Five of the biggest factors that contribute to the flavor of your coffee.
One of the most asked questions I’ve gotten in my 5 years of being in the coffee industry is, “Why does my coffee taste like this?” Sometimes this question is asked when a customer tastes the goodness of specialty coffee for the first time, sometimes it’s in a cupping when a guest is able to taste a number of coffees side by side, and other times it’s pure curiosity towards the overall process of coffee. Each time I answer this question I always start by saying there are hundreds of factors that contribute to the flavor of coffee, but there are 5 main factors that are that seem to make the biggest contribution…
Where in the world coffee comes from is a HUGE factor in contributing to the flavor you taste in the cup. Each country where coffee grows (mostly between the tropics) has a very specific climate. Not only that, but each country even has it’s own unique soil make up. Furthermore, each country also has a varying degree of infrastructure in how effectively they are able to sort and export coffee… this all affects flavor!
To add to the complexity a bit, any coffee professional or home coffee geek will also tell you how much coffee flavor can change from region to region within a single country! Not only that, but altitude also affects things and a coffee from the exact farm can taste different from year to year based on the annual growing conditions. Get this… while I was in Guatemala, I had 2 coffees from the SAME FARM that tasted very different and the only difference between these two coffees was what side of the hill the coffee grew on!
Bottom line, you can expect certain counties around the world to produce a general flavor profile, but keep in mind that subtle differences are also present and very much appreciated among coffee pros!
2. Plant Type
Just like tomatoes, coffee also has different varieties. We’ve got caturra, catuai, bourbon, and heirloom to name a few. Each of these have distinct flavor characteristics, however the only time varietals make a big difference in flavor profile is when you can taste a batch of coffee from only one single cultivar… most all coffee is a mix of different varietals. Farmers usually have a mix of varieties on their farm to help diversify their crop and make sure it won’t all get wiped out by a disease or pest. So tasting a single variety is somewhat of an uncommon occurrence.
But the reason I still say plant type is a big factor is because there are 2 parent cultivars all these others varieties descend from… Arabica and Robusta, you may have heard of them! Long story short, robusta is a more durable, easy to grow plant that yields A LOT of fruit, and Arabica is more picky, fragile, and yields less fruit than Robusta. The flavor difference in these two plants is HUGE! Robusta has a sort of motor oil, astringency to the flavor and high quality Arabica has a prized sweetness and potential to taste very bright and complex!
So all that to say, whether the coffee you are drinking is Arabica or Robusta can make a huge difference in how it tastes. Also, one last bit for all you coffee nerds: learning the coffee family tree can be very helpful to see how crossing Robusta and Arabica strains to create disease resistant hybrids can create some interesting flavor profiles!
As we progress along in building on what components affect coffee flavor, the next link in the chain is called processing. There’s A LOT of ways to make this happen, but basically all ‘processing’ means is separating the coffee cherry from the seed inside, the seed is what you know as the coffee bean!
There are three main ways to make this happen, and also keep in mind the skill and effectiveness of these different methods also has an effect on flavor!
Washed Process : the world’s most popular method for processing high quality specialty coffee. Basically a series of washing and mechanical stripping is used to separate the seed and cherry. Sometimes fermentation is also used to help remove some of the sticky fruit matter. From here the coffee is dried in big mechanical dryers or out in the sun on cement patios or raised beds.
Honey Process : becoming a favorite among today’s specialty coffee roasters. Here, the fruit skin is peeled off the cherry and the fleshy fruit matter that coats the bean called mucilage is left on. In this form the coffee is dried on raised beds to promote good airflow and the combination of the controlled fermentation that takes place as well as the high sugar content of the mucilage leave the end product with a very sweet flavor profile, sometimes even flavor notes of actual honey develop. After drying the mucilage layer is rather brittle and can be pulled off with some light mechanical agitation.
Dry Process : the world’s oldest method. In the dry method, no water is required. The cherry is picked and left to dry completely intact. When proper moisture content is achieved, the cherry then gets mechanically hulled to separate cherry and seed. Just like the honey process, a very fruited and sweet profile is possible if done well. However, the dry process is also implemented for cruddy and subpar coffee as it requires the least amount of resources and attention… so dry process doesn’t always mean a good tasting sweet coffee as some people think.
So, all these factors take place all for the coffee to end up at the roastery. Here, the roaster is tasked with taking the rather flavorless green seed and using just the right amount of heat over time to transform the seed into a beautiful aromatic compound that’s able to have it’s flavor extracted with hot water. A lot of chemical and physical changes place here, but the main thing that’s happening with roasting is the aromatic compounds in coffee become soluble and sugars and acid chains develop. The level of roast (light-dark) also will create a specific taste. My goal as a roaster is always to bring out the most balanced sweetness. I usually shy away from dark roasts as the flavors of smoke that develop can quickly overpower the intrinsic, fragile, bright and sweet notes. One single coffee can have such a vast range of flavors depending on the sole factor of roasting… roasters each have their own style and approach – mine is to always bring out the most intrinsic flavor profile in each coffee so as to exemplify the work of the farmer that has been done before I even roasted the coffee!
Lastly, brewing…a single coffee brewed as an espresso vs a pourover vs a french press… they all taste different! Maybe you drink coffee in a frappacino, obviously that’s adding a whole new level of flavor! In the coffee industry we use the term extraction to explain the level and quality of flavors we can pull out of roasted coffee with water. The goal is to pull out just the right amount of the best flavors to craft a cup! Ideal extraction can be achieved with a variety of brew methods… an espresso is very viscous and intense, a pourover can be complex and dynamic, and a french press can accentuate body and mouthfeel… and again, all can be within the right range and have this wide range!
Like I said earlier, there are hundreds of factors that contribute to a coffee’s flavor, but these 5 make the biggest difference. As you can see, even within these 5 factors there is a wide range of possibilities and outcomes… coffee is an incredibly diverse beverage and as you seek to understand what makes your coffee taste the way it does, you will continue to unlock even more dynamic topics you never considered!
Written by Brice Sturmer
Owner and Operator of Velodrome Coffee Company