As anyone who’s ever tried to describe a coffee can tell you, it’s not easy. Our favourite beverage has unique, complex flavours and aromas. Consumers, roasters, cuppers, and coffee traders alike can struggle to put these into words.
But could the problem be that our descriptors aren’t precise enough? And would being more precise actually be useful for consumers?
I recently had this exact problem with a coffee. It led me to question how we use our current descriptors – and if there’s any way to improve them.
Adding water for a coffee cupping. Credit: Toby’s Estate Indonesia
The Coffee Flavour We Couldn’t Describe
This all started when we had to write coffee notes for a new offering of ours, a wonderful washed Ethiopian Kelloo. Between all of us in the roastery, we quickly settled on mandarin orange and pear to describe its fruity sweetness and acidity. But Kelloo has a strong, floral top-note that we were struggling to pin down.
The closest we could get was “rose”, but none of us was really satisfied with that descriptor. In the end, we picked “rose water”, trying to convey the extra weight and sweetness in the coffee’s rose-like aroma.
Kelloo coffee with its “rose water” descriptor – but was it the right choice? Credit: Hannah Campbell
I didn’t feel like we’d nailed this rose-like note. However, I gave it no more thought until some weeks later, when my partner and I spent a rare, glorious summer weekend camping at The Apple Farm in Tipperary.
The Apple Farm is an idyllic place. Tucked away between the apple shed and the orchard, huge vats of cider slowly turn to vinegar. Next to this, strawberry beds stretch away towards the horizon. In the farm’s shop, stacked bushels of apples fill the air with the most incredible perfume.
And it was this perfume that made me think of Kelloo. As well as being redolent of the sweetness of the ripe apples, the aroma had intense floral overtones: a reminder that roses and apples are distant cousins. It also called to mind an old post of James Hoffmann’s that talks about how difficult it is to describe an apple’s flavour – and set me to thinking, again, about how we can be more precise with our descriptors.
Apples grow on the tree.
Not All Roses Smell Like Rose
Later the same day, we visited Swiss Cottage, a faux-rustic thatched cottage surrounded by climbing roses. Stopping to smell one of these, a variety called Albertine, in the doorway, I found myself surprised. It smelt uncannily like the boxes of apples I’d been greedily sniffing earlier that day.
Swiss Cottage with its Albertine roses. Credit: Tom Hopkinson
This made me think that perhaps the reason we’d struggled so much with “rose” as a flavour descriptor for Kelloo is that roses don’t all smell the same.
I started making a point of smelling roses and trying to describe their scent. First I went around the cottage, and later I visited the collection at the Botanic Gardens in Dublin.
The Albertine rose, which has a scent of apples. Credit: Tom Hopkinson
What Does a Rose Smell Like?
Plenty of roses, of course, just smell like roses. By that, I mean the sort of idealised rose scent you find in rosewater and old-fashioned perfumes.
But, more often than not, the scent was distinctive (if not always easy to describe).
Sure enough, apple came up a few times. It was present with Albertine, the rose that started it all at Swiss Cottage, but also for several others – especially the bouquet-like clusters of Many Happy Returns in the Botanic Gardens.
Citrus notes also seem to be pretty common. These ranged from a yellow rose (one that I couldn’t identify) with a distinctive lemon fragrance to Harry Edland, which has, under its heavy perfume, the sharp tang of grapefruit.
The Harry Edland rose had a sharp tang of grapefruit. Credit: Tom Hopkinson
A couple had the riper scent of peaches – the Red Devil, for example, and the stunning Honore de Balzac. That combines a peachy sweetness with a fresher cucumber-mint aroma. Indeed, many of the most powerfully fragranced roses, like Mme Isaac Pereire, had a fresh menthol-eucalyptus type of intensity.
At the other end of the scale, Alexander is barely fragranced, but a deep sniff yielded the distinctive smell of the inside of a church: candlewax and perhaps a faint hint of incense.
The last rose I came to that day had a classic old-rose scent that made me think of bathroom soap. I was delighted to discover it had the unfortunate name of Radox Bouquet. Radox is the name of a soap brand in Ireland, the UK, Australia, and several other countries.
Mme Isaac Pereire, which had the intensity of menthol and eucalyptus. Credit: Tom Hopkinson
So What Does This Mean For Coffee Descriptions?
With all these very different fragrances, does it really make sense to just use “rose” as a generic descriptor? On the other hand, trying to be more specific about which kind of rose you mean won’t be useful to someone without fairly specialist knowledge. It’s liable to become confusing.
Even in ‘Le Nez du Cafe’, the aroma kit that is the industry standard for sensory descriptors, this becomes an issue. Lenoir writes that the rose scent given is specific to the Damask rose – but then labels it as “Tea Rose/Redcurrant Jelly”.
Damask rose is the type most commonly used to make rosewater and rose oil. Originally cultivated in China, it has a scent variously described as being like tea leaves, clove, or honeysuckle. Tea roses, on the other hand, are quite a different group. And where redcurrant jelly fits into this, I can’t say.
So having tried to pin down the fragrance of all these different roses, which one would I now use to describe the wonderful floral aroma of our Kelloo?
Well, the honest answer is that, if you asked me now, I’d say it was more like sweet pea. Just don’t ask me which variety…
Perfect Daily Grind
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