January 8, 2021

How Can Producers Define Sensory Profiles For Their Coffees?


With any given cup of specialty coffee, there are an incredible number of factors that determine its quality. A coffee’s flavour will vary according to its origin, processing method, variety, and dozens of other factors. 

Higher quality coffees offer more complex and nuanced flavours in the cup, as well as a range of distinctive tasting notes which are used to describe its flavour. These can often found on packaging for specialty coffee.

These flavours make up the sensory profile of a coffee – which is, to put it simply, the distinct tastes and aromas it evokes. This sensory profile is what is evaluated to determine the quality of a coffee, which will in turn influence the price it is sold at.

To learn more about how producers can clearly identify a sensory profile for their coffees, I spoke to several experts across the Brazilian supply chain. By taking the time to taste and review the cup profile of their coffee, producers can provide buyers with clear expectations regarding their crop. Read on to learn more.

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What Determines & Influences A Coffee’s Sensory Profile?

To understand what affects the sensory profile of a coffee, I spoke to Tiago Castro Alves. Tiago is an agronomist and the manager of Fazenda Barinas in the Cerrado Mineiro region. 

Tiago tells me that he has “profiled” his coffees for years. He says that when defining the sensory characteristics of a certain coffee, producers should consider a number of variables that might have influenced its cup profile. These include the climate, the soil, and any pests or diseases that might be present. 

He adds that many varieties can grow on a single farm in a reasonably small area, and that each will have a distinct flavour as a result. Consequently, he recommends conducting sensory evaluation on a small scale, and notes that it’s important to cup different varieties separately to get clear results.

It’s also important to note that the slightest change during a plant’s growth cycle (such as rainfall before a harvest) can impact the flavour profile of a coffee. This means that the quality of each coffee can change from harvest to harvest.

“Terroir is very delicate, and many factors can cause sensory variations,” Tiago tells me. “Each farm plot must be analysed carefully for its own quality and characteristics.”

To carry out sensory evaluation at Fazenda Barinas, Tiago tells me that he organises plots by variety and planting date. He also uses soil preparation and productivity indexes to further separate the plants, allowing him to understand the differences in nutrient levels from plant to plant.

After these plants are harvested, each coffee is cupped and subsequently scored by Q graders. As a part of this, cuppers define flavour notes that can be tasted in the coffee. Certain flavour notes (such as increased acidity, sweetness, or body, for example) can then be linked to changes in processing, terroir, climate, and so on.

However, as sensory references change based on personal memories and cultural associations, Tiago recommends using multiple Q graders to determine the coffees’ flavour profile with greater objectivity.

Refining A Unique Regional Profile

Juliano Tarabal is the superintendent of Federação dos Cafeicultores do Cerrado, a federation of coffee growers based in Brazil’s Cerrado Mineiro Region.

Cerrado Mineiro is the first coffee growing area in Brazil to be recognised with a geographical indication (GI). A GI is used by the World Intellectual Property Organization to designate an area that is recognised for products (generally food and beverage products) that possess qualities that cannot be found anywhere else.

Effectively, this means that the coffee in Cerrado Mineiro is unique, and that its cup profile cannot truly be replicated by producers anywhere else in the world.

Juliano tells me when the federation decided to define a unique sensory profile for coffees from Cerrado Mineiro, they first had to prove that the terroir of the region had unique characteristics.

To start, he says that the federation created a baseline sensory wheel that set out the main notable characteristics of the region’s coffees. He notes that this process was inspired by he protocols used for geographical indications regarding French and Italian foodstuffs and wines. These are commonly represented with abbreviations such as DOC in Italy (denominazione di origine controllata) and AOC in France (appellation d’origine contrôlée).

Finally, Juliano says that the federation also collaborated extensively with the Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) to create this sensory wheel.

Today, Juliano’s team publishes an annual report on the descriptors that have been used to characterise high-scoring coffees in the region. They also hold regular competitions that incentivise producer members to keep improving the cup profile of their coffees.

Best Practices For Defining A Coffee’s Sensory Profile

Lucas Louzada Pereira is a teacher and researcher at IFES in Espirito Santo. He specialises in sensory analysis and roasting. He tells me that when producers create their own sensory profiles, they are often better equipped to position themselves in the market. 

However, he highlights the importance of being authentic when defining tasting notes or flavour characteristics. “Less is more; there is no point in sophisticating something that does not exist in your terroir,” he says. “The consumer will always prefer a genuine and consistent sensory experience.”

Lucas also tells me that some producers use too many descriptors or even incorrect ones. This can be counterproductive, and even damage a farm’s brand. In some cases, it can even lead producers and roasters to over or undervalue a coffee.

When defining the sensory profile of a coffee, Lucas adds that it’s also important to start by being accurate. Producers should use language that is clear and relevant to their target market.

Lucas says: “It’s useless to describe something that [your audience] cannot access or consume.” Fundamentally, this means producers should make every effort to ensure that flavour descriptors resonate with potential buyers. This will help them to avoid using flavours that might be unique to certain regions or cultures.

To make it easier to use the right terminology, Lucas also recommends that producers either learn their buyers’ dominant language (often English) or work alongside somebody who does.

He adds that this will help them to better understand the feedback that buyers provide when they visit farms to source green coffee. It will also encourage continued communication and improve trading relationships as a result.

How Does This Benefit The Producer?

A clearly defined flavour profile for their coffee helps a producer in a number of ways. 

Firstly, once producers define a flavour profile that is attractive to buyers, they can repeat the same processes (through crop nutrition and post-harvest practices, for instance) to deliver a similar profile again and again. 

While it will undoubtedly vary from harvest to harvest thanks to variations in the climate, keeping other variables the same will improve consistency. This also provides a good basis for experimentation. 

Ultimately, by being able to define the characteristics of a certain lot or coffee, producers will be able to label and classify them in more detail. This will allow them to clearly communicate to buyers what they can expect to taste in the cup, adding more value and clarity to the buying relationship.

Continuing Sensory Education

As with anything to do with sensory evaluation, training continues to support actors across the supply chain to understand more about the flavours that emerge in a cup, and why they’re present there. 

Through continued communication and collaboration, producers and buyers will be able to exchange more information about desirable cup profiles and subsequently form stronger trading relationships.

For instance, Lucas says that he speaks with international buyers and importers to understand what they look for in a coffee. He then uses this research to create training courses which he offers to producers free of charge. 

These courses map areas for potential growth as well as those that require intervention. Lucas and his team at the Coffee Designer Group use research-led training content to guide producers, farm workers, and coffee-growing communities more widely on topics like quality control, roasting, and extraction. 

Lucas says this programme seeks to improve knowledge and empower people across the supply chain, and ultimately “reduce the science gap between producers and consumers”.  In six years, he says that more than 350 coffee-producing families from rural areas have been trained. 

Ultimately, he says in the years to come, he expects that similar opportunities for sensory education in producing countries will continue to emerge.

By defining a sensory profile for their coffee, producers can more clearly communicate why a buyer or importer should choose their farm or their region. As with many other processes throughout the supply chain, clear communication in this process is key.

Ultimately, producers who can profile their own coffees will be better equipped to sell them to international buyers and established markets. This in turn will help them to develop and identify flavour profiles that consumers look for. It can even give them a basis from which they can experiment, all the while allowing them to improve relationships with buyers and add value to their crop. 

Enjoyed this? Then read Different Ways Producers Are Getting Creative

Photo credits: Julio Guevara, Diego Najera

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