So we’ve covered that tasting notes are important and the advantages of offering them in Part 1 : Display your notes.
I’ve also covered some of the disadvantages of them and why they may sometimes be inaccurate in Part 2 : Texture and Body descriptors.
The trouble with tasting notes is they’re only accurate under the conditions they were tasted. So if you change anything then how the coffee tastes will change a bit too.
The simple fact is that there is huge variation in how the roasters tasted the coffee when writing their notes, likely a cupping soon after roasting, and how you brew them in a shop, likely espresso or filter. Throw in other variables like equipment, water, recipes, green bean age and rest time too and you’re really not tasting the same brewed coffee.
The issue is most coffee shops still just use what’s written on the bag. Not accounting for all their unique variables and how that affects the taste.
Not so long ago I was doing this too, it’s flawed and defeats the point of notes in many cases. Tasting notes are supposed to be a guide to the flavour you should expect in order to help customers choose, if you don’t think a coffee you serve has the tasting notes written on the bag then why would you say it does and mislead them?
So what’s the solution?
Write your own.
I’ve always found it disheartening when I ask a barista how the coffee tastes and they just look at the bag and read it to me, have they even tasted the coffee?
Even worse I’ve occasionally seen taste notes which are so specific or obscure that few people actually knows what they mean but still use them. This tends to be more common if the coffee was roasted in another country.
Notes for some Rwandan coffee from Drop Coffee Roasters, Stockholm
“Cocoa-butter and Lingonberry”
Most British people are unlikely to know what either taste like. Cocoa-butter is more related to cosmetics here and lingonberry* is pretty unheard of. So why use them as tasting notes as they’re completely unhelpful.
*Case and point my spell-checker registers lingonberry as a misspelling.
There are some advantages to making your own notes:
You actually have to taste the coffee and think about it
This is something any good coffee shop should do anyway but writing your own notes makes it mandatory. This makes all the team more engaged with what they’re selling since they’ve all had a more thoughtful experience with it. Your tastes will take account for the unique factors of brewing in your shop and you’ll be able to come up with notes that are understandable to your local customer base.
It’s sensory training if you do it as a group.
Regularly drinking coffee and discussing it is the best way to improve your understanding and sensory skills. Tasting yourself has limited value, drinking as a group and discussing notes to agree on will improve everyone’s skills. This is a real plus for those who eventually enter barista competitions as making accurate notes is the main points earner.
Using Roaster’s notes as a starting point, you can make very detailed and specific descriptions.
Although I’ve spent these three posts bashing roaster’s notes they are still likely to be in the same ball park as the end cup. Use these as a starting point and see how it changes across each brew-method. You can then expand on it by giving additional notes whilst going into more detail about the main characteristics.
The tasting notes will be more accurate
You’ll be describing the exact coffee you’re brewing and serving to guests, rather than the coffee your roaster cupped. It’s a really great feeling when you tell someone you’ll taste “this, this and this,” and they say they got them all too. By doing that it goes from being ‘just a coffee’ to a real sensory experience for someone who may not have appreciated coffee as much before.
Reasonably accurate tasting notes are essential otherwise you’d best not give them.
For this reason I’d suggest not giving notes if you’re not confident in them. Wait until you’ve developed your skills, individually or as a team, until you’re comfortable displaying them to guests.
If a customer drinks a coffee and looks at inaccurate notes they may think “I’m not getting any of these, maybe this speciality coffee thing isn’t for me.” We need to avoid this happening, it’s really off-putting for customers who may feel intimidated or silly for missing out.
This is why I feel it’s important to not just say what’s on the bag, as there will be times when the coffee has changed considerably.
Being able to come up with accurate notes is a skill that takes a lot of time and effort to develop. I’ve been a speciality barista for over 2 years and I’ve only recently become comfortable doing it. Largely that’s because I rarely get to taste with other baristas and roasters, get a group together regularly and you’ll improve much faster.
Get your whole team involved and improve your skills, it will be fun and you’ll gain more appreciation for just what makes speciality coffee so special.