September 28, 2018

How Can We Help Consumers Understand Flavour Notes?


We’ve all seen the confused customer in the coffee shop: they frown at the menu, head tilted to one side. The thing that’s confusing these customers is coffee descriptions, mainly flavour notes on the bag.

Helping your customers understand these flavour notes is crucial for customer satisfaction and retention. So why do some customers find it so confusing? How can you describe a coffee’s flavour in a way that they will understand? And how can you also help them to appreciate the full spectrum of notes in a coffee?

Lee este artículo en español Notas De Sabor: ¿Cómo Ayudar A Los Consumidores A Entenderlas?

An Ethiopian Yirgacheffe with floral and sweet lemon flavour notes.

An Ethiopian Yirgacheffe with floral and sweet lemon flavour notes. Credit: Jmcronald via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Speaking to The Experts

To find out ways to better communicate flavour notes to consumers, I decided to speak to two experts: Dale Harris, 2017 World Barista Champion and Director of Wholesale at Has Bean Coffee in Stafford, U.K., and Maxwell Colonna-Dashwood, owner of Colonna Coffee and three-time U.K. Barista Champion and World Barista Championship finalist.

This year, Dale is running Flavour Pathways at Caffè Culture 2018, a London, UK-based trade show in its 12th year. It will run from the 16th–17th October and attendance is free for trade professionals (you can register here).

Flavour Pathways will be an interactive sensory installation that develops concepts inspired by his championship-winning routine at the World Barista Championships 2017. One “pathway” examines how flavour is impacted by terroir, variety, roasting and processing; another explores how different factors impact our understanding of flavour, from how our taste buds work to cup shapes and more.

Who better than Dale to tell me how we can help customers understand flavour?

Maxwell, on the other hand, is spearheading the La Marzocco’s Roasters’ Village and Cupping Zone at the event. He’s also responsible for launching Coffee Studies, a TED-talk-esque series of presentations as part of Caffè Culture’s three-streamed Talks Programme, which focuses on exploring innovations and insights through real business stories. In other words, he’s a cupping and business expert (as well as an incredible barista).

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Dale and Maxwell shared with me their best advice for helping consumers understand and appreciate flavour notes. Here’s what I learned.

A natural processed coffee from Guerrero, México; with flavour notes of tangerines, berries and honey.

A natural processed coffee from Guerrero, México; with flavour notes of tangerines, berries and honey. Credit: The Fitzroy Espresso Co

Flavour vs Flavour Notes: A Critical Difference

First of all, to minimise confusion, it’s crucial that we separate the terms “flavour notes” and “flavours”.

In other words, we need to highlight to customers the importance of distinguishing between “the notes that we write on the bag, versus the flavours that someone might taste,” says Dale. “Flavour is a range of different sensations, [whereas flavour notes are] how we verbalise the sensations that we experience.”

Flavour is the overall perception of a coffee’s qualities. It covers everything from its aroma to its mouthfeel.

And flavour notes? These are “common flavour experiences that we relate to certain things we consume,” explains Maxwell. “This helps us describe the unique character of a given coffee.”

Why is this distinction important? Flavour notes tend to be highly subjective depending on the taster. “The flavours an individual gives are their interpretations of the sensations they get,” Dale says.

This often creates an unexpected tension, especially when it comes down to the difference between consumers’ taste buds and that of trained industry individuals. It can be an uphill battle for both parties when, no matter how hard they try, customers are simply unable to perceive the flavours that baristas assure them exist in a coffee. And in turn, this can make it much harder to demonstrate the value of that coffee.

Coffee being poured into a cup. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre

Why Are Tasting Notes So Challenging?

When a customer walks into a café, they can be inundated with information. This most often comes in the form of a comprehensive coffee menu – one that was designed to be helpful but, actually, might end up intimidating potential specialty drinkers.

Remember, when someone is new to specialty coffee, they aren’t used to tasting all these notes. “A lot of them struggle to define what they’re tasting and they have a smaller body of reference points,” Dale says.

On the other hand, sometimes there’s too little information. It’s not uncommon nowadays to see a cafe with a minimalist coffee menu (possibly in response to the stereotype that specialty coffee is needlessly overcomplicated).

While it’s definitely simpler, there’s no further information about the coffees offered – unless the customer plucks up the courage to approach a barista, of course! This may make flavour notes even more inaccessible for those customers curious about what they’re drinking.

