This is what it says on my current beans:

lots of raisin and candied fruit peel is backed up by a creamy sweetness that makes me think of a Creme Brulee - right down to the little hints of caramel.

I get a couple of these a week, and this one is pretty restrained - it's normally 100 words of fanciful hyperbole which could have been produced by a random word generator. This one is a Central American Bourbon, with no useful information at all - altitude, soil, cleaning, processing, anything. And, more often than not, you have to google the farm to find out what varietal it is.

So what's going on? Do vendors just make this stuff up? Does anyone actually taste any of this stuff and, if they do, is it just Synaesthesia? What about the obvious problem, which is that Humans can taste pretty much nothing, and we only have a small number (48??) of different smell receptors?

Just to be clear, I can smell (and taste, just) lots of different 'notes' in an espresso. The same roaster, for example, can consistently do fantastic El Salvador SL28, and an undrinkable Kenyan SL28. But nowhere in there can I detect anything remotely 'fruity', or 'chocolaty', or 'caramelly', or anything apart from different 'coffee'.

  • I'm certainly not an expert on coffee, though I drink a lot of it and have done so for a long time. However I am aware that each product that is made requires hundreds, if not thousands of hours of work to get into production. There do exist professional wine tasters, I'd guess that we have experts on coffee too, which are probably hired for their unique ability to taste. Can their definitions be hyped? Sure, but I'm sure there's a lot of work involved with these descriptions. I'm just speculating though, so not making it into an answer right now. – Jonast92 Jul 24 '19 at 16:56

There is a defined set of tasting note terms, the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon which is the basis for the Coffee Taster's Flavor Wheel.

Those terms are intended to name specific tastes and you can take a class to learn how to recognize them.

Since I've not yet taken such a class, I can't testify to the reliability or utility of "flavor notes" on packages, but surely some writers are way off in fantasy land.

Furthermore, some staffers at big coffee chains are not even clear on the distinction between flavor notes and added flavoring!

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R Mac seems to focus a lot on the brewing, which is certainly important. Another factor, which is equally important, is roasting. The way beans are roasted (and the selection procedure that the roaster uses) can make any steps you take when brewing moot.

As for your question, the easiest way to find out would be to taste coffees in a blinded cupping. Cupping is a way of tasting where the brew procedure is set (e.g. by the Speciality Coffee Association), using as little variations that may affect the taste of the coffee. The reason this is done is to enable comparing multiple coffees with the brewing method being as little of a factor as possible. The blinded aspect means tasters don't know which coffee they're tasting. For example, each tasting participant could be assigned coffees as a number.

During the cupping, tasters fill in a standardised form, which considers a number of aspects: smell, taste, and flavor, among others. When the cupping is finished, the forms can be collected and compared. Based on the results, one can determine if the tastes are there or just made up.

As for the general question whether those tastes can be there. The answer is simply yes. The reason for that is that many fruits have a distinct aroma because of a class of chemicals called esters. These esters are used in the food industry, for example as artificial flavourings. Wikipedia describes their formation as follows:

an ester is a chemical compound derived from an acid (organic or inorganic) in which at least one –OH (hydroxyl) group is replaced by an –O–alkyl (alkoxy) group.

Such an acid is found in green coffee beans, and when roasted, these form esters which may be tasted (but don't have to be, or may be burnt of during roasting). From ScienceDirect on chlorogenic acid:

Chlorogenic acid was isolated from green coffee beans. It has also been found in the seeds and leaves of many dicotyledonous plants. It is thermally unstable and is readily decomposed to quinic acid and caffeic acid. Chlorogenic acid accounts for 5–10% of coffee beans, which is a much larger amount than caffeine (1–2%). Chlorogenic acid strongly influences the taste of coffee, such as astringent, sweet, and sour tastes, which change with the concentration.

Note that chlorogenic acids (GCAs) are a group of acids, this thesis (Coffee Brew Melanoids) illustrates their variety in coffee:

More than 44 different CGAs were already identified in green coffee beans with 5- caffeoylquinic acid (Figure 2) being the most prevalent one (10-12). The group of Clifford specialized in CGA characterization and they wrote a review on CGAs (8).

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I've tasted some "major" flavor themes in coffee before. Chocolate, brown sugar, nuts, even fruity flavors. It's rare, though. It takes a very careful brew with just the right water and just the right brew execution. I've only ever tasted it with espresso and near-espresso (percolator, Aeropress, etc.) brews and only when literally everything about the brew process, water, and grind is close to perfect.

Things that affect coffee flavor:

  • Maturity of beans when harvested
  • Age of beans when roasted
  • Time since roasting when ground
  • Time since ground to brew
  • Consistency of the grinder (i.e., few to none fines or large bits)
  • Water solutes
  • Water TDS (total dissolved solids)
  • Water temperature for brew
  • Altitude (moreso if using a being method that requires steam)
  • Mass of grinds used
  • Consistency of exposure of water to grinds
  • Duration of exposure of water to grinds
  • Time from brew to consumption

To add to this mess of complexity, there is no single value for any of these inputs that can assigned. Often, adjusting one factor can compensate for another otherwise bad factor.

You do not need freshly roasted beans to do this. Beans can't be stale, but "just roasted" is not a requirement.

You also do not need an expensive grinder. Something like a Capresso Infinity can work wonderfully well, especially if you choose to use a sieve that matches your brewing method.

And even if all the material variables are spot on perfect, some stupid little thing like atmospheric pressure can muck with your perfect brew.

Espresso is the most consistent way to achieve this if you have a unit with multiple thermostats and pressure regulators.

An Aeropress is easier than a cheapo espresso machine that lacks those controls.

A moka pot (percolator) is easier than an Aeropress but requires a stove to use (unless you splurge on an electrical one with a thermostat and steam regulator--I don't even know if such a thing exists).

And if you have bad water, sorry. There's literally nothing you can do short of filtering it and then adding minerals back in to get a good TDS.

Also, everyone's sense of taste is different. I can name at least five ingredients in almost anything I eat by taste. Most people do not have such sensitive taste receptors. It could we'll be that most people simply can't taste those flavors in coffee no matter how it's made.

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