Received a great follow up question from one of my favourite coffee people Derek Hamers! In regards to last week’s rantings, he asks “What do you mean by “bergamot?” How would you describe that flavor? Do you think it’s a roasting misstep?

Part of my objection to its frequent use as a taste note is captured perfectly by the question itself. What do you actually mean when you put bergamot on a bag? How do you actually describe that flavour? But, whoa now – this would not be ‘Ask Lee’ without the meandering scenic route. So let us first talk about browning reactions, profiling coffee, and the creation of taste (note: feel free to skip me clumsily lurching through chemistry by jumping to the paragraph that starts with ‘👉 background done!’)

In the “Science of browning reactions“, Joseph Rivera suggests an apple as a good starting point for coffee chemistry. When we cut an apple into slices, we break apart its ‘cellulose’. Ruptured cells unleash a myriad of compounds into surrounding tissues. One of these enzymes transforms clear phenosl into new long chains, which magically transforms the apple’s colour! This is enzymatic browning in action.

The twin or counterpart to enzymatic browning is non-enzymatic browning. It does not rely upon any specific enzyme reaction but rather the interactions between heat, sugar, and amino acids. The transformation from green seed to roasted coffee is thanks to two non-enzymatic browning reactions: caramelization and the Maillard reaction. In grossly simple terms, transforming sugars create a huge range of aromas and flavours through heat application. In caramelization, sugar turns from sweet to bitter as evaporation leaves it gooey and burnt. For Malliard reactions, amino acids and sugar combine to form a number of new compounds like pyridine, pyrazine, phenol, or formic, acetic, glycolic and lactic acids. These shift the taste of coffee the same way a knife cut transforms the sight of the apple.

OK! 👉 Background done! Why does this all matter? Well, roasting is a series of decisions. Over the course of twelve to fifteen-ish minutes, you need to continuously select airflow, drum pressure, quantity of flame and quality of heat. Each choice compounds and the cup flavour will retroactively reflect the roasters path. In my email last week, I was slagging on taste notes whose story is one of tragedy. Too much heat, too short of a roast, a lack of chemical stability and so on. Enter bergamot…

You pick up a bag of coffee. It promises the taste of bergamot. Your mind flashes, ‘do they mean the herb? No, must be the orange. Or wait, could it be the bath-wrinkled lime?’ 😅 My first problem with bergamot is it communicates so little. To echo Derek, what do you mean? My second issue is that it signals a roasting misstep.

Allow me a bold comparison. Chopped is a television cooking show in which chefs receive a basket of four ingredients and make competing dishes. For coffee, origin, processing, and varietal will determine the possible flavours (like the basket) and a good roaster will then profile those notes into a sweet, juicy, and clean cup (akin to the dish). A well-developed coffee will perfectly elevate these signature characteristics of origin. Under-development will instill it with universal flavours of green and vegetable – think peapods, hay, herbs and citrus peels. Take a coffee too far and you will equally erase its unique potential with burnt notes of char.

It is one thing to find the fruit, berry, caramel, nut, or chocolate notes in a coffee and it is another to modulate or profile the roast to make them work cohesively. To return to the chemistry side, controlling the non-enzymatic browning means controlling the taste. Bergamot (along with most herb notes) is on the cusp of underdevelopment. Push that roast! Notes that speak to spice? You are burning the outside of the bean – chopped! Tomato can be okay in a Kenya but with some play you can shift it towards full fruit. I ultimately want to see the hard work of producers celebrated and while I am still learning (and happily admit I have soooo much to learn), I will throw shade at these taste notes because I want an industry wide focus on well-articulated cups. No more random profiles with confusing descriptions with discordant flavours.

🙏 💓 🔪☕