What’s That Flavor?

So, I’ve been thinking about what factors most affect the taste of coffee.

Roasting? Varietal? Process? Terroir? Micro-climate?

For the sake of discussion we have to approach this is with the assumption that all involved in the process are doing what’s best for the coffee. It’s obvious that the roaster could turn up the gas and make any coffee unrecognizable charcoal. Or the mill could leave the coffee in the fermentation tank too long. “Natural” coffees could be left to mold. Sure Sure. This is why we need to run on the assumption that everyone is doing the best work possible. This is also not an indictment of any roasting style, growing region, or coffee process. What I’m interested in are people’s opinions of the level of influence of the above factors. Currently, based on my very limited cupping experience and little else, here is my opinion in order of most to least influence.


Look at coffees such as the much fabled Panama Esmeralda Especial Geisha or Aida Batlle’s Finca Kilimanjaro and its “Kenya” varietal.


I remember the first time I tasted the Idido Misty Valley. It still had the jasmine, Darjeeling, lemon character of a Yirgacheffe but tasted like it had on a BooBerry sweater. The Natural process was evident and powerful but it couldn’t hide that Yirg flavor.


Roasting is a skill and art. To preserve and accentuate those flavors naturally present in the coffee and not obliterate them is tremendously difficult. Much respect to those who can do it.

Then I feel it’s micro-climate followed by soil. I have little to back this up other than feeling. Jamie wrote an interesting piece about soil and micro-climate here.

Again, I am certainly not any where close to an authority on this. Which is why I hope that those out there with more to offer on the subject will chime in.


~ by Chris Owens on December 4, 2007.

10 Responses to “What’s That Flavor?”

  1. With a name like excogitate coffee, even BZ would be proud!

    As for categories, I think method (for lack of a better term) might qualify for inclusion – taking into consideration water constitution (minerality), water temperature, coffee dosage & grind setting, brewing method, etc. They aren’t as important as the inherent characteristics of what’s inside each little bean and how it got to be that way but two samples of the same coffee treated differently will taste differently.

  2. Great point Shannon and very valid. When I was thinking about this I was trying to consider what has the most impact on flavor before in arrives to the barista. Because I’m such an outstanding (ha!) blogger I just neglected to mention it. All of the method(s) you spoke about are very important and even critical to the final beverage. But, for this I wanted to concentrate on the life of the coffee up until it reaches the barista.

  3. Nice lookin’ blog! Very cool!

    Know what I believe has the most dramatic effect on coffee quality? Cherry ripeness when picked. It’s huge. Ripeness and sugar contenta are obviously related, and therefore ripeness leads to sweeter cups, which are the most important thing to most. Also, sugar browning reactions in the roast happen more abundantly when there are more polysachharides (both sugars and carbohydrates) to begin with, so perfectly ripe coffees also tend to be more aromatic. Perfect ripeness also balances sweetness and accidity. Amazing that such a simple thing can be so important.

    In my view, “Terroir” is the second most important. I use that term in a somewhat broad sense, to include ideas like microclimate along with literal “soil”. Plant nutrition is obviously very important, which also falls into this category for me. It is clear that high altitude has a strong correlation with quality, as does a large difference between nocturnal (night) and diurnal (daytime) temperatures.

    After that, process, roasting, etc. although most of these are subtractive rather than additive in terms of quality…. before the coffee is picked, it’s all additive. After it is picked, I think of everything as subtractive (except, perhaps, PERHAPS, the natural process and long fermentations. Do those add flavor?)

    Interesting topic….

    Peter G

  4. Hello Chris…. My first thought is 100% most definitely with out a doubt FERMENTATION.


    But really I would expect if you interviewed folks from across the industry from seed to cup it will hinge on perspective. I say this because I know how great a difference in the cup it makes to ferment for just 1 hour to long or say 5 hrs to short. But if you’re roasting and you accidentally let a batch go for an extra hour… or you pull a shot that’s 1 hour to long.. that may have a greater impact on taste.

