Have you ever picked up a bag of coffee and seen enticing food flavor descriptions like brown sugar, sweet potato, walnut, blueberry or even chocolate? During my early coffee years, I thought those descriptions meant those flavors were added to the coffee. Yet, every time I tasted the coffee I wouldn't taste any of those flavors. So what exactly do those flavor descriptions mean?
Descriptors listed on the bag are actually flavors the roaster tasted in the coffee while cupping it. "Cupping is one of the coffee tasting techniques used to evaluate coffee aroma and the flavor profile of a coffee." (CoffeeResearch.org) Cupping is a complex process that has specific protocols established by the Specialty Coffee Association of America. It is important to note that flavor descriptions on the bag are NOT flavors they add to the coffee. (When a flavor is added to the coffee it becomes a flavored coffee.) The descriptions of the bag give suggestions on natural flavor notes found in the roasted coffee.
So if cuppers were able to taste the different flavors in the coffee why can't I taste them? I asked BUNN Dr. Brew aka Randy Pope this question. Randy explained that while taste can be subjective, our tongue actually detects four basic flavor characteristics: sweet, salty, sour or bitter. How we describe those sensations is based on the flavors we encountered in the past. For example, if Randy were to cup a coffee and say it has flavor notes of chocolate. If I have never tasted chocolate I would not be able to decipher that the coffee had flavor notes of chocolate because I've never tasted chocolate before. (For the record, I've tasted chocolate before and this scenario is hypothetical.)
Also, Randy pointed out that if I sipped my cup as soon as it is finished brewing and it was piping hot I may not taste the flavors described on the bag. Why? Well different flavor attributes come out based on temperature so as the cup cools I may encounter different flavors! He suggested let it cool for a moment and then take a sip. You may be able to taste flavors after it's cooled that you didn't detect at the beginning.
Hey if you still don't taste those flavor descriptors, it's ok! Remember taste is subjective. As long as you enjoy the coffee and the experience I say drink up!
If you have a question for Dr. Brew check out his blog DearDrBrew.com!