Simple bean - big taste
Coffee is like wine – the soil it grows in, the surrounding environment, the processing from pick to product, every part of the process changes the flavour of the bean and the final delicious drink.
Smoky, floral, citrus, berries, umami, cherries, biscuit – there’s a huge range of flavour descriptions for the humble coffee bean once it’s brewed into the drink we all love.
There are actually more than 300 flavour constituents that have been identified in green coffee to date. This rises to around 900 in the roasted coffee bean as new aromatic molecules are formed through the roasting process (numbers here are from Tristan Stephenson's book The Curious Barista’s Guide to Coffee - listed in the sources at the end).
On their own, each of these flavour compounds has a unique smell and taste, but when these interact with one another countless new aromas and tastes can form.
Sweetness, bitterness and acidity are the main flavour profiles, while the smell (aroma) is the stirrer that influences our concept of the flavour of a mouthful of coffee.
Describing sweetness in a drink that is unfortunately often more known for bitter and acid flavours could be seen as quite odd, and yet, flavours we associate with sweetness – chocolate, caramel, and nougat, for example – are common flavour descriptions. So, how does that work?
More than half coffee drinkers in the UK and around 35 percent in the US add sugar to their coffee (according to Tristan Stephenson in his book The Curious Barista’s Guide to Coffee, which was published in 2015 so these figures may have changed somewhat since then – but you get the idea).
The mass-produced coffee that’s still commonly quaffed around the globe isn’t roasted to necessarily enhance the natural sweet aromatics of coffee beans. The roasted coffee bean has about 0.2 percent sugars, which is diluted further when brewed with water, so most French press coffee, for example, will only have around 0.06 percent sugars.
These aren’t the white sweet sugar most people associate with ‘sugars’. They’re what’s called long-chain polysaccharides that have some sweet characteristics. Trace amounts of these complex sugars combine with the sweet aromas that we know – like chocolate – so a particular bean seems to have sweetness when it’s roasted to perfection and brewed correctly.
Small-batch roasting, like we do at Precious Drop, and knowing just how far to take any green bean through the roasting process, and at what speed, helps to bring out the natural complex sugars and really enhance the sweetness factor.
Unfortunately, bitterness is often considered synonymous with coffee but that’s not actually the case. A well-roasted and brewed bean may have some bitter flavours, like citrus fruits (grapefruit, for example, is found in several of Precious Drop’s beans), which are more sour or astringent than bitter. True bitterness can often be a sign of very dark roasted beans, over-extraction when it’s made, or even burnt milk.
Bitterness has a role to play in a balanced cup of coffee as it enhances the sweetness and tames the acidity. It’s about the play of these flavours on your senses, your smell and taste as you sip, and the combination in balance to create the perfect cup. (How a bean is brewed also makes a big difference to the balance of flavours and we’ll explore the best brewing methods and some tips and tricks in our next blog post!)
Interesting footnote to bitterness – the bitter flavour comes naturally from two different compounds in the bean, one of which, quinic acid, is the same thing that gives tonic water its bitterness.
There are around 30 naturally occurring acids in roasted coffee. Go figure. These include citric (obviously found in citrus fruits), malic (found in apples), lactic (found in dairy products), and acetic (vinegar).
Coffees grown at higher altitudes tend to have higher acidity and interestingly, the grind of a coffee influences the degree to which the acids are extracted, so, for example, a finer grind (for espresso) makes a more acid coffee and higher temperature, longer brewing processes with coarser grind strips the acidic compounds, lowering the acidity. A softer brew method like filter produces a less acidic, often more balanced drink.
Ah the smell of a great cup of coffee! There’s nothing quite like it and many of the flavours we pick out in a cup of coffee are influenced by the smell as we drink.
The biggest part of coffee’s flavour profile comes from our noses. There are hundreds of volatile aromatics in coffee and these bounce around and impact the tiny tissues in our nose, stimulating our brains to interpret these as flavours.
Our memories and experiences influence this process. If, say, you’d never eaten chocolate, you’d have no point of reference for describing the flavour in a cup of coffee as chocolaty.
Aromas commonly used in coffee descriptions include toffee and bran, earthiness, vegetal, walnut, toast, nuts and brown meat! (As an aside, the naturally processed beans have, for us, a distinctive earthiness in both aroma and flavour that’s umami – we’ll cover processing from ripe cherry to green bean in a future post.)
Hopefully, this provides a wee dip into the flavours you’ll find in a cup of Precious Drop coffee. We roast to enhance the natural flavour of the green beans and create the perfect cup of coffee. Our descriptions are based on notes from the coffee buyers and our own cupping sessions (another future blog post!) and offer a guide to the type of flavours you’re likely to get.
So many factors influence the final flavour, from the way it’s ground and brewed to the time since the beans were roasted (and that’s why we roast to order, ensuring your beans arrive during that optimum four days to three weeks post roast). Hopefully, with time and some experimenting, you’ll find the best beans and the best brewing method to suit your tastes.
Happy coffee drinking!
(Sources: Stephenson, T. The Curious Barista’s Guide to Coffee. 2015. Brown, R. Dear Coffee Buyer. A guide to Sourcing Green Coffee. 2018.)