

Does it matter where my coffee was grown?

Growing coffee requires specific natural conditions. Specific climate factors such as soil, altitude, wind, sun and rainfall affect the coffee plant’s health and ability to produce flavours. For Arabica coffee beans, the Coffee Research website suggests the following two growing conditions:

High altitudes between 1800-3600 feet with rainy and dry seasons are very well defined. Such conditions are most common in the subtropical regions, Mexico, Jamaica, the S. Paulo and Minas Gerais regions in Brazil, and Zimbabwe are examples.
The regions around the equator at altitudes of 3600-6300 feet with frequent rainfall, like Kenya, Colombia, and Ethiopia.

The optimum temperature for Arabica beans is between 15-24ÂșC all year round, however direct sunlight should be avoided. The soil should be rich, well-drained and porous, as well as nutrient-dense. However, how does that reflect the taste, and why are the same coffee arabica plants grown in different parts of the world taste different? 

At low altitudes there is more oxygen, however, the higher you go – the less oxygen you get, therefore coffee grown in higher altitudes, such as mountainous regions will have difficulty taking its energy from oxygen, and hence releasing lactic acid and complex sugars. It helps the plant grow and naturally adds richness and creaminess to the brew, as well as fruitiness and acidity in the taste, developing very complex notes. On the opposite – coffees grown in lower altitudes will have more sweetness and an earthiness to the taste. It’s more expensive to grow coffee in high altitudes, however, it’s also where the most interesting taste notes develop, as days are mildly warm, and nights get cooler – this dynamic thermal environment is helping the coffee cherries produce and lock down those flavour compounds.

5 elements that help you taste your coffee

The complexity of coffee as a beverage comes down not only to the growing conditions, region and variety of the plant but also to a few other important steps. These are processing, roasting and brewing, and all of that helps develop the end result – taste. When tasting, especially with little experience or dedication to understanding the notes behind it, it’s very important to know what to pay attention to. There are five different elements of the coffee taste – aroma, flavour, acidity, body, and aftertaste.

Aroma or the scent of coffee is what you smell after you brew a cup. It’s a key factor that helps you understand the taste, as it’s very closely linked to smell, allowing our brains to add both of these aspects and form a unified verdict. Aroma gives a good indication of where this flavour is heading – light and fresh, or heavy and nutty?
Flavour is the reason why most of us enjoy coffee so much – it’s the most obvious characteristic and helps us understand what our tongue feels – vanilla sweetness or berry sourness? Sometimes aroma and flavour of the same bean can be different, so it’s recommended to first smell and then taste the coffee. When tasting – do it with small sips, slightly opening the mouth to let some air in, as it will help you sense the notes.
Acidity is found in every coffee and means brightness and clarity of the taste, it’s the dry sensation that brings out the flavour profile of the coffee, without acidity, it would not be possible to taste much.
Body is the mouthfeel of the sip – how heavy or light it feels. When tasting, the body of coffee can be described as full, light, watery, silky, creamy, syrupy, etc. and it contributes to the whole tasting experience.
Aftertaste is an important characteristic. At the end of the sip, it’s the flavour that lingers after drinking the coffee, and it's affected by all characteristics mentioned before.

So next time before tasting your coffee, find out where it came from and how it was grown. Look at that region deeper and try to find out if it’s been grown high or low, this will give you a heads up on what to expect in the taste. Then focus on the 5 characteristics mentioned before and try to indicate each of them while tasting – takes notes as you go along and taste different coffees – the more experience you’ll get, the better you will understand your own preference.

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