Today’s Huge Choice of Coffee Bean Types – A Mixed Blessing
There are more coffee bean types available today than ever before, giving coffee us a fantastic choice of coffee flavours to discover. But choosing coffee beans is often a bit of a lottery, unless you have the time and money to try out many different beans side by side.
There are descriptions to help, but they can be overwhelming. You can end up feeling you need a degree in coffee tasting to know how the beans will actually taste.
Most people end up sticking to one or two coffee bean types they’ve found they like. And there's nothing wrong with that at all.
But if you want to explore beyond your usual choice, the best way is to know how to describe the coffee flavours you like in such a way that you can pick beans that will match.
How A Personal Coffee Flavour Profile Can Help You Choose Beans
A description of the coffee flavours you like in a cup is known as a coffee flavour profile, and is normally the preserve of professional coffee tasters. They use them to describe the flavours present in a particular coffee bean type, when deciding what to use in their stores and roasteries.
But it’s possible to use the process in reverse, by creating a flavour profile for coffee flavours you like, then choosing beans that match this.
The trick for regular coffee drinkers is learning how to create their own flavour profile and choose matching coffee bean, without the expertise and experience of a professional.
Our how-to guide helps you do exactly that. You’ll follow a simplified version of the process a taster follows, and use industry standard terms. You can then use this to match the flavours you know you like to the descriptions of beans.
Even if it doesn’t change your bean choices, the process should make you more aware of the different flavours you experience drinking coffee, and hopefully enjoy it more.
Before reading it, it’s worth reading our introduction to the Coffee Taster's Flavour Wheel. But if you don’t have time, jump straight to the How-to Guide below.
The How-to Guide To Discovering Your Personal Coffee Flavour Profile
The idea here is to use the Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel to start to identify – using your own taste buds and nose – coffee flavours you like (or dislike) in a cup of coffee.
You can refer to our image of the Flavour Wheel, or download and print a copy your own copy from the web.
If you haven't read our guide to the Coffee Taster's Flavour Wheel, here's what you missed:
The Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel is a professional’s tool containing specific, industry-defined terms for coffee flavours.
It’s read from the inside out, and if you’re a professional, you use it in conjunction with the Sensory Lexicon produced by World Coffee Research.
The top half consists of positive coffee flavours. The bottom half is more about detecting flaws in coffee beans, and can be ignored by most coffee drinkers.
The top half of the innermost ring consists of 5 General Flavours. Most coffee beans will predominantly taste of 1 or 2 of these
The next ring contains Umbrella Terms, which are refinements of the General Flavours
The outermost ring has Specific Descriptors – the most subtle variations of flavour. You don’t usually need them, but if you can detect them, they’re useful to know.
1. Start with a cup of coffee flavours you know you like, and ideally 1-2 others
You’ll need a freshly made cup of coffee made from beans with coffee flavours you know you like. If you don’t know what you like, either pick the house blend if you’re in a coffee shop, or a well-known general blend if you’re at home.
Make the coffee how you normally drink it i.e. using your preferred technique (eg espresso, filter etc.) and with your usual milk/sugar choice. Purists may suggest otherwise; they’d be right, but for our purposes we can ignore them.
If possible, it’s better to also have one or two other cups of coffee to compare with, made from other beans. It doesn’t matter too much what they are, but once you get past three, it can get a little confusing. The idea is to have different coffee flavours to compare.
The other recommendation is to have some water handy, to sip between different coffee beans, to clear tastes and aromas from your palate and nose.
Finally, if you can, try to ignore or avoid reading descriptions on the packaging of beans you’re trying. We’re not blind tasting, but are trying to avoid influencing what we expect from the coffee flavours we taste.
2. Try to spot General Coffee Flavours
Unlike the professionals’ approach, we’re not going to be prescriptive on how we identify coffee flavours. Instead of industry definitions, we’ll rely on taste buds, memory and imagination. Again, some will disagree, but we believe this is a realistic way to start learning about coffee flavours.
