A preliminary taxonomy of coffee tasting notes

October 04, 2011


During my coffee explorations, I’ve noticed that roasters and other coffee pros approach the challenge/chore [some might say necessary evil?] of creating descriptions for their coffees from different angles and with different degrees of tongue-in-cheekness. The variability is truly fascinating and mildly amusing. Below is a summary of what I’ve observed, a preliminary taxonomy of tasting notes. If I’m missing any major categories, please let me know!



The overly terse:

“Passion Fruit, Nectarines, Juicy Goodness”—Handsome Coffee Roasters, Kenya Ruthagati AA

I think they were going for unpretentious but may have slipped too far toward generic along the way. Of course, these guys’ reputations undoubtedly sell more coffee than their verbiage (or lack thereof).



The extra-culinary:

“A rather different and peculiar espresso. The first sip is a splash of mustard that becomes reminiscent of fresh dill. Slowly, it fades into a potpourri of sweet peppers, fresh garden tomatoes, and grilled mushrooms.”—Ecco Caffè, Ecco Espresso (as described by Spro Coffee)

Quiche, anyone? Spro’s owner is a true foodie, so this one doesn’t come as much of a shock.



The criminally exclamatory [see also: the laundry list]:

“This coffee is unlike any other natural or Geisha in the world. The Geisha flavor profile is unique, complex, balanced, and mind-blowing. The complexity of the Geisha includes flavors of sugar cane, oranges, apricots, peaches, pears, berries, black cherries, spiced tea and more.”—Klatch, Don Pachi Geisha

Ok, this coffee was, indeed, unique, and at times amazing (especially 4 days post-roast and then later iced). But still.



The literary [see also: anything by Intelligentsia]:

“Rich, deeply and sweetly expressed acidity dominates, nuanced by suggestions of grapefruit, tart pie cherry, fresh-cut fir and perhaps a rounding hint of table grape. Syrupy mouthfeel. Grapefruity citrus in particular carries into a sweet finish.”—Heart Coffee Roasters, Kenya Gichathaini (as described by Kenneth Davids @ Coffee Review)

Each word seems carefully selected and polished. There’s some Harlequin romance going on here as well, no?



The over-the-top:

“Aromas of ripe, sweet juniper berries and orange zest with enticing hints of gardenia. Flavors of red cherry Starburst up front, with dates and figs rounding out the cup.”—Ritual Coffee Roasters, Volare Espresso

You can get away with one excessively specific reference (“ripe, sweet juniper berries”) but not two, in my opinion (“red cherry Starburst”). Is there a distinction worth drawing between ripe and unripe sweet juniper berries? Do I need to start chewing on them at various stages of ripeness in order to train up and fall more deeply in love with my palate?



The “what are you smoking?” [in the best possible way]:

“This is the most sought after and coveted of Edwin Martinez's coffees. The coffee is supernaturally balanced with northern lights soft yet bright acidity. It has flavors of ripe cherry, chocolate kisses and a hazelnut finish that seems to never end. This is a quintessential Barefoot California coffee. Damn this coffee rocks. Radiohead meets The Fall. Sunshine meets earth. Coffee reaches heaven.”—Barefoot Coffee, Guatemala Vista Hermosa

This one might well have been written during a Pink Floyd laser light show at the local planetarium.



The cut-and-dry [not to be mistaken for Davids-style fresh-cut fir or other aromatic woods]:

“When combined with milk, this blend is specifically engineered to produce bold notes of caramel.”— Espresso Vivace Roasteria, Vita

They do go on to talk about gorgeous body afterward, but you get the point.



The “why bother?”:

“Sturdy and deep roasty flavor”—Starbucks, Italian Roast

Need I say more? Almost too easy.



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