What’s more, coffee menus don’t always match the coffee being served. This can be due to inexperienced baristas dialling in the equipment or simply a lack of flavour calibration within the shop. If coffee menus are managed day-to-day by different baristas, there is a higher possibility that a coffee’s flavour will vary over time.

In some ways, this is exciting. Depending on their preferences, there is a multitude of different attributes a barista can highlight in a coffee – and for some consumers, tasting these differences is fascinating. However, it’s easy to confuse a customer who doesn’t understand why they tasted different notes in the same coffee yesterday. Or, worse, why what they’re tasting now doesn’t match the flavour notes that were written on the coffee board yesterday!

Doing sensory exercises to help improve your palate and flavour note vocabulary

Doing sensory exercises to help improve your palate and flavour note vocabulary. Credit: Kars Alfrink via Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Flavour Notes Are Still an Essential Tool

Even though flavour notes can be hard to understand, Maxwell argues that they do help customers. In fact, he tells me, they’re a much better option than some of the other ways we describe a coffee.

“It’s not necessarily more accessible for someone to understand [a coffee’s taste] through things like a farm name, a variety, and a process than [through] flavour notes…” he says. “That’s very exclusive. You have to spend years learning about different varieties, different altitudes, to even begin engaging in that kind of menu. Flavour notes are not perfect, but they are the easiest starting point for someone.”

Discussing origin and processing can be even more overwhelming for consumers than simply the flavour notes. After all, so many factors affect how a coffee tastes: terroir, origin, coffee variety, processing methods, roast profiles, brew method and recipe… Even the water used for brewing can impact the taste of the final cup. A sensory experience is therefore often difficult to fully explain in a short coffee-shop interaction between barista and customer.

So, flavour notes might not be perfect but they are one of our best tools. And the more familiar consumers are with specialty coffee, the more helpful they become.

“The more decent coffee someone drinks, the more experience they have or the larger vocabulary they have,” says Dale. “And the better insight they get into what kind of coffee they want to drink, the more focused they get on the nuances [between different coffees]. That is better for describing it to other coffee people who share the same experience.”

Freshly brewed coffee in a carafe, ready for serving. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre

How Can You Help Consumers Understand Tasting Notes?

The good news is that there are many ways we can help consumers approach flavour notes. Hosting public cuppings, for example, can get customers talking about what makes an excellent coffee. It will help them to recognise and describe certain flavours, strengthen their palate through practice, and place them within a community that’s also using the same vocabulary.

That last one is an important point. Since flavour notes are all about reference points, it’s helpful to use the same reference points every time. Make sure your staff all use the same terminology to minimise confusion.

Keep your retail shelf varied and the coffee menu simplistic, but with a few guiding flavour notes. This is key to providing customers with an exciting range of coffees, but not giving them so much information that you overwhelm them.

Holding a public cupping to help consumers understand flavour and flavour note

Holding a public cupping to help consumers understand flavour and flavour notes. Credit: Has Bean Coffee

Your baristas can also help guide consumers through improving their palate. Dale says it’s fairly simple for people to improve their palate.

“Taste as many new things as you can,” he says, chuckling. “Try it once. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like it. You’ll learn something about the experience and something new about flavour. It will open up your vocabulary and your body or reference points of ways to describe different things.

“Also, when you are tasting things, really think about what you’re tasting. Try and understand what led to that difference in taste. [An experienced taster] tends to use more complex, descriptive language, and is more used to picking things apart beyond the basic taste sensations. This will help you become more experienced in thinking deeply about food and drink, have a heightened awareness of taste, and develop the way you communicate about flavour.”

You can also base tasting events on this. Lay out a table full of fruit, encourage attendees to try all the fruit and make notes about the flavour, and then bring out some fruity, sparkling coffees. You could also add spices, nuts, chocolate, and floral infusions to the table if you wanted to present a wider range of coffees.

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Cupping coffees. Credit: Fernando Pocasangre

Café owners, we owe it to our customers and to ourselves to help make flavour notes more accessible. It will improve consumers’ coffee-drinking experiences, and in turn, hopefully convert them into satisfied repeat customers.

So, remember what Dale and Maxwell have emphasised: keep it simple. Give some information but don’t overwhelm consumers. Distinguish between flavour and flavour notes. Monitor your baristas’ vocabulary. And hold events that will guide consumers into appreciating all the wonderful flavours in your coffee.

You might still get the occasional confused customer – but they’ll find that all the help they need is to hand.

Please note: This article has been sponsored by Caffè Culture.

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