Coffee tasting notes: what are they and where do they come from?

Each coffee has its own specific taste, characterized by different tones and their nuances. These taste properties are natural to coffee and determined by a number of factors.

Five Basic Attributes of Coffee

The quality of coffee is evaluated on so-called cuppings, during which the five basic attributes of coffee are assessed: aroma, taste, acidity , body and aftertaste. And it is the taste and the hidden taste tones hidden that are the most fascinating in coffee.

cupping a coffee in our roaster
Coffee tasting, so-called cupping, in our roaster.

Taste tones are the natural properties of coffee, whose origin is influenced by geographical and climatic conditions, the farming method, the collection and processing of green coffee and, last but not least, its roasting and the preparation itself. The taste tones that coffee contains are not affected by chemically produced flavors or additives, but so-called terroir [read teʀwaʀ].

Terroir: What Lies Behind the Taste of Quality Coffee

The term “terroir” comes from the French word “terre”, which literally means earth, land or region. However, terroir actually includes all environmental conditions such as soil, annual precipitation, average temperatures, the amount of sunlight, altitude or the surrounding flora and fauna.

Even the smallest differences in geographical and climatic conditions, the harvesting method and processing of coffee beans have an impact on the mentioned attributes of coffee. Terroir is unique for each region, so it can be said that every single coffee reveals the unique taste of its origin.

Coffee region in the Quindío region of Colombia
The Quindío region of Colombia is known for its coffee-growing and beautiful scenery.

At the same time, however, this same terroir can change from year to year. During periods of above-average drought or, conversely, excessive humidity and precipitation, the maturation of coffee can also change, thus its resulting taste in the cup. But let’s talk a little more about the key factors of terroir and its effect on the taste of coffee.

How Does Altitude Affect the Taste of Coffee?

All world coffee production comes from the so-called tropical regions, called the Coffee Belt, which extends approximately 30 degrees north and south of the equator. This belt includes Central and South America, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, Africa and Arabia, and some islands, including the northern part of Australia.

One of the most important factors influencing the quality and taste of coffee is the altitude and the closely-related climate. Both significantly contribute to the creation of the taste profile of coffee. In general, the higher the altitude, the more pronounced and unique the taste profile of the coffee . A great example is our Kenya Tekangu Tegu (1,750 – 1,950 m above sea level) or Ethiopia Dimtu Tero (1,800 – 2,130 m above sea level).

Overhead view of Cocora Valley in Colombia
Cocora Valley in the Quindío coffee region of Colombia.

The coffee tree has ideal conditions at high altitudes of the tropical zone – a climate without freezing temperatures, year-round temperatures around 20-22 °C, light rainfall and plenty of sunlight. The coffee cherries thus ripen more slowly, which creates more complex sugars in the beans, thanks to which the coffee acquires a more pronounced, more complex taste. Excess water drains better from higher areas as well, which reduces its content in the fruit and increases the concentration of flavors in the bean.

Did you know that…? The best coffees in the world are grown at altitudes between 1,200 and 2,000 meters above sea level, but there are exceptions. On the Hawaiian island of Kona, coffee is grown to a height of 600 m above sea level, because the local microclimate is quite cold and coffee trees would not be able to withstand temperature drops in the higher zones.

In coffee areas with very low altitudes, coffee trees have poorer conditions for growth and cultivation. Higher temperatures and less rainfall in these areas result in the coffee maturing faster. As a result, the structure of the coffee bean is softer, less dense and the coffee has a simple, indistinct, often earthy taste. Such coffee loses its taste during prolonged storage and generally does not tolerate darker roasting, so they are commonly sold below market prices in cheap coffee blends.

Detail of a plant in the soil

Soil quality: The Alpha and Omega of Coffee Trees Growing

Coffee trees need the right proportion of nutrients to get them to the cherries at the required amount. Several basic macro and micro nutrients are needed for the proper development and growth of coffee trees. An insufficiency of these nutrients can have a negative impact not only on the growth and ripening of cherries, but also on the overall crop and taste of coffee.

