Podcast: Tasting and Coffee Lexicons

We describe coffee as tasting like so many other things, fruits, sugars, caramels, candies, spices ... but the core coffee flavors are much more challenging to elucidate. I have come up with a term "coffee identity" akin to the basic taste identifying markers from other food and beverage flavor lexicons, and this podcast touches on the way we seek to focus and describe base coffee notes. There are so many tangets I could go off on here, and doubtless future podcasts on specific aspects of this material. -Tom

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Some thoughts

Great podcast. I think it makes all the sense in the world to come up with a standardization of terms that could be recognized by anyone, regardless of where they come from.

On a similar note, being new to specialty coffee, I've always been confused by how novice cuppers are supposed to identify things like over-extracted, acidity, bitterness, etc. I thought the way to understand that would be to have an experienced cupper to give you a cup that has been identified as, say, bitter, Then you could taste it and be able to identify what a bitter coffee tastes like.

However, about a year ago an author of quite a few coffee books came to my local library to give a lecture about, well, coffee. At the end when he was accepting question, I asked him about the above, specifically, if you gave 5 experienced cuppers identical cups of coffee, would they be able to identify the same traits. His answer was "No."

Do you agree with his answer? If so, how are newcomers to single-origin/speciality coffees supposed to define these terms?


Good question...

For me, the neat thing about coffee is some of these terms are fairly easy to experience on your own... but this gives me the idea that I havent done a good enough job spelling out precisely how to prepare these examples. Over-extraction? You could prepare a french press, plunge it half way at 4 minutes, and pour off the coffee above the filter line. In 15 minutes plunge the rest and pour it. Tasting the two, you should have a good idea of the flavors of over-extraction.

Acidity should be fairly clear too. High levels in a Kenya should be clear when compared to moderate levels of a wet-processed Central such as a Nicaragua.

I agree with you that there are coffee attributes where guidance would be better. I don't like the idea of telling people what they should taste. I don't like dictating flavor to anyone. But having a discussion about it, trying to negotiate flavors with the language, is always interesting. When we cup, we usually start with the general and then go to the specific. If we sense something greenish in a coffee, it could be pleasant, like the brightness of green apple, or crude, like leafy plant material. I admit sometimes there is the sense of some specific set of flavors like lets say bran muffin. Then we ask ourselves what set of flavors is that? Bran indicates some grain notes, but sweet, like caramelized sugars or honey. It also hints at a slighly rustic character, but a pleasant one. So we pull apart the meaning and find the separate attributes within. 

We hope to do more cuppings when we move to our new space, a few blocks away, in the first part of 2016. We will try to use this idea of making "recipes" for reproducing coffee tastes - it's a good idea! -Tom

coffee lexicon

Thanks for this interesting podcast! I think it is a great topic and look forward to seeing how it is developed in Sweet Maria's coffee profiles. As you noted there are a number of flavor highlights that can be detected in each variety especially by people who have a much more developed palate than I do, but that does not really get to what it is that makes a great cup of coffee. I don't think to myself, "I would really like a cup of floral notes, or citrus or even a cup of cocoa or tea." What I want is a really good cup of coffee, and how to describe that and measure or evalute that is a little elusive. When I got a batch of Guatemala Antigua Pulcal roasted just right, I thought "Wow! This is what coffee is all about." But I don't think I could make a coherent description of the factors that made that so. 


 It's a great point: people don't really find the coffees by conjuring up the flavor characteristics they want, then find the coffee that embodies them. It's more difficult with coffee than something intentionally flavored, like tea. But having that roasting experience as you did with Pulcal is great, even if the descriptive language isnt there. I guess an analogue this that people don't need to describe a beautiful sunset in order to enjoy it! (I hope)!