If you pick up a bag of specialty coffee, one of the first things you’re likely to notice is a list of descriptors: milk chocolate and caramel; redcurrant and raisin; biscuits, vanilla, and nuts – the list goes on.
These are what are known as flavour notes (or tasting notes) and they tell consumers what to expect from their coffee in the cup. For some, they can have a considerable influence on their decision to purchase, providing a shortcut to reading through information on growing conditions and processing methods.
However, not all agree about their usefulness, with many arguing that something as complex and subjective as coffee is virtually impossible to pin down in just a few simple descriptors. What’s more, flavour notes set an expectation that can sometimes cloud a consumer’s judgement and disrupt their experience of a coffee.
But if this is the case, then why do specialty roasters continue to include them on their packaging? And as consumers become increasingly knowledgeable about the coffee they drink, are they more of a hindrance than a help?
To find out more, I spoke with 2019 World Cup Tasters Champion and founder of Sumo Coffee Roasters, Daniel Horbat.
What are flavour notes?
Roasted coffee is one of the most chemically complex goods in the world, containing thousands of unique compounds that produce a wide range of flavours in the cup. These span from subtle ones that quickly fade, to more prominent ones that linger.
Not to be confused with “flavourings”, these natural flavours are influenced by a number of factors, including variety, origin, processing method, and roast profile.
To depict these flavours, specialty roasters will often include them as flavour notes on their coffee bags or as separate “tasting cards”. Not only do they tell consumers what to expect from their coffee, they can also act as a simple way of learning about the beans.
Daniel founded his own roastery – Sumo Coffee Roasters – after being crowned World Cup Tasters Champion in 2019. He tells me that flavour notes are a simple way for him to describe and differentiate the coffee he sells.
“To me, flavour notes are the way to identify certain enzymatic compounds that we can find in coffee,” he says. “Normally, I also address flavour as fragrance (the smell of dry coffee) and aroma (the smell of coffee when water is added), because they are so closely connected with each other. Without aroma, you cannot identify flavour.”
Daniel also explains that flavour notes can be highly subjective. People will have varying opinions of flavour because they relate their personal experiences to those enzymatic compounds.
“Flavour is like an idea,” he says. “We taste an idea of something that we had in the past, whether it’s blueberries, chocolate, or passion fruit.”
In an effort to standardise coffee tasting, the Speciality Coffee Association (SCA) published a flavour wheel in 1995 containing more than 100 descriptors of coffee’s flavours. These range from grape and stone fruit, to chocolate and nut.
Today, coffee professionals around the world use the SCA’s flavour wheel in combination with their own experiences of flavours to guide the flavour notes they display on packaging.
Are they necessary?
For many specialty roasters, flavour notes are an essential inclusion on coffee packaging. They offer a simple way of conveying information about the coffee, while also helping the product stand out on the shelf.
With so many different types of coffee on the market, flavour notes act as a shortcut for people who may not have the time or inclination to read up on in-depth information such as processing methods, roast profiles, or growing conditions.
“Flavour notes are a reference to consumers of what I taste as a roaster. They help create a bridge between me and my consumers,” Daniel tells me.
“Sometimes, when I make coffee at home, I drink it out of necessity and may not even think about the flavours. But, if someone were to describe a coffee to me, I would enjoy it more – just like how I would enjoy coffee more at a café after a barista has explained it to me.”
He explains that he tries to replicate the unique experience between a consumer and barista through flavour notes. In some sense, flavour notes replace the role of a barista, who talks consumers through their flavour experience.
However, not everyone agrees. Flavour notes are sometimes seen as restrictive, not to mention intimidating, for consumers who struggle to pick out all the flavours listed.
“Tasting notes scare people away,” writes Jamie Goode in a blog post on the tasting notes in wine.
“They intimidate normal people, who feel that they are clearly having a diminished experience of wine because they just don’t get all those exotic flavour descriptors when they taste the same wine as [someone else] has described.”
Furthermore, as coffee tasting is a largely subjective experience, some feel as though displaying the opinion of one person can often be too reductive.
The flavour notes break up the tasting of coffee into different components, rather than leaving it as a whole, while also failing to incorporate the full complexity of the drink.
That being said, attempting to cover all bases, including body, acidity, mouthfeel, and sweetness, could end up confusing consumers and putting them off buying the product altogether.
Helping consumers make sense of flavour notes
Although flavour notes don’t work for all consumers, it doesn’t mean specialty roasters should ignore them. Daniel says that some coffee brands just need to think differently about how they’re used.
To avoid alienating consumers, he encourages roasters to use simple descriptors rather than fancy words like “body” or “astringency”. For example, the descriptors for his Tabi coffee are sour cherry, dark rum, green apple, tropical, banana, and pineapple.
“Keep it simple but efficient,” he says. “You need to put flavours that are easy to detect so that a person who never had coffee can taste it too.”
When consumers are able to taste what is suggested, it creates excitement for them and this will keep them coming back for more.
Daniel also explains that coffee may not be as structured compared to wine. For example, describing coffee as “having hints of banana” instead of “tasting like banana” might be a more accurate description.
“I want to make it simple and enjoyable,” he says. “For people to focus more on the coffee, not on what it should taste like because everyone’s experience is different.”
Therefore, to prevent such sentiments, it is important that roasters frame flavour notes as a guide rather than an instruction. It is vital to impart the message that flavour notes are not a test for consumers, but instead an encouragement for consumers to pick out the nuances in their coffee.
While the language used to describe flavour notes is one factor that affects consumers’ understanding of flavour notes, combining language with colours and visuals on packaging can produce a stronger effect.
Morgon Coffee Roasters is a coffee roasters in Sweden that does this to great effect. They combine their understanding of colour psychology with creative design to depict flavour notes using still-life photography. The result is a visually striking packaging that not only stands out on the shelf, but gives consumers a general idea of what to expect from the coffee.
Ultimately, flavour notes are there to provide a taste reference that is simple enough for consumers to enjoy their coffee while guiding them to make their own discovery.
At MTPak Coffee, we offer a range of sustainable packaging options that are fully customisable, from material and features, to colour scheme and information cards. We can work with you to design attractive and meaningful packaging that allows you to effectively showcase the flavours of your coffee.