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Coffee Tasting Notes and Flavors Explained

Orange blossom, dark cherries, tobacco, stone fruit, pie crust, and dark chocolate are some descriptors you’ll see on coffee labels. But what do these tasting notes mean? Will your coffee taste like leather or tobacco?

Keep reading to find out more about coffee-tasting notes and how you can detect them.

What Are Tasting Notes

Every coffee-of-the-month club worth subscribing to includes cards with each bag of coffee they ship. Along with its country of origin, arabica variety, and suggested brew methods, these cards often include tasting notes.

Similar to the descriptors you’d expect to find on wine or beer labels, all the best coffee roasters use notes to encapsulate four major elements:

  • Aroma
  • Body
  • Flavor
  • Finish

These elements, along with their country of origin and coffee variety, determine each cup’s unique flavor or cup profile.

How to Find the Four Major Elements

To find these elements, you’ll want to conduct a coffee cupping each time you try out a new variety of coffee beans. Using the coffee flavor wheel, you’ll classify the coffee according to the four major elements above.

four elements of coffee taste

Aroma

Upon opening the bag, you’ll most likely notice the coffee’s aroma first. Just as with wine tasting, there are two ways in which we detect aroma: orthonasal olfaction and retronasal olfaction (1).

In orthonasal olfaction, you detect the aroma by smelling the coffee grinds, and in retronasal olfaction, you’ll experience the aroma as flavor.

This is why you’ll smell the freshly ground beans first, note what you smell, and then detect more subtle aromas of the bean as you taste it.

Body

The coffee’s body describes how it settles on your tongue (2). According to Perfect Daily Grind:

…An espresso’s body can be light and airy, almost like a tea, or dense and heavy, like warm honey. An espresso’s body can vary massively; it might be oily, creamy, juicy, or syrupy.

Also, you can describe this texture or mouthfeel as heavy, medium, or light. You may use words like velvety, rich, or thin as well.

Flavor

One of the first things you’ll notice about your coffee is its acidity. While some coffees have a natural citrus acidity, other coffees taste sour because they’re under-extracted.

This under-extracted coffee is sour throughout the cup but lacks depth and body. Well-extracted bright coffees, however, balance the aroma, body, flavor, and finish. Also, thanks to retronasal olfaction, you’ll be able to taste and smell more nuanced coffee flavors in the cup.

Finish

The finish of a coffee describes the lingering notes the coffee leaves on your palate. If the coffee has a long, sweet finish, you can taste the sweetness on your tongue after it’s swallowed.

To see a visual demonstration of coffee cupping, check out this video from the staff at the Starbucks Coffee Quality team.

Final Thoughts

Reading tasting notes is an excellent way to determine whether a new single origin or blend might suit you. Take note of a coffee’s aroma, body, and flavor, and finish your pair and pair it with foods that complement those subtle flavors and notes.

What tasting notes do you prefer in your coffee? Drop us a comment below.

FAQs

The coffee’s country of origin, growing elevation, soil composition, processing method, roast level, and specific coffee bean variety play a part in determining the coffee’s flavor notes.

Yes, the brew method can also determine a coffee’s flavor notes. For example, a french press coffee may have a heavier body than a pour-over. The paper filters of the cone dripper absorb oils, making the final cup less heavy.

Yes, they still apply to pre-ground coffee. However, it depends on how well the pre-ground beans are packaged and how long it’s been sitting on the shelf. If they’re fresh, you’ll be able to taste almost all the tasting notes on the label. Home Grounds suggests buying fresh-roasted coffee beans and grinding coffees just before brewing for optimal flavor.

  1. UCI Digital. (2017, June 22). Understanding The Science Behind Wine Tasting – Heart Of The Desert. Heart of the Desert. https://www.heartofthedesert.com/understanding-the-science-behind-wine-tasting/
  2. Yew, S. (2021, April 12). Aroma, body, flavour & finish: A beginner’s guide to tasting espresso. Perfect Daily Grind; Perfect Daily Grind. https://perfectdailygrind.com/2021/04/aroma-body-flavour-finish-a-beginners-guide-to-tasting-espresso/
Iris M. Pang
One of my first childhood memories of coffee was in Montreal, Quebec. Every time my family and I walked through the mall, the aroma of fresh, brewed coffee and Belgian waffles permeated all the stores. Whatever that delicious smell was, I had to have it. And the rest is history. When I'm not writing or touring local coffee shops, you'll find me on social media, trying out different ethnic cuisine at local restaurants, and having deep discussions over coffee and pastries.

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