The best description of flavor we've ever seen didn't use any words at all. Here it is:
Alas, when we describe the flavors we taste in our coffee, we have to use words. From time to time, we get questions about the flavor descriptions printed on our bags and posted on our menus. Does our Kenya Mchana really taste like blackberries, plums and cherries? What about our Colombia Microlot? Can I really taste vanilla, black cherry and brown sugar, like you describe?
The answer to these questions is: you might. Coffee has a tremendously complex flavor profile, with over 800 chemical compounds contributing to aroma alone. The combination and degree to which these compounds exist in each coffee is what give it its unique flavor. So, instead of saying, "in this coffee, we detected high levels of Citric and Malic acid, with a strong presence of (E)-ß-Damascenone in the aroma," we say "We tasted orange, apple, and smelled a honey-like aroma in this coffee."
And this is where it gets tricky.
Describing flavor is one of the diciest high-wire acts we have to perform in the coffee industry. The only words to describe flavor at our disposal are other flavors. It’s like trying to describe color. Here’s a fun experiment—look at the wall behind your screen and describe the color of it without using other colors as a reference. It gets tough pretty quickly, right? Where one might see fuchsia, another might see might see maroon. What words you use to describe the flavor you taste in our coffees might differ from the ones we use. And that's ok. That's what makes it interesting.
So when you see descriptors on our bags and menus like caramel, hickory, blackberry and meyer lemon, just know it’s our way of trying get at what we’re tasting in the cup. We would use colors and shapes and music and maybe even memories to describe flavor if we could, but a coffee that tastes like a cool-but-bright sunrise in Bellingham circa November, 1998 wouldn’t exactly translate.