When I think about coffee, the first thing that comes to my mind is its aroma: The delicious smell that comes out when I’m grinding coffee or brewing it. It connects me directly to my senses, bringing comfort and nice feelings. That’s nothing better than starting the day with a fresh cup of coffee. The Specialty Coffee experience is all about flavour and what it takes to have the most stunning coffees. But what makes the coffee flavour?
Flavour is a combination of aroma and taste. We feel it in our tongue, in our olfactory bulb, and nasal cavity. On the tongue, we perceive the basic tastes - acid, sweet, bitter, salty and umami (savoury). If we pay attention to what we are experiencing when we drink a sip of coffee, we start to notice general flavours like fruity, floral, chocolaty, nutty. With experience, we refine our senses and are able to taste and experience more. Just as wine, coffee tasting brings us a complex flavour experience.
Before we drink a delicious cup of coffee, there are many factors that have an influence on its final flavour. Let’s explore what that is:
It starts at the farm
The coffee bean is the seed of a fruit. With that in mind, it tastes at its best when it is fresh in season. As an agricultural product, all the work made on the farm matters and has an impact on the coffee flavour. The coffee trees grow in the tropics, between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Tropic of Cancer, all over the world. There are two main coffee varieties - Arabica and Robusta. Arabica is considered the best tasting one. It grows in higher altitudes and has more acidity and flavour nuances. Arabica has different varietals, like Typica, Bourbon, Catuai, and each one has different taste profiles. Single origin coffees are traceable. The varietal and the region where the coffee comes from are normally indicated on the package of Specialty Coffees.
The soil where the coffee grows also matters. Just as in the wine industry, we relate to it as terroir. Mineral-rich soils as clay or volcanic are better because they provide more nutrients to the plant. The climate and the altitude play an important role too. Adequate weather conditions lead to the right maturation of the cherries and therefore to a more structured flavour in the cup. Due to these environmental conditions, different regions produce unique taste profiles. For instance, coffee in Ethiopia is known for its floral notes, while the Colombian ones are nuttier, and Kenyan ones are fruity. Of course, these are just general profiles. Each region in the same country has singular climate conditions that lead to unparalleled flavours.
The largest impact on flavour comes from processing. Dry processing, known as natural, is the oldest method. The coffee beans are dried in the sun with the whole cherry. Some producers spread the cherries on brick patios. Others use raised drying beds, which allows the air to circulate more and leads to an even drying. The coffee must be turned regularly to avoid mould and fermentation, which would make it taste unpleasant. The natural process adds some flavours to the beans, mainly fruity ones. The sweetness of the cherries also remains in the beans, resulting in a sweeter coffee.
In opposition to this process, there is the washed one, in which the cherries are soaked in water and entirely removed before the drying period. This process usually leads to a cleaner taste with a bright acidity. Without having the whole cherries around, the beans dry easier. It is, though, a more expensive method, which requires large amounts of water.
There are also hybrid processes such as the honey process. It is usually used in Central America. With this method, the coffee is washed, but part of the flesh stays in the beans during the drying phase. The coffee retains some sweetness and intensity of the cherries while having a cleaner structure. The honey process uses less water, but it requires a careful drying phase to avoid mould and overfermentation.
After processing, the coffee is sent to a dry mill. It is hulled to remove the parchment, which is the skin of the bean. In the dry mill, the coffee is also graded and sorted by size. After this process, defective beans are picked out, either manually or mechanically. It is a very important step. According to the Specialty Coffee Association, a 350g sample of coffee may have up to five minor defects and no major defect. Minor defects can be caused by unripped cherries, small holes or black spots. Defects have an impact on flavour, making it taste mouldy, like rotten potato or rotten fruit.
Adequate transportation and storage conditions are fundamental to preserve the inherited qualities of the coffee. When not stored properly, coffee may oxidise, and its taste might change. Packaging with high impermeability and vacuum-pack, in comparison to jute bags, preserve the beans longer because they protect the coffee from being overexposed to oxygen. If the coffee is stored for a too long period, it ages and becomes less acidic, tasting like wood. That’s why drinking coffee during its season brings the best of its flavour to your cup.
It continues at our Roastery
The roasting has a vital influence on the coffee taste. In fact, it determinates most of it. It is like fine-tuning a musical instrument. “During the roasting process, coffee undergoes lots of different chemical and physical changes, which change its flavour and aroma. New acids are formed, sugars are being caramelized, new aromatic compounds are created. But it is important to understand that all the potential a coffee has to offer is already present in the green beans. The roasting is only a way of bringing out all the potential flavours a coffee has to offer”, explains Jasper De Clerck, our head of production.
Most of the commodity coffees that we find in supermarkets are dark roasted. When roasted too long, all the natural flavours and acidity are burnt out as well as the sweetness. Although it seems to be stronger, the coffee tastes smoky or simply like ashes. “We roast light but fully developed. This highlights the fruity, clean and complex flavours, which are present in all of our green coffees. This way we can showcase the hard work that the producer has put in to growing, harvesting and processing his coffee”, says Jasper.
Brewing your coffee to bring out its best
After going through all this way, now coffee is in your hands. And it is time for brewing it! Extraction method, water quality, and ratios have a huge influence on the balanced presentation of all the great elements coffee offers, including flavour.
It is important to keep a balance between sweetness and acidity. “We are always looking for a sweet, juicy and clean experience when drinking our coffees. If we start to over-extract it, we can be left with bitterness, less complexity and sometimes a dusty mouthfeel, as well as the possibility of it being a very strong and overwhelming experience. Underextraction can lead to sour, vegetal and an empty mouthfeel”, says Josef Mott, our head trainer.
Different brew methods lead to different flavours. “The V60, for instance, has a delicate and even extraction. The thicker paper filter of the Chemex helps to create a very clean cup of coffee. The added bit of pressure which the Aeropress has brings out more of the oils, giving it a bigger body and a well pronounced flavour overall”, explains Josef.
It is important to grind the coffee right before extracting it. When we grind it, we expose the coffee oils to oxygen, and it starts ageing and losing intensity. To keep your coffee longer, store it in a dark place, keep it airtight and dry. The storage temperature should be between 16° and 20° C.
Getting into coffee flavour is a delicious adventure. I highly recommend you to enjoy this experience by trying different brew methods and a variety of coffees from different places. Comparing coffees is a way of understanding their differences and most pronounced flavours. Our tastebuds need training and repertoire to be able to identify subtle flavour notes. What would be a more pleasurable training than drinking stunning coffees while being conscious of what you are tasting? With time, the experience just grows better and tastier. Soon you will find out your favourite ones. Let us know!
Check out our brew guides here.