What is your coffee bag trying to tell you?

What is your coffee bag trying to tell you?

If you visit one of our cafes and ask the barista about the coffee you’re drinking, you’ll find they have a lot to tell you — about where it comes from, about the people who made it, or about how it tastes. Every coffee has a story to tell.

 

If you’re drinking our coffee at home, though, and you don’t have your barista on speed dial, then take a close look at the coffee bag instead. The design of our bags is deliberately minimalist, but it’s packed with information all the same. In this post, we’ll go through every piece of information on these bags, from the flavour notes to the legalese, to help you understand what your bag is trying to tell you.

 

From the front of the coffee bag…

Colombia La Esperanza filter coffee bag

 

The front of the bag is deliberately minimal, with no superfluous information. It highlights two things: our logo, which symbolizes the care and attention taken in sourcing and roasting the coffee; and, even more importantly, the name of the coffee producer. Traceability is one of our core values, and so we make sure to put that information front and center. The story of your coffee, after all, begins with where it comes from. 

Before you even read the text, the color of the banderole gives a clue to the origin of the coffee. Each coffee-producing country is associated with a particular color. For example, a Kenyan coffee comes with a crimson label, while orange identifies coffee from Brazil. 

The color helps you choose the kind of coffee you like at a glance. It also tells you a bit about the kind of flavors you might expect. The cherry-red labels of our Kenyans evoke their jammy fruit flavors. Whereas, the orange labels highlight the warm, caramelized flavors typical of the best Brazilian coffees. The colors of packaging can affect the way you experience flavors and can prime your tastebuds to get the most enjoyment from the coffee inside.

Floral note of Ethiopia Filter Coffee

 

The exact shade also tells you about how we chose to roast this coffee. A saturated, deep color means we roasted it with espresso in mind; while a paler shade tells you that it’s a bright filter roast. An espresso roast is designed to bring out the rich body and sweetness of a coffee; while a filter roast highlights a coffee’s floral and fruity flavors and juicy acidity. 

The text on the front includes only the most important information about the coffee. The biggest text is reserved for the name of the grower, farm, or washing station that produced the coffee — or for the name that the producer themselves chose to give that particular lot. 

Coffee farm in colombia

Coffee cultivation in Consacá, Colombia

If we buy several lots from the same producer, then we also include the varieties here as a way of distinguishing one lot from another. Finally, you’ll find the country of origin, and an indication of whether the coffee was roasted for filter or espresso. If the coffee is certified organic, you’ll also find a small tag on the label that indicates this.

…to the back of the coffee bag

Backside of coffee bag is trying to tell us more about the coffee

 

The back of the bag is where you can find detailed information about the coffee. We list the name of the producer, washing station, or cooperative responsible for the coffee; the roast style, and any information we have about the people who grew the coffee. 

The information that is included here also tells you something about the level of traceability of the coffee. In some countries, for example in Brazil, we might be able to name the individual owners of the farm that produced the coffee; in others, such as Ethiopia, a single lot of coffee might be created at a co-operative from the combined harvest of hundreds of smallholder farmers.

We also list the region that the coffee comes from and the elevation the coffee was grown at. Different regions each have their own microclimate, which can result in distinct flavor profiles. Some regions develop particularly strong reputations for producing high-quality coffee, such as Yirgacheffe in Ethiopia or Huila in Colombia. The elevation also plays a big role in the microclimate the coffee is grown in: generally, coffees grown at higher elevations are prized for their more complex flavors and acidity.

 

Coffee farm in Colombia with high elevation

Consacá in Colombia with an elevation of 1.900-2.000 masl

 

Next is the variety, which can have a big impact on the flavor of the coffee. Some varieties are prized for their particular flavors, such as the blackcurrant tones of SL-28 or the floral aroma of Geisha. Others are better known for their productivity, or their ability to resist disease or withstand the effects of climate change — essential for farmers to have a sustainable livelihood.

Perhaps the most important impact on the flavor, though, comes from the processing. People expect a naturally processed coffee to have more body and sweetness, and occasionally some wild, fruity flavors in the cup. A washed coffee, meanwhile, is brighter and cleaner. More complex processes can introduce completely different characteristics, so if you want to explore new flavors in coffee, looking at the process is a good place to start.

 

Decoding flavor descriptors

The last section on the back of the bag lists the flavor notes we chose for the coffee. Flavor descriptors can help you find the kind of coffee you like — but they also influence your enjoyment of the coffee. Research shows that being given descriptors before tasting can affect how easy it is to spot subtle flavors, can affect your taste perception, and enhance your enjoyment of the flavors you experience.

Flavor descriptors highlight that coffee can taste in many different ways and help guide you to identify and find those flavors in the coffee.

