I came about this article because I was asked the same question, and I did not know the exact answer. If you have visited my site before, you have probably noticed that I write reviews for Volcanica Coffee Company. As I was updating my reviews, I noticed that some flavor notes of some previous reviews I had written, had changed drastically. Why? How could a coffee flavor go from one extreme to the other? So I decided to do a little digging and find out for myself.
I knew of some ways flavor could be achieved in coffee, but I did not realize the extent that farmers go through to achieve these very delicious and sometimes very rare, flavors. I found that there are two main ways that contribute to the flavor of your coffee. One being the natural process, meaning how they farm, the land they farm on, the climate, altitude, and many more aspects. The other being by human intervention, including harvesting and processing of the beans, roasting the beans, storing the beans, and the science of infusing flavors into already harvested and roasted coffee beans.
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The Natural Process
There are three levels from which a coffee bean can retain its flavor, primary, secondary, and tertiary (or terrior). Tertiary being the most important.
Tertiary: This consists of the soil, the water composition, how much rain and sun is had (and when), the climate/temperature, altitude, and how close to the equator the coffee trees are grown.
- All coffee trees are grown and harvested within 1000 miles of the equator, and usually in altitudes between 3,000 and 8,000 feet. The higher the altitude, the better the coffee. Some of the best coffees in the world are grown in these elevations.
- The soil needs to be very mineral rich and very fertile. It also needs to be able to drain well so there is no water retainment in the roots. Just like any other plant or tree, too much water can be damaging. Volcanic soil is extremely mineral rich and produces some best coffee beans in the world.
- The composition of the water is also very important, this is why other coffee fanatics and myself always suggest using filtered water when making your coffee.
- The climate contributes to how fast or slow the coffee tree will grow. If it is hot during the day, but cooler at night, the coolness at night will slow the growing of the tree itself, and make the tree focus more on growing the berry fruit instead. This also helps the sugars to fully develop in the bean, which in turn helps create those delicious flavors. This is why most coffees grown in such high altitudes yield better tasting coffee beans.
- Amount of rainfall and sun play a key role in how a coffee bean turns out also. Regions that get good rainfall and average around 60-80 inches in a year will produce a very rich and flavorful coffee bean. That is about 5-10 inches per month. Since most coffee farms are close to the equator, they pretty much get enough sunshine.
- Finally, the cultivation. This is so important. This is how they fertilize the coffee tree, the irrigation process, nutrients used, and whether they have used pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, or any other non-natural substances on the tree. This is why us in the coffee world try to stick to the organic coffees. They are much better for us, and the environment.
There are also hundreds of varieties of coffee all with different characteristics, the way a coffee bean tastes and even smells, can be affected by any of the above mentioned aspects.
Primary: These are the main flavors you taste when you sip your coffee. They are also the flavors that create those delicious aromas we smell when brewing a pot or walking into our favorite cafe. These consist of chocolate, nuts, floral, sugar/sweetness, fruits, and an almost earthy taste in some.
Secondary: These flavors piggyback off the primary flavors. For example, chocolate can be anywhere between bittersweet or milk chocolate. Nuts can be broken down to a specific type, hazelnut, almond, pecans, etc. Floral can be things like lavender, lemongrass, orange blossom, etc. The sweetness can be things like honey, brown sugar, vanilla, butter, etc. The earthy tones come from things like tea, tobacco, cedar, or anything else that may be growing in the same soil close to the coffee tree. Fruit flavors would consist of a wide variety of stone fruit, citrus fruit, berries, and many more.
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Though coffee flavor can differ by country and continent. For example, countries in Africa will produce flavors that are more earthy, tea-like, floral and fruity. Countries in Central America and South America produce coffee flavors such as chocolate, caramel, brown sugar, vanilla, nuts and some fruit and floral. Most North American coffee comes from Hawaii, and these usually share the same traits as Central and South American coffees. Coffees from Asia can have more earthy and smoky flavors, along with spices like cloves and peppers, and some fruity flavors.
NOTE: This is a generalization of the differences that origin can have on your coffee of choice. Single-origin coffee is widely praised for being from one specific country, region, farm or estate, and is usually more expensive than blended coffees, which can contain coffee beans from many countries or regions.
While the flavors that develop according to the Natural Process are distinct and delicious, they can be completely changed if any of the steps below are not done the right way at the right time. It is extremely easy to have a coffee bean start out tasting one way, and end up tasting a whole different way due to these factors.
Harvesting: The most important thing to remember about coffee, is that it is a fruit. Just like any other fruit, it needs to be picked at it’s ripest in order to ensure the best flavor.
Processing: Coffee beans are processed three ways, wet/washed, semi-washed, and dry (naturally dried in the fruit itself).
- Wet/Washed: This is when the coffee berry is completely stripped of its skin, pulp, and the thin layer of mucilage that surrounds the coffee bean. The result is a flavor that is true to its origin and way of the natural process.
- Semi-washed: This is when the skin is removed from the fruit, but the pulp and mucilage is kept on while drying. The resulting flavor is sweeter with a thicker mouthfeel and balanced acidity.
