Flavor notes are the descriptive words we choose to help us distinguish between coffees. Keep in mind these are not additives to the coffee, but the inherent flavors it has based on how and where it was grown, processed, roasted, and even aged and stored. Think of how wine flavors are influenced by the distinct terroir the grapes were grown in and how old the vintage is.
We use flavor notes to identify the sweetness of coffees, how balanced a cup is, determine how the finish of the cup. We also use it to give meaning to the strength of the acidity, aromas and mouth feel of the coffee. For example, a coffee may be sweet like honey, tart like a tangerine, heavy like cream, with a chocolate balance and lingering finish. These words are very distinct within their categories; a tangerine has a different tartness compared to a grapefruit, honey tastes different compared to the sweetness of molasses.
At home, practicing picking out flavor notes is a way to steer yourself towards finding a coffee you love. Maybe you love coffees that taste similar to caramel and cinnamon. Pinpointing what attributes makes those coffees taste like cinnamon and caramel can ensure a more informed purchasing decision.
Picking flavor notes while tasting coffee can feel a little daunting at first but gets easier with practice! We love to use flavor wheels like the SCA Coffee Taster’s Flavor Wheel to train our palates. Generally, the wheels are made up of concentric circles with descriptor groupings forming outward. Usually the groupings closer to the radius are broader categories like “chocolate” and “fruit” and "sweet". As the groupings move outwards they become more distinct: fruit will branch off into citrus, pear,& stone fruit, which will branch off into peach, nectarine, apricot, etc.
To use a flavor wheel at home, think about what flavors you taste and compare those flavors to the center of the flavor wheel.
Find a category that matches what you taste and work from the radius outwards. (e.g. if you taste chocolate in your coffee, start in the "chocolate" grouping and work outwards to pinpoint if you taste the dryness of baker’s chocolate, or the strength of dark chocolate, or the sweetness of milk chocolate, etc. )
Take another sip and see if you can pull multiple flavors out of one cup of coffee.
Before you know it you will be a super taster!