The basic macro nutrients a coffee tree draws from the soil include nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium and sulphur. In addition, coffee trees also need micro-nutrients such as iron, zinc, copper, manganese, boron, chlorine and molybdenum, and nickel. If some of the nutrients are missing, then coffee cherries are not able to sufficiently develop; there is a mismatch in their size and ripening, or various deformations or even decomposition can occur. The lack of nutrients is subsequently reflected in the content of oils and fats responsible for the overall taste profile of coffee.

Dewy leaf of coffee tree

The soil directly affects the quality of coffee and how it can work with moisture. Volcanic soil, for example, has a high ability to retain water, due to which the roots of coffee trees can increase to the thickness of a human finger. This allows them to store a certain amount of water in case of excessive drought. Equally important, however, is the structure of the soil and its ability to drain excess water, which can also adversely affect the final taste of the coffee.

Did you know that…? The growth of the coffee tree and the quality of the coffee are also affected by the pH of the soil. When its value is optimal – between 4.9 and 5.6 pH – a coffee tree can absorb nutrients better, which leads to greater yields, but also to less problems with pests and diseases.

The taste tones in coffee are also greatly influenced by the farming method and the surrounding biodiversity. Many, especially small coffee growers, are financially dependent on growing other crops. For example, bananas often provide coffee trees with protection from direct sunlight and their skins simultaneously serve as an excellent fertilizer. Thanks to this, the phosphorus content in the soil increases, which gives the coffee more pronounced acid tones and an amazing creaminess.

Farmer dries coffee beans in the sun
Coffee processing station in El Salvador.

Influence of the Processing Method on the Taste Profile of Coffee

Depending on the region and variety of coffee, coffee cherries are harvested, either selectively – by the laborious hand harvesting of ripe cherries solely, or by belt – mass harvesting of all, even unripe cherries. As with any fruit, the different stages of ripeness is reflected in the final taste.

In order to obtain beans from coffee cherries, the cherries still need to be processed after harvesting. The most common methods include the washed, natural and honey methods. As each method is specific and the result always consists of a different taste profile of coffee, the correct choice is extremely important. Although a crop is of good quality and the cherries are perfectly ripe, an improperly chosen processing method can lead to defects in the coffee and degrade its “innate” taste properties.

Green coffee drying process
Drying of processed green coffee, Colombia.

The pulp of the coffee cherry contains a number of sugars, which undergo complex metabolic changes during processing, in turn affecting the chemical composition of green coffee. Depending on whether the cherries are dried as a whole or the pulp skin is partially or completely removed from the bean, reactions occur that affect the resulting sweetness and body of the coffee.

The natural method gives the coffee fruitiness and sweetness, as well as wildness. Tones of blueberries, strawberries, tropical fruits, as well as honey or alcohol-like tones are common. When processed by the washed method, the coffee acquires a purer taste profile, in which more acid tones appear in the cup. Honey-processed coffees tend to be significantly sweet, much more complex than washed-processed coffees, but they are also characterized by higher acidity.

Raw green coffee in a special container
Green coffee ready for roasting.

When the Roaster Reveals the Secret of Coffee…

The last, but no less important step to a dream cup of coffee is its roasting and preparation. Following the quality of green coffee, the right degree of roasting is the second most important factor, because the same coffee can have a completely different aroma and taste at different degrees of roasting. Ethiopian coffees are a great example. In light roasting, they can fully express their varietal character, characterized by tones of citrus and flowers. On the contrary, their darker roasting in the cup tends to manifest tones of dried fruit or caramel.

This entire long and demanding expedition behind taste tones concludes, as usual, with a cup of delicious coffee. Of course, the methods of its preparation already depend on the personal preferences of each one of us and the taste we want to achieve in the cup. Some like the intense tastes of espresso , others like the more traditional taste of moka coffee or French press. The younger generation, on the other hand, prefers alternative methods such as Aeropress or V60. However, we are all united by one thing: the love of quality coffee and the endless discovery of its hidden taste tones.

Roasted coffee bean