So, take a sip of coffee, preferably after drinking a mouthful of water, and savour the flavours and aromas slowly and thoughtfully.
Coffee tasters swill it around the mouth, making sure the drink has passed over every part of the tongue, and the upper parts of the palate too. It’s worth trying that, as taste buds on different parts of the tongue detect flavours slightly differently.
It’s also good to smell the coffee, separately from drinking it. Closing your eyes may help.
See if any of the General Flavours from the Flavour Wheel come to mind as you savour the drink, and if others emerge as or after you swallow the sip.
You’re looking for one or two from: “Spices”, “Nutty/cocoa”, “Sweet”, “Floral” and “Fruity”. You’re not after anything else at this point, so try to ignore any other terms that might apply. Restrict yourself to these five, and rely on your imagination to decide what you can taste.
If you have other cups of coffee available, try the same thing with them, with a mouthful of water between each.
Repeat the same thing a couple of times for each type of bean, and see if the General Flavour(s) you spotted become easier to taste.
Once you have decided on the General Flavours for your profile (and any you’re less keen on from the other cups you’re trying), make a note of them and move on.
3. Explore the Umbrella Terms
Once you have one or two General Flavours in mind, remind yourself of the Umbrella Terms for each of those General Flavours.
Restricting yourself to these, taste each cup again in turn, this time looking for hints of relevant terms. For example, if your favoured bean is Fruity, can you detect anything that reminds you of berries, citrus or dried fruit?
Again, by limiting yourself to a specific part of the Flavour Wheel, you’re guiding your taste buds and nose to a limited choice. That should make it easier than just looking for flavours or aromas.
Repeat a couple of times, and see what you come up with.
Write these down. You should now have a set of flavours for the coffee you like, and if you had any others to compare with, a different set for them.
The description for the cup you like is your flavour profile!
It’s a way to describe the coffee flavours you like using industry standard terms, and can be used to match flavours to beans. We’ll come onto how to use it shortly, and what to do if you have different preferences for different moods and situations.
But first there’s one further step we’d suggest.
4. Have a go at the Specific Descriptors
The final part of the exercise isn’t a necessary part of the theory, but in practice it’s worth doing anyway.
You’re basically going to repeat the previous step, but now using the most detailed, difficult to detect terms from the edge of the wheel.
The reason it’s not necessary in theory is that you already have enough to pick beans to try out. If you choose beans with the general flavours and at least some umbrella terms from your profile, you can be pretty sure you’ll like it.
But in practice, the coffee scene is full of people that are self-taught or learned about coffee by watching others. Their approach to coffee flavour descriptions may be quite different to those who’ve been through certifications and more formal training.
They may use flavours from the edges of the Flavour Wheel without any of the inner terms, or are perhaps use terms meant for defects to describe flavours. Often, they use terms that meaningful to them, but aren’t on the Flavour Wheel.
These are a perfectly valid way of approaching coffee flavours, it’s just that it’s more subjective and less easy to use across different stores, roasters and coffee brands.
We need to expand our own flavour profile to help recognise other terms people might use to describe the flavours we like. Looking at the outer ring of flavours helps do that.
So add these to your Flavour Profile, but use them with caution.
5. Refine and update your profile(s) as you try new beans with new coffee flavours
The flavour profile you’ve now created is a great starting point. To get the most out of it, you should refer to it when trying out new coffee bean types, and refine it over time.
If you try something you like more than your usual choice, see if you can identify what flavours make it preferable, and update your profile. Conversely, if there’s something you find isn’t to your liking, it helps to spot the flavours that detract for you.
Like most drinks and food, preferences can change with mood and occasion. So you may want 2 or 3 profiles for different situations or times of day. For example, the flavours you look for to get that “kick” from the first cup of the day may be very different to what you prefer in the afternoon at work, or after dinner.
How to Use Your Flavour Profile to Choose Coffee Bean Types
Start with the coffee flavour descriptions in the store or on the packaging
Armed with your flavour profile, you can now pick coffee bean types using the flavour descriptions on the packaging, or as their flavours are described in-store or online.
