All those beans. All those roasts. South America, Central America, Africa, and the Middle East. The world of specialty coffee can be overwhelming, and it’s hard to know how to find the flavors you will like the best. Of course, you could spend tons of money buying different beans but still be confused about flavor. You’re the only one who can decide what you like and don’t, but understanding what factors impact the taste profile of fresh beans will go a long way. In this post, we’ll explore how coffee taste is determined and give you a step-by-step method to find the right ones for you.
Coffee flavor can range from floral aromatics, sweet fruit, or earthy tones. Plenty of components work together to determine flavor. Variety, region, farming practices, processing, roasting, blending, and brewing methods all contribute to the taste in the cup. For a given coffee it’s hard to determine which of these elements have the most influence on flavor, but they all do have a role to play. The flavor of coffee is as much a science as it is an art, but we're fortunate most of the details are provided right on the label of the packaged beans. The brewing method of course is up to you, and some beans work better with one method over the others.
Coffee variety, farming practices, and processing
Let’s start here; coffee is a fruit. That’s right. The beans grow on a shrub and are the seeds of a cherry. Each cherry cocoons two beans until the cherry is bright red and ready for harvest. The variety of the plant is where flavor begins. These days there are many varieties within the Arabica species. Think of variety as you would the grapes used to make a particular wine. The variety of grapes used affects flavor. It’s the same with coffee, but consumers rarely know the chosen variety of coffee plants. Unlike wine, we aren't interested in cherries. We only care about their seeds. Along with the coffee variety, terroir has a huge impact. Columbian coffee has a different taste profile than coffee grown in Burundi. There are some generalizations we can make about the region, but that comes a bit later.
Are coffee farming practices important to flavor?
Coffee is farmed as a crop. As in any kind of farming, the practices of the farmer determine the quality of the crop. Coffee cherries have to be picked when they are bright red. But, cherries ripe at different times, so the way they are picked is important. Hand-picking ensures workers will select the cherries ready for harvest. On the other hand, commercial coffee is picked by machine meaning green and ripe cherries are harvested at the same time. Machine harvesting produces a lesser quality coffee.
The number of chemicals and pesticides used during the growing process can also impact flavor. These days, many coffee aficionados are opting for organic beans. No synthetic fertilizers or chemicals are used in the growing of organic coffee. Only organic fertilizers, such as pulp or compost are used to fertilize the plants. If you want to make sure the beans you buy are organic, check out Chamberlain Coffee where all the products are organic.
How coffee processing impacts flavor
Remember, coffee beans are the seeds of a cherry? Well, the cherry has to be removed to get at the beans. There are several ways this is done, and the process dramatically impacts flavor. The processing methods include natural drying, wet processing, and semi-wet processing.
The remove the pulp using the natural drying method, the whole cherries are laid out on the ground or raised beds and left to dry in the sun. Coffee processed using this method are sweeter and full-bodied, and the overall flavor is considered more complex than wet processing. Drying naturally can lead to over-fermenting making it a poorer quality coffee but the processing provides more jobs for local workers.
Using wet processing, the cherries are first depulped to remove the majority of the pulp. They are then soaked in water to ferment allowing microbes to break down the remaining pulp. the quality of the water used is critical, and the resulting flavor is bright and fruity. Most coffee is produced using the wet processing method.
Semi-wash processing involves removing thirty percent of the pulp by machine and then storing the beans for twenty-four hours. The remaining pulp is removed naturally by leaving the coffee beans to dry in the sun. This processing method results in lower acidity and a flavor often characterized by spice and wood tones. Doesn't sound great, does it? It is a matter of taste and varying opinions.
Regional Coffee Flavors
Where the coffee originates determines much of the flavor profile. When you select a bag of beans from South America, for instance, you will already have a good sense of the flavor you expect in the cup. Each region has different growing conditions, altitude, water quality, sunlight hours, ambient temperature, and distance from the equator. It’s hard to generalize about coffee flavor, but the experience of experts and consumers offers some common observations. Now, when talking about regional flavors, roasting and brewing are not given consideration, and both of these make a difference to the final taste in the cup. Let’s take a quick look at regional flavor profiles.
South American coffee is grown in Colombia, Brazil, and Ecuador, and accounts for thirty percent of the world's coffee consumption, with Brazil making up more than twenty-five percent. Coffees from Columbia are sweet with low acidity, and the flavor is full-bodied with tones of nuts, caramel, and honey. Brazilian coffee, on the other hand, has a creamy chocolate-like flavor. If you drink coffee every day, South American coffee will be the taste most familiar to you. To get a good sense of the flavors from South America, pick up a bag of the Night Owl Blend from Chamberlain Coffee. This blend is rich and velvety, toasty, and creamy with notes of dark chocolate, honey sweetness, and toasted walnuts.