- Dry/Natural: This is when the coffee bean is completely dried in the fruit and all its glory. The result is a sweet and fruity flavor that may overpower the more natural flavors that originated first.
NOTE: If the coffee fruit is dried too fast and too hot, it will result in possibly burning the beans and will give them a burnt or papery taste. Yet if they are dried too slow, this could cause them to taste moldy and musty the longer the moisture is on the bean. Farmers have been doing this for years and they have pretty much mastered the art of processing a coffee bean to taste a certain way.
Roasting: This plays a huge role in the outcome of flavor in a coffee bean, and can be easily messed up if not done correctly. There are three main ways a coffee bean can be roasted. Light roast, medium roast, and dark roast.
- Light Roast: This results in a denser coffee bean with higher acidity, more caffeine, and more of its natural flavors. If roasted too light you could end up with an extremely acidic cup of coffee.
- Dark Roast: This results in less acidity, less caffeine (by volume), and richer, more bold flavors due to the caramelization during the roasting process. If a coffee bean is roasted too dark it can become carbonized. This stage is well past the caramelization stage and could very well end up drying the bean out too much, and it becomes burnt.
- Medium Roast: This is by far (in my opinion and most others also) the best balance between the light and the dark roasts. It won’t be as dense as a light roast, or as acidic, and will encompass some rich flavors of a dark roast from minimal caramelization and give you a thicker flavor.
I have always said that making coffee is an art. Roasting is an intricate part of that art. It is easy to mess this part up and go from one flavor note to a whole different one from the same coffee bean. I have written another post that goes into more detail on the roasting process, if you would like to learn more click here.
Storage: How you store your coffee and how fast you use it, plays an important part in how long the flavors in your particular coffee bean will last. As soon as you grind your coffee and/or it comes in contact with air, the oxidation process will start almost immediately. Once coffee beans are roasted, they are usually bagged as soon as possible in a sealed breathable bag. If the coffee is stored in a cool, dry place with consistent conditions, it can last up to over a year in storage.
NOTE: Be assured though, the longer it is left in storage, the more it will take on the flavors from the surrounding air, kind of like when you leave a shirt in your dresser drawer for too long and it smells like must and wood when you finally pull it out. Same for coffee, the flavor will change over time and the longer it sits, the more drastic the change will be.
Though the coffee may not be stale so to speak, it will definitely not represent the original flavors it had when it was first roasted. My suggestion is to use your coffee within the first 3 weeks to ensure the best tasting cup. Most importantly, buy whole beans and only grind what you need for that morning or that cup. This will give you the best results.
Brewing: This is the final chance to get that perfect cup of coffee. Depending on how you like your coffee will depend on how you brew it and achieve your final product. This can consists of how coarse or fine you grind the beans, the temperature of the water and composition of the water used, the amount of time the coffee grounds are exposed to the water, how much pressure is used, etc. The type of coffee maker you use will determine some of these factors. You can find more on different coffee makers and how to use them here.
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Ideally we would love to believe that we can make ourselves the perfect cup of coffee. Though this would require every single step of the coffee beans life cycle to be done exactly the way it should without any room for error. This is almost impossible. So we can do the next best thing. Know what goes into creating the best coffee beans, where they are from, and the origin flavors they hold.
When we are able to decipher the slight differences in taste and smell, we can then take the appropriate steps to ensure those flavors stick around for the final presentation. Then and only then are we able to really enjoy and appreciate that delicious morning cup we look forward to everyday.
First and foremost, I am not a scientist, and do not claim to be. I am a coffee enthusiast and want to learn all I can about the delicious morning tradition the majority of us share, so I can share my knowledge with you. I will make this as simple as possible.
While all the origin flavors of coffee are delicious, sometimes the beans we get just aren’t as grade A as the rest. They will take the less desirable beans and either group them separate, or combine them together, and then add flavor oils to them in order to cover up the less desired attributes the coffee bean may contain. These coffees are then sold as a “specialty coffee” and sometimes can be more expensive than the single-origin coffees with more natural flavors.
How do they do this?
- They start by roasting the coffee beans to a level that will mask the less desirable traits of the bean.
- Then professional chemists will extract flavor oils from things like vanilla beans, cocoa beans, nuts, fruits and spices, teas, etc.
- They mix the oil with the beans in a mixer that will not damage the beans (usually a ribbon mixer), until they are completely covered and the oil is visible on every bean.
- They are then packaged and sold as “specialty coffee”.
Flavors like green tea, maple bacon, chocolate almond bliss, peach cobbler, ice cream sundae, butter pecan, and banana nut are some examples of flavor infused coffees. With the flavor infusion process, almost any flavor you can think of, is achievable.
I hope this was informational for you and that you learned something new about the long loved tradition of drinking coffee. Coffee is easily the most complicated product we consume, and there are endless variables and compounds that go into producing that “perfect” cup. Some of which are still yet to be discovered.
So the next time you brew your self a cup of your favorite joe, try to separate the flavors on your pallet, and see what may be hiding behind the more prominent ones. It may just be the difference between a good cup of coffee, and a great cup of coffee.
If you have any questions or comments on this topic, please don’t hesitate to leave them below, as I am always eager to learn something new, and help others along the way.
For the Love of Coffee