If you buy from a place that uses the Flavour Wheel properly, it’ll be a straightforward exercise. If not, then there’s going to be a degree of trial and error, while you figure out what the terms they use mean, compared to what you’ve found you like.
Try before you buy whenever possible
Regardless of what the packaging or store says about the flavours, the only way to really know what you’re going to get is by tasting the coffee.
Whenever possible, try to get a cup of coffee made from the beans you’re thinking of buying and try to identify the flavours present.
Conversely, it may be more practical to try out the different beans being used in a store, and buy the ones you like best.
More Knowledge About Beans Can Sometimes Help (but not often)
One way to improve how you choose beans is to learn a little more about how flavours vary across different coffee bean types. Professionals look at a long list of factors to assess coffee beans, and it’s highly skilled.
If you want to have a go at this yourself, our advice is to start by focusing on Region i.e. where the beans were grown – but keep your expectations low on how useful this will be in practice. You may also want to consider the Roast, but that’s even less helpful. Unless you really want to get into your coffee tasting, we’d suggest you ignore everything else about the beans, other than for general interest.
There are two reasons we’ve downplayed this side of things. Firstly, it takes a lot of experience to predict how a coffee will taste by knowing the type of beans it contains. But even with the right knowledge, as a consumer you’ll rarely know enough about the beans from the packaging or vendor for any meaningful judgements about how they’ll taste.
For most people, the only chance of doing this with any success is with “single origin” beans. This means they’re all from the same place, usually grown on the same farm or coffee estate, and processed at the same time. All the beans will have a similar flavour, probably one typical for the region. For example, many good stores will carry a single origin naturally processed Ethiopian bean. If you know about beans, you’d expect this to have Fruit flavours, typically berry ones such as strawberry or blueberry.
Others are called “blended”, which are more common but much harder to predict. These are a mix of beans from different regions, combined to create a good overall flavour. A good example is the wonderful Redchurch blend from Allpress, which contains beans from Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and Sumatra. But even knowing about those beans, you’re unlikely to know from the blend that the flavours are mostly Sweet and Nutty/Cocoa, with a little bit of Fruit; specifically, chocolate, caramel and citrus. Without knowing the proportions of each, it’s largely guesswork even for the most skilled expert.
It’s still a fascinating subject, and we’d always encourage you to learn more – just don’t expect to use that knowledge too often to figure out how a bean will taste.
If you’re interested in flavours of beans from different parts of the world, look out for our guide to coffee region flavours. We’ll also be publishing a guide to the flavour profiles of some of the more popular blends available today, including our favourites.
Remember - Keep It Simple and Rely on Your Taste buds
Creating a personal flavour profile is something most coffee drinkers could do if they wanted – as long as they don’t get overly hung up on the theory.
The Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel is very useful for this, but unless you’re well trained, we’d suggest using it more for general guidance than in-depth analysis of your coffee.
One of the main benefits of learning how to create you flavour profile is that you’ll enjoy your coffee more. You become more aware of the what flavours you’re tasting when drinking coffee. The differences between coffee bean types also become more apparent.
When it comes to buying beans, start by respecting the descriptions used by stores and brands. The industry is full of knowledgeable experts, and it’s likely that their descriptions of their beans will be enough to help you match flavours that will suit you. Even if they’re not following the Flavour Wheel approach, their language will still be helpful.
But where possible, make sure you use your own taste buds to make the final decision on how much you like a bean, and which you prefer from a choice. You may find that you disagree with the store’s verdict – if so, trust your own judgement.
If you want to try predicting what beans will taste like based on what they are, start with single origin, and ignore everything you’re told about them except region.
Finally, keep using your profile whenever you taste new beans. Keep refining it as you try new flavours, discover new preferences, and learn to distinguish between ever more subtle flavours.
Good luck, and happy coffee drinking!
Want to know what to read next? Why not look at how to choose the best coffee maker for your needs.