When you walk into your local coffee roaster or café, it may be confusing to see strawberry or s'mores listed as flavors on a bag of beans. Is someone adding marshmallows to the drum as these beans are roasted? In true specialty coffee, that is certainly not the case.
True Flavor Notes
In our last blog post, we explained what specialty coffee means. Coffee beans from all around the world have incredibly varied flavor profiles that are affected at every stage of roasting. It is largely up to the roaster, in manipulating this palate further, to unleash a range of flavor notes. These are what you often see listed on the bag and they generally fall under nine different categories: green/vegetative, sour/fermented, fruity, floral, sweet, nutty/cocoa, spicy, roasted, and other. Within each group is a plethora of descriptors that form a common language for coffee tasters and everyday coffee drinkers alike. You can view these in the Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel below:
The flavor wheel was created through collaboration between the SCAA and World Coffee Research (WCR) with their Sensory Lexicon. The WCR developed this lexicon as a descriptive, value-neutral tool to currently identify 110 flavors, aromas, and textures we find in coffee. It is ever-evolving as more discoveries are made, used to improve our understanding of coffee and its quality across the industry.
Occasionally you will see a note that is very specific or lies outside of the Flavor Wheel descriptors. There is much room for diversity. Fruity can be watermelon starburst and herb-like can be thyme! Many times it hits the nail right on the head, a result of seasoned tasters. The Flavor Wheel can be used as a guide here, but the importance lies in giving customers the best idea of what to expect from our coffee.
Unfortunately, specialty coffee with beautiful and deep tasting experiences share a world with unnaturally flavored coffee advertised as gourmet.
Take hazelnut flavored coffee beans for instance, commonly seen stocked on shelves amongst other bizarre varieties. Gourmet beans such as these go through a process entirely independent from roasting. Flavoring oils are created with both “naturally” and synthetically derived chemicals (even natural compounds should not be looked at as natural to the coffee bean). Chemists will blend many of these chemicals, sometimes up to 80, to make nearly limitless flavor combinations.
The resulting concentration is diluted in a solvent before being added. A popular solvent is propylene glycol, which helps the oils disperse fully into the coffee beans. Propylene Glycol, though an FDA "Generally Regarded as Safe" (GRAS) substance for food, can be found in antifreeze. And while it has not been proven toxic in the allowed doses — who would want that in a cup of coffee?
This all goes to say, be wary: the flavor notes that a specialty roaster lists on their bags should not be confused with additives. And if something does taste a bit off, question it! Always ask about the products you are consuming, know where your cup comes from.
At Borealis, we place an emphasis on traceability. Understanding the full story of your food (and coffee) is important, so we want our customers to have as much information as possible. It helps us in continuing to heighten the quality of our coffee and bringing the most out of what nature has gifted us.