Last week, I curmudgeonly outlined the shortcomings and vagueness of using taste notes like bergamot. I had the pleasure of chatting more with Derek Hamers about the topic and he followed-up with another great question: “if bergamot signals some problems in roast profiling, does that extend into the other floral or herbal notes? In the past, I have been told you shouldn’t be able to have both floral and sweet in a well-developed coffee – is it is an either/or situation?”
Previously on ‘Ask Lee’, we covered how altering a roast’s reactions (like non-enzymatic browning) shifts its taste. Beyond its ambiguity, my issue with bergamot as a note is that it sits on the borders of underdevelopment. To illustrate, here is the current SCAA tasting wheel:
To create the wheel, the SCAA relied on an experiment at Kansas State University in which trained sensory scientists worked through 105 samples from 14 coffee producing countries. The aim was to find the most common or familiar notes and eliminate those more isolated or obscure descriptions. The result was the WCR Lexicon that lists ‘descriptive’, ‘quantifiable’ and ‘replicable’ taste notes. For example, raspberry is “slightly sweet, fruit, floral, slightly sour and musty aromatic associated with raspberries” and can be referenced using Jell-O raspberry. Or, pear is the “sweet, slightly floral, musty, woody, fruity aromatic associated with pears” and can be replicated by tasting Jumax Pear Nectar in a can. Building upon the lexicon, a ‘sensory summit’ at the University of California at Davis had attendees group flavours and tastes into larger factions like sweet or floral or fruity, which became the foundation of the wheel pictured above.
I bring this up because we can very easily isolate several components in Derek’s question. Under the “green/vegetative’ there is the ‘herb-like’ taste that the lexicon describes as an “aromatic commonly associated with green herbs that may be characterized as sweet, slightly pungent, and slightly bitter”. Not tasty in coffee. Moving counterclockwise, we travel past sour through fruity into floral, which is the “sweet, light, slightly fragrant aromatic associated with fresh flowers” identified through rose, jasmine, chamomile and black tea. Continuing the journey, we hit the sweet-spot before arriving at nutty/cocoa and the more troublesome spices/roasted sections.
Beyond showing the constellation of flavours pondered over the last couple emails, the wheel illuminates the chronological progression of roast development. From a raw seed’s hay and peapod to a dark roast’s smoke and ash, it displays the oscillation from universal (under and over) to all those unique tastes of fruit, floral, and sweet. In other words, it visualizes how all coffees regardless of origin can develop those green and roasted sections but only certain coffees will have elements from the fruity and sweet segments, like peach or lime or maple syrup. So the question remains…can you have sweet AND floral?
Of course! It is literally written into those lexicon definitions. Floral flavours contain sweet tastes. It goes back to that endless series we did on tasting coffee. While the terms are often used interchangeably, taste only describes five things: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. Flavour builds through combinations of these tastes. For example, a peach’s peachiness is due to a mix of sour and sweet constructed upward to a floral, creamy, and fruity flavour.
A well-profiled coffee will leverage the green’s potential flavours established by terroir. For example, a stone fruit-laced Ethiopia, a berry-loaded Kenya or fudge-heavy Guatemala. And then through profiling, a roaster will balance its taste by rounding out anything too sour or drawing out sweetness with a tinge of caramel or chocolate. To the question: yes, it means deploying beautiful floral notes but in a chorus of other flavours and not accepting those liminal borders of herbs or spice.
Let me close with a Cut story. Last year, we fell in love with Luz Alba and Geovanny Liscano’s La Palmera. Through their work with Aleco from Red Fox, they continue to grow and process one of the most delicate, rich, and fantastically sweet coffees in all of Colombia. Since the fresh crop landed at HQ, I have been chasing those illusive bright tropical notes of last year. But honestly, it has been a struggle to find and fit all the pieces together. The breakthrough this week: rather than going high and bright, I needed to draw out the low, deep base notes. Given its varietal, the late harvest, and heavy rains fostering slower drying this year, it makes sense that pushing stewed fruits along with dense brown sugar and, yes, a floral haze makes for the best cup. Profiling in action!