This piece is from our January 2019 issue. We included this amazing answer by Lee Knuttila, the Director of Coffee and Owner of Quietly Coffee! We loved it so much we had to post it online for all to see.
Lee has his PhD from York University and takes a rather academic approach to coffee. We put him to the test with a very simple question and left his articulate words in-tact. The question?
What’s the deal with taste notes?
During my barista tenure, I frequently encountered the “tastes like peaches? But not really tho, right?” remark, so I was very happy to receive this question (which delightfully reads like a punchline set-up).
Coffee frequently tastes like a fruit for a simple reason: it is a fruit! Despite our use of the term “bean” to refer to coffee, it is actually the seed of a fruit very similar to the cherry.
I really like James Hoffman argument that the quality of coffee is at its peak on the tree and it’s a matter of maintaining it through picking, processing, roasting, and brewing. This does not mean raw beans taste pleasant (they actually taste like dirt and pithy vegetables) but rather they contain all the constituents to make a remarkable and delicious cup.
As Scott Rao** states, “during roasting, countless reactions, including Maillard reactions and caramelization, brown the beans and create hundreds of new taste and aroma compounds”. I could blather endlessly about the chemistry Rao alludes to but for the sake of brevity (and boredom), let me say this: a roaster’s job is to simultaneously develop and eliminate a range of sugars and acids to create a well-structured flavour profile. This generation and decay yields all kinds of savory, herbaceous, malty, fruity, nutty, chocolatey, sour, and burnt aromas and flavours. In this way, coffee mimics a whole range of foods because it shares volatile compounds that, for example, make a peach taste like a peach.
Not all beans are created equal. Varietal, density, altitude, ripeness, processing, drying, storage, and shipment create a set of parameters. Hence, Ethiopian heirlooms grown in Yirgacheffe are often loaded with lemon. However, the roasting process can highlight or hide flavours. If you look at the SCAA tasters wheel***, you can chart the roasting process with underdeveloped (herb, vegetable, peel) moving into properly developed (fruit, floral, sweet) and lastly heading into overdeveloped (spice, malt, and nut) territories. My roasting philosophy: create a window into origin through proper development. In other words, balance the volatile compounds to draw out the terroir and celebrate the hard work of farmers.
tl;dr: taste notes exist because roasted coffee shares taste and aroma compounds with a great deal of non-coffee foods.