For each coffee we roast, we give three flavor descriptors. Each description can capture multiple elements of the aroma, taste, or texture of the coffee. The newly released La Esperanza from Colombia, for example, is described as tasting like violet, sugar-coated almonds, and papaya.

In this case, a papaya descriptor captures not only the flavor of papaya but also the coffee’s smooth, juicy texture. The sugar-coated almond descriptor, meanwhile, represents an even more complex experience. It's sweet and could almost bring to mind the experience of visiting a Holiday market, with sweetness and perhaps some spice. With La Esperanza, for example, there's a lot going on in the coffee, and sometimes you can put that complexity into one flavor note.

The order that the descriptors are in is also intentional. “I try to describe the experience of drinking the coffee from start to finish,” says Kris Schackman, Five Elephant’s co-founder. The first flavor note describes the experience of the first sip, whether that’s something floral and delicate, or fruity and bright. 

Kris Schackman, CEO of Five Elephant, cupping with our quality control team Kris and the team cupping the coffees for quality control. 

The second descriptor then captures the balance between sweetness and acidity, and the mouthfeel of the coffee, Kris says. “If there’s something richer or chocolatey in the coffee, I put it in the second position.”

The third descriptor is then usually related to the finish, or the aftertaste. “A lot of times this can be represented by a spice flavor that lingers,” Kris says. “Other times you might get a citric bitterness, or a lingering delicate and tea-like flavor.”

In the case of La Esperanza, therefore, the papaya note in the third position also represents the coffee’s aftertaste. “It really tasted not necessarily of papaya, but of what your mouth tastes like after eating papaya — it’s almost like the aftertaste of papaya,” Kris explains.

 

The trouble with flavor notes

Describing a coffee involves linking the flavors you find in the coffee to other flavors you’ve experienced. Since everyone has different life experiences, they will find different ways to describe the same flavors. 

“I have a vivid connection to the smells and tastes that I’ve experienced in my lifetime,” Kris says. “Sometimes when I taste a coffee, I’m not in the room anymore… I’m tasting the experiences that I’ve had.” These sensory experiences are personal to each taster, Kris adds. “I am always reminded of eating wild rose hip on the coast of Nova Scotia — the taste has a strong visceral connection to me,” he says. “One person's rose hip … might be someone else's hibiscus flower.”

Photo by Eva Elijas: Rose hip
Rosehip has a floral overtone, a slightly sweet flavor with a touch of tartness. 

Photo by Keegan Checks: Red Hibiscus Flowers
Hibiscus Flower has a tart, cranberry-like flavor. 

Sometimes a flavor note might reference something that not many people are very familiar with. “I don’t want to confuse people and I don’t want it to seem pretentious… [but] I would rather stay true to the actual flavor we taste than come up with a compromise,” Kris says. “I think it’s great if we can introduce people to a new flavor they haven’t tasted before.” 

So if you’re tasting a coffee, and you find that not all of the flavor notes on the bag resonate with you, remember that tasting notes are mostly subjective. Everyone has different perceptions, and different experiences to draw on. 

Understanding this can help you to make the link between seemingly unrelated flavors. For example, a certain kind of crisp acidity might remind one person of eating a Granny Smith apple, while another person thinks of green grapes. These two fruits taste quite different, but both could equally be used as a good way to describe the acidity of a particular coffee.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that different brew methods or recipes can highlight different flavors in the coffee. We choose the flavor descriptions for each coffee based on cupping — the universal method used for tasting coffee. The brewing method you use at home, on the other hand, might bring out quite different characteristics in the same coffee.

 

Finding your perfect coffee

In the end, flavor notes can never be a complete description of the coffee. Instead, think of them as a tool, whose first purpose is to help you find the kind of coffee you like. If you like your coffees to have rich, deep flavors, for example then try looking for flavors like chocolate, butter caramel, or roasted nuts.

If, on the other hand, you prefer your coffees to be bright and refreshing, look for descriptors like fresh fruit and flowers — even if you don’t like the taste of violets themselves, you might find that you enjoy the bright, floral flavors in a coffee described as tasting like violet.

The other purpose of flavor descriptors is to act as a guide, to help you to explore and enjoy the subtle flavors that our coffees can have. When you first drink a new coffee, if the specific flavors listed on the bag seem elusive, try looking for some specific characteristics that the coffee might have in common with that flavor, such as the acidity, or mouth feel. 

Perhaps you don’t think the coffee tastes like papaya, but you can find some overtones of different tropical fruit. Maybe the coffee doesn’t taste fruity at all, but, like papaya, has a gentle acidity. Or perhaps the coffee has a rich, silky texture that could be compared to biting into ripe papaya. Either way, the flavor note can guide you to identify something new about the coffee; and hopefully, appreciate its complexity a little more. 

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