    I am taking you seriously. I think it’s a great question. One I think about much. I don’t know that there is a clear answer. But if I HAD to chose it would be fermentation and second it would be picking perfectly ripe. I like peter’s use of the words “additive” and “subtractive” regarding quality…

    If there was a shortcoming in either picking or ferment here’s my preferences in order

    1. perfect ripeness, slightly underfermented
    2. picked slightly under ripe, fermented perfectly
    3. picked a little late, fermented perfectly
    4. perfect ripeness, overfermented.

    I guess this demonstrates that when I want something really good I’m more concerned about picking ripe, however when I want to avoid something bad I’ll see if ferment was inconsistent or over.

    The reason I would choose fermentation, is because it’s where people get most complacent and it is by far the most difficult to measure accuracy in. And it’s virtually impossible to SORT out under or over fermented coffee. And I see it as the last ADDITIVE step in quality.

    Cool blog.

  5. After too much sample roasting… so I’ll use roasting as an analogy. Everything that happens early effects everything that happens later.

    Everything is important.

  6. Its People.

    Not to get too hippy about it, but the conceit of the question – the assumption “that everyone is doing the best work possible” – is such a rare event that I’m not sure it can be excluded. The most well managed process control still fails if there is point on the chain where the people don’t care. Much of the seed to cup chain looks like a game of telephone where each person speaks a different dialect and the absolute best anyone can do is merely not fucking it up.

    You could add elements to your list such as “care” and “technical knowledge”. Essential elements often in limited supply.

    Geoff and KC have this set of venn diagrams they bust out in their powerpoint presentations to show the overlapping importance of different steps on the chain. Wish I had a pic of it to share here.

  7. Hey Chris, cool blog! In my opinion, the most influential would have to be the ripeness of the cherries, which also brings the people we count on for picking and processing into the picture. We can only try to maintain the quality in the different processes, which is not an easy task. But if we start out with unripe cherries, there is really nothing we can do to improve the coffee. Different processes, whether you are preparing a washed, pulp natural or natural will bring out differently the same intrinsic characteristics of the coffee.

    The varietal and terroir also play an important factor. As producers we have to choose varietals that are not only great in a cup but also work with our terroirs. Not all varietals work well in all farms.

    But even if producers/exporters do everything just right, we still depend on the roasters and baristas. You can have a perfectly picked and processed coffee but if the roaster does not “nail” the roast they can ruin the coffee. Once it lands in the hands of the Barista they also play such an important role in making sure they extract the best possible cup.

    In the end…we all depend on each other in so many ways. I think that is what makes this such a fascinating industry.

  8. it occurs to me that, tonx’s humanism aside, the order of importance here is roughly chronological. no? the earliest factors — varietal, cherry ripeness — hold potentially the greatest value.

    which, by extension, could make the barista and all the little things he does the LEAST vital stage in the process.

    is that what you’re saying, chris? 😉

  9. I always saw the moment that you pull the cherry from the tree as the cut off point between generation and preservation. From the moment the cherry is picked, whilst new flavours can be generated in processing or roasting, the quality of the cherry cannot be improved.

    I think the role of the barista is another of preservation, like many people before you in the chain. Whilst a barista determines the quality of the brew, “rockstar” barista or not (how I despise the term) you are only as good as your coffee. Having worked with terrible, terrible coffees in the past I’ve regularly wished there was some magic way I could make the shots taste nice. Obviously there isn’t (milk and syrup don’t count)

    A couple of years ago I was interested in whether you could track back volatiles in greens (roasted coffee is too much of a maze of reaction pathways) to specific elements of coffee agronomy. I ended up chatting to Luis Pascoal of Daterra at the SCAA show in Seattle about this, and he hinted that they had made some progress in their work with Illy on the subject – though he obviously wouldn’t tell me more.

    I was also interested in the cupping logging going on at Agrado in Armenia. They were trying to log as much detail with reference to how the coffee was grown and what varietal/what altitude. It would be interesting after 10 years or so to see if there was sufficient data to come to them with your land and varietal and see what conditions/processes/practices the data suggested would yield higher cup quality.

    I think I’ve rambled enough – I love the blog. I look forward to future thinkings on coffee!

  10. […] and Importance Thank you for all of those who chose to weigh in on my post “What’s that Flavor”. That is the kind of feedback I am hoping for as I move forward. You have to love […]

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