Why do coffees taste different?

This is the first in a series from coffee expert Mike Ebert which will explore why different coffees taste different; ultimately to help guide you to coffees you like. Coffee can be very complex, and often times, confusing as to what you should purchase.

Ultimately, the flavor you find in the cup comes from a multitude of factors in play. We start with the agronomy of coffee. Different species, varietals, cultivar’s all will taste different if every other aspect is identical. Confused? OK, let’s just call them different types of seeds.

Next up is the terroir and climate of where the coffee is grown. These differing elements affect how the plant grows, what nutrients it has available and ultimately, the amount of sugars, proteins, lipids and organic acids that develop during growth.

I should note that it is only up to this stage where coffee quality can be improved; once harvested, or picked, it’s a race against time to preserve that quality. Thus enters the next step, processing. The coffee you drink every day is an extraction from the seeds of a coffee cherry. Each method varies the sensory profile of a coffee. You can just pick the cherry and let it dry whole (natural), you can take the skins and fruit off and dry it (pulped natural) or take the skins, fruit and pectin layer off and then dry it (washed). Each one impacts the flavor differently; so let’s say we have same seed, grown in the same area, with the same inputs while it is growing. The natural will be more fruit focused, the washed higher acidity and more complexity. Pulped natural can be in between them.


The next stage can impact flavor negatively; shipping and storage. Not done correctly, the coffee can get mold or old, off flavors. Coffee must be handled with love and care throughout the whole supply chain.

Now we turn the green coffee into brown coffee; roasting. We can take the same coffee and roast it lighter (brighter, higher acidity), darker (bigger body, higher bitterness), medium (marriage of both), etc. We can even roast to the same relative roast “color”, and it can taste different. From here, storage and transport comes into play again. Was the coffee packaged soon after roasting to preserve flavor and protect from other flavors and odors getting into it? Was the coffee purchased and/or brewed within 30 days of roasting?

The final step – brewing. As you can imagine by now, yes, taking the same coffee and brewing it on different devices, can alter the sensory profile of a given coffee. Some coffees shine on some brew methods better than others, some shine on all.

Confusing, yes. But don’t worry, in the coming months, we will explore all of these. First up – species, varietals & cultivars.

As the founder of Firedancer Coffee Consultants, Mike Ebert is dedicated to helping clients create a personalized strategy to ensure long-term success. He works primarily with roasters, producers and retailers, drawing from his extensive experience in all facets of the specialty coffee supply chain to guide clients in reaching their potential. Ebert is a Authorized Specialized Trainer (AST) for Specialty Coffee Association (SCA) certification programs and is chair of the SCA's Educational Advisory Committee, which develops new educational experiences for the specialty coffee community, as well as fully certified in food safety by various organizations. He has/had a hand in many positions up and down the supply chain.  


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