Central American coffee comes from Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, and has had the greatest influence on the American pallet. These coffees have a balanced flavor, are sweet with pleasant fruitiness, and maybe the best place for novice coffee drinkers to start their specialty coffee journey. Pick up a bag of the Chamberlain Early Bird Blend. This blend is Well-balanced and dynamic with seasonal coffees from the Americas. It excels as an exciting, engaging espresso or a richly harmonious filter brew. It is characterized by a balanced, acidic, and fruity flavor.
African coffee is grown in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, and Burundi. Ethiopia is the only country where coffee is wildly grown, resulting in diverse flavors considered more complex than any other country in the world. Coffees from Africa are complex, fruity, and floral. Their flavor is strong, fragrant, and full-bodied. Depending on specific growing conditions, coffees from Africa tend to be more acidic while maintaining complexity.
Roasting and coffee flavor
On almost every bag of specialty coffee, you’ll find details of how the beans have been roasted. Along with variety, farming, processing, and growing region, roasting is a major contributor to coffee flavor. Here, all of the science is left behind, and the true art of specialty coffee begins. As with any aspect of coffee, the flavor created by roasting is difficult to generalize, but there some guidelines you can follow.
So far, we’ve been talking about beans before roasting. The green beans are soft, have a slight smell, and little taste. Roasting involves exposing the beans to heat in a roaster. The longer the roasting, the more oils are extracted and the darker the bean becomes. Well, there's more to the roasting process, but for our purposes, we are interested in overall taste. Roasted beans, for consumer purposes, are described according to color. It's not an accurate way of describing flavor, but it does give some indication of what to expect in your cup.
A medium roasted coffee is full-bodied, aromatic, and smooth. We've already discussed the importance of plant variety, and a medium roast best highlights this component. On the other hand, a medium-dark roast is less acidic and the flavor is mellow. A light roast is preferred by coffee experts interested in the complex, fruit, and wine-like flavors found in the beans. The best way to learn about the impact of roasting on flavor is to visit an artisan roaster and try coffee taken to different roasting levels.
A coffee bag labeled "single-origin" is not the same as a blend. Single-origin means the beans have come from a known geographic area. Blends, on the other hand, are a mix of roasted beans typically from only one of the coffee regions. South American coffee is often blended with beans from Central America. Blending is an art focused on flavor and body. Check out the innovative Blends from Chamberlain Coffee. There a new twist on the ordinary and take flavor to a whole new level. Try using using a variety of brewing methods with each blend, and find out which one is ideal.
Cupping coffee to discover flavor
Now, this part of our flavor journey isn’t necessary, but it it’s fun. “Cupping” coffee is a term used by roasters and blenders to describe a process they use to accurately evaluate flavor. When you read the label on a bag of specialty Coffey, you’ll find information about the tasting profile, but the profile is only an expert’s opinion. For instance, Words like chocolate, nuts, spice, fruit, raspberries, caramel, citrus might be used to describe a particular coffee, but you’ll want to describe the coffee for yourself. We’ve talked about some generalizations, and if that’s enough for you, buy the beans you think best match the taste you’re looking for in the cup.
If you want to try cupping coffee, here’s what you’ll need:
- Freshly roasted coffee beans
- Five-ounce ceramic cups.
- Spoons (two person)
- Clean water heated to two-hundred degrees. Fahrenheit
- Coffee grinder
- Timer (an app on your phone is perfect)
- Notebook for jotting down your thoughts
Here are the steps to cup the coffee:
- Grind the coffee so it is slightly coarser than the grounds you would use for a coffee filter. Weigh out the coffee. The ratio to use is 8.25 grams coffee per 150 milliliters of water.
- Place the coffee into the cups
- Smell the dry coffee to evaluate aroma.
- Pour in the water (heated to 200F) in each of the cups as you start a timer. Make certain each cup has the same amount of water.
- After 4 minutes, break the crust to evaluate wet aroma. Do this by inserting your spoon in the crust that has formed, and push it back while smelling.
- Repeat for a total of three times.
- Use spoons to skim off the grounds, and oils. After 4 minutes, break the crust to evaluate wet aroma. Do this by partially inserting your spoon in the crust of coffee that has formed, and push them back while smelling.
- Use a spoon to filter off the grounds.
- To taste the coffee, load your spoon and slurp. Try to aspirate the coffee over your tongue.
- Write down all of your tasting notes.
You’re done. The great thing about cupping is you can do it with a group of friends. Everyone can share their tasting notes, and you’ll be amazed by the common perceptions. After you have gone to all this trouble, go online and share your thoughts with the coffee community.
What’s the best flavor for you?
The best coffee flavor for you is the one you love! No one can tell you the perfect flavor; not a farmer, not a roaster, and not a retailer. The generalizations we’ve discussed may help you make an initial flavor decision, but be guided by your own taste assessment. The great thing about specialty coffee is there are many options. You can experiment with beans from different growing regions, try various roasting levels, sample blends, and play around with brewing methods. That’s why coffee makes a wonderful hobby. The taste in the cup is one thing, but the way it got there is where the true excitement lies.
Enjoy your discovery of coffee flavor, and let us know what you discover along the way.