The Individuality of Taste

The beans that went into the cup of coffee you just enjoyed went through years of cultivation, a meticulous harvesting process, a journey overseas of thousands of miles, and perhaps dozens of roasting trials ...

Cupping notes are the culmination of this voyage, the distillation of hundreds of aromas and notes and a mind-boggling number of factors and inputs that made that coffee what it is. The sheer number of combinations between country of origin and primary tasting note are seemingly endless. 

We can visualize strong relationships between these two variables, such as that beans from Ethiopia tend to have fruity or bright tasting notes. At the same time, one person’s cupping notes are just that – one person’s opinion, no matter how informed it might be.  

Len Brault, in his Coffee Roaster’s Handbook, captures the utter uniqueness of how individuals taste almost anything: between the various anatomical differences two people have in their physical palate, tongue, tasting buds and more, and the complex chemistry of coffee, with oils, fats, proteins, sugars, acids, minerals, to name a few, it seems like a miracle that two people can taste even remotely similar notes in the same coffee.      

We also see this in our data, in which we’ve catalogued tasting notes for the same coffee from different sources, typically the roaster and a “coffee expert” from a third-party retailer. A Peruvian coffee we examined had tasting notes of persimmon and toffee according to the roaster, and juicy berries and plum according to the retailer.  A Nicaraguan coffee had notes of mulberry and maple according to the roaster, and cookie dough and hazelnut according to the retailer.  These are just a few examples, but you get the point.

And the precision of these notes is both remarkable and extremely difficult for another person to reproduce.  What are the chances that two people will both note something as specific as “Raspberry Jolly Rancher” in the same coffee, in a blind tasting test? 

We don’t mean to say that tasting notes can’t provide general direction – they can and do, but mainly in the aggregate. For example, if 90% of light roast Ethiopian coffees out there prompt a “fruity” or “citrus” tasting note, it’s improbable you or I would taste wood or earthiness in our next cup of light roast Ethiopian – all other things being equal.    

And to be sure, the question of taste isn’t one of being right or wrong, it’s about what you uniquely taste compared to what I uniquely taste. At a high level, the spectrum of tasting notes tells us generally about the clear relationships between origin, process, roast, and flavor, and it also tells us about innovation, and where roasters are extracting new flavor profiles out of the traditional origin/flavor relationships.  

Follow Lightyear Coffee

Next up

Related Posts

Why You Should Be Drinking Shade-Grown Coffee

With all the reasons coffee has been in the news lately (droughts in Brazil, price fluctuations, precarious forecasts due to climate change), you’d be forgiven for not seeing any immediate link to migratory bird habitats …