During my barista tenure, I frequently encountered the “tastes like peaches? But not really tho, right?” remark, so I was very happy to receive this week’s question (which delightfully reads like a punchline set-up).
Coffee frequently tastes like a fruit for a simple reason: it is a fruit! Despite our use of the term “bean” to refer to coffee, it is actually the seed of a fruit very similar to cherries. I really like James Hoffman argument that the quality of coffee is at its peak on the tree and it’s a matter of maintaining it through picking, processing, roasting, and brewing. This does not mean raw beans taste pleasant (they actually tastes like dirt and pithy vegetables) but rather they contain all the constituents to make a remarkable and delicious cup.
As Scott Rao states, “during roasting, countless reactions, including Maillard reactions and caramelization, brown the beans and create hundreds of new taste and aroma compounds”. I could blather endlessly about the chemistry Rao alludes to but for the sake of brevity (and boredom), let me say this: a roaster’s job is to simultaneously develop and eliminate a range of sugars and acids to create a well-structured flavour profile. This generation and decay yields all kinds of savory, herbaceous, malty, fruity, nutty, chocolatey, sour, and burnt aromas and flavours. In this way, coffee mimics a whole range of foods because it shares volatile compounds that, for example, make a peach taste like a peach.
Not all beans are not created equal. Varietal, density, altitude, ripeness, processing, drying, storage, and shipment create a set of parameters. Hence, Ethiopian heirlooms grown in Yirgacheffe are often loaded with lemon. However, the roasting process can highlight or hide flavours. If you look at the SCAA tasters wheel, you can chart the roasting process with underdeveloped (herb, vegetable, peel, under-ripe) moving into properly developed (fruit, floral, sweet) and lastly heading into overdeveloped (spice, malt, and nut) territories. My roasting philosophy: create a window into origin through proper development. In other words, balance the volatile compounds to draw out the terroir and celebrate the hard work of farmers.
tl;dr: taste notes exist because coffee shares aroma and flavours compounds with a great deal of foods.
PS – some shade: it is weird when roasters brag about the inability to develop (herbs and peels) or properly profile (chocolate covered grapefruit).