Sweet Notes in Coffee (and Where to Find Them!)

As we’ve previously noted, the Specialty Coffee Association of America has produced a flavor wheel that can help you assess what flavor notes are present in a cup of coffee.  This wheel is divided into sections that relate to different categories of flavors/aromas. In this article, we are going to take a look at the “sweet” section of the flavor wheel.

Central American coffees are, in particular, often noted for their sweetness.  Costa Rican coffees often carry a chocolatey and nutty sweetness. Mexican coffees tend to be a bit oilier and carry a more caramelized sweetness.  Guatemalan coffees carry a more varied set of sweet flavors, but are characteristically balanced by more “spicy” flavors as well.

Tasting Sweet Notes and SCAA Flavor Wheel

So let’s say you have just taken a sip of a great Guatemalan. You might note a particularly bright sweetness- but, what kind of sweet is it? Is it similar to vanilla? Brown sugar? If it’s brown sugar, is it more like honey or caramelized sugar? Tasting these more granular flavors is a sign of a good bean, roasted and brewed the correct way.

Now, let us take a more in-depth look at the sweet section of the SCAA flavor wheel. Sweet is broken down into a few different categories. All of them have something new and grand to offer, so let’s take a look at what they are!

  • Sweet aromatics – This one may leap out at you before your lips even touch the cup! This category is used to represent a broader set of sweet aromas. The references given for this subcategory are Fischer Scientific Vanillin and Nabisco cookies.
  • Vanilla –  Vanilla is a flavor most people are intimately familiar with but- perhaps in contrast to the way most people think about Vanilla- the Vanilla aroma is characterized as woody and almost chemical-like.
  • Overall Sweet – A harmonious combo of taste and aroma, one that is, well… sweet overall. But what’s a good point of reference for this category? Surprisingly enough, Wheaties. They aren’t just for featuring our childhood sports heroes!
  • Vanillin – A bit of a curious category, Vanillin refers to aromas one might associate with cotton candy or even marshmallows. Certainly a flavor profile we wouldn’t mind every once in a while to satisfy our sweet tooth.
  • Brown sugar – Brown sugar is described as being round and rich.  The brown sugar family includes some subcategories that are sure to please!
  • Molasses – A caramelly, somewhat sharp and acidic series of hints
  • Maple Syrup – While a trip to Vermont or Quebec are always good vacation spots, you won’t need to head north to experience this aromatic category.  Maple Syrup notes are an earthy sweetness than tends to linger on the palette a bit longer. 
  • Caramelized –  Think of a Werther’s Original or the inside of a Milky Way.  Should have the slightest tinge of smoky/ashy/burnt flavor.  
  • Honey – This category is described as having a little bit of an aromatic spiciness to it.

Sweet Notes: Takeaways

If you are looking for sweet notes in your coffee, Central American coffees are a prime place to start.  As with other types of notes, soil, climate, roasting method, and brewing method all contribute to the eventual flavors you taste.

Like anything else, developing a palette is a skill that takes time and practice to refine.  One way you can develop your coffee further is through a coffee cupping. Another idea is to try pairing cups of coffee with associated foods: try an almond biscotti with a coffee exhibiting a vanilla sweetness, or a brown sugar cookie with a Mexican bean.  Over time, you will gain an increased ability to perceive more granular flavors and have an enhanced appreciation of coffee from different regions.

Jay Arr

Jay Arr is passionate about everything coffee. What began as a simple interest in the history, production, and brewing of coffee led him to a job as a barista at a national coffee chain. That’s not where Jay’s story with coffee ends, however. Roasting and brewing day in and out, he continued to gather knowledge about all things coffee.

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