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A Matter of Taste (Part 2): The Flavors of Coffee

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A Matter of Taste (Part 2): The Flavors of Coffee

Carrie Masek

Coffee is the most popular beverage in the world. It is also the most complex. Scientists have identified over 1200 different flavor compounds in coffee, chemical substances that contribute to coffee's taste or aroma. To put that number into perspective, wine has about 800 flavor compounds. But what does that complexity mean when it comes to the flavor of your coffee?

Everyone has a different opinion on how a great cup of coffee should taste. Some like their coffee heavy and bold. Others prefer their coffee light and lively, or rich and balanced. Many don't care about the details of their coffee's flavor. As long as it tastes like “good coffee,” they're happy.

Good coffee roasters always care about the details of our coffees' flavor. We buy the finest coffee beans available and roast them to bring out their best. That's how we're able to consistently bring you the coffee you love.

We always start with green coffee. Green coffee beans are raw seeds, the pit of the coffee cherry. Before roasting they taste a lot like grass, vaguely herbal, but otherwise uninteresting. The flavors we all love in coffee develop as the coffee beans are roasted. Light roasting brings out lively notes in the coffee, while going darker mutes high notes and can hide flaws.

To get a feeling for the flavors you might find in coffee, check out the flavor wheels above. The flavor wheel is a vast simplification of coffee flavors (1200 different compounds, remember?), but it's where coffee roasters start when they go to judge coffee. The wheel on the left represents the bad flavors found in flawed coffee beans. Musty? Soapy? Acrid? Yuck! With the exception of some coffees from Sumatra, which may have a hint of earthiness, a good roaster will never sell coffee beans that have any of those flavors.

The wheel on the right shows flavors found in good coffee. Since flavor combines taste and aroma (we're setting aside texture and mouth feel for the moment), the wheel is split into two half circles. The smaller half circle represents taste and the larger one represents aroma.

Not all of the tastes and aromas in coffee are pleasant. No one wants their coffee to taste harsh, for instance, or smell ashy. That's why it's so important to roast and brew the coffee properly. Even the best coffee can turn nasty if it isn't treated right.

Bean, roast, grind, brew, there are so many factors in a coffee's flavor! To tease them apart, let's start with the bean. Next time on A Matter of Taste, The Bean