What does an apple taste like?

I ask this seriously. Can you describe the flavour of an apple beyond, well….. apple?

I’ve tried now, as part of fruit tastings, to describe the flavour of apples and it is extremely difficult. I can describe the overall taste of an apple – its juiciness, sweetness, crispness and crunch. Beyond describing the skin as tasting a bit like plant leaves I have nothing to offer.

If you walked into a green grocers and each apple had a list of descriptors from floral to caramel, from citrus to savoury, then you might be a bit surprised. Curious, but probably extremely skeptical. Some of us might be encouraged by this to try different apples, to play along with the new fun game and see what we tasted. I’d wager most people would write the vendor off as pretentious or just borderline insane. Apples taste like apples.

I’m not saying we should stop describing coffee – and I’m not saying that coffee isn’t more complex than an apple when it comes to flavours (though cider tasters/apple-focused flavorists may disagree). I just think it is worth remembering, from time to time, just how alien the idea of a flavour descriptor can be.

33 Comments

  1. James – what a great post and something to read, and challenge ourselves to better describe coffees. Sometimes I feel flavor descriptors are spot on while others I feel like the author of those words was trying to set themselves apart in their word choice. It’s funny that you make this post, as this past weekend I had a Honeycrisp Apple, and it was so good I tweeted about the experience. My exact description was: “crisp sparkling sweetness like that of a Moscato D’Asti dessert wine. A-mazing” I often feel that if you can’t come up with a good description for the customer one that they might know, that comparing it’s flavor can help the customer. Always enjoy your writings and thoughts!

  2. Get out of my head, I was thinking about this today!

    I think part of the problem with apple is that it’s flavour is primarily aromatic. If you give someone blind-folded and with a peg on their nose (or some other way of disabling their ability to smell) it’s hard to discern from a potato.

    On the subject of coffee, I’d say that people are more receptive to flavour descriptors within their coffee it’s been integrated into the commercial-specialty ranges for a while. I certainly don’t think we should do away with them, but when approaching customers and trying to engage we should keep to relatively simplistic descriptions.

  3. You are an apple philistine. Get 5 or more different varieties of apple (good quality not supermarket crap) and taste them side by side. You won’t have much difficulty picking descriptors.

  4. I hope I could do it – but it would be hard to describe beyond taste into flavour. Even then I’d be interested to see how much people agreed on aromatic descriptors.

  5. He’s right, you’re an apple neophyte. Good apples taste nothing very different. Taste the single variety apple juice next time you’re in Norway. It should blow your mind. All kinds of descriptors come to mind, but your point is understood. We overcomplicate and over-romanticize cupping descriptors far too often and we expect quite a lot from our consumers when we all too frequently fail to deliver those descriptors.

  6. I asked this very same question the other day – same fruit and everything!
    One of the exercises we did at last weekend’s Let’s Talk Coffee event in Tarapoto, Peru, was a tasting of ten or twelve kinds of Peruvian fruit, which included everything from the relatively familiar mango to the totally unfamiliar cocona and aguaje (both of which I encourage you to google for pictures and descriptions). I noticed that it was much easier to describe the flavors of these new-to-me fruits than it is to describe the flavor of an apple, and beyond basic description, it was also much easier for me to find similarities between various Peruvian fruits than it is for me to find similarities between apples and pears, even though I know apples and pears have malic acid in common. When I commented on the similarities I perceived to a Peruvian guy, however, he looked at me like I was crazy, so I surmised that he might feel the same way about the two Peruvian fruits as I feel about apples and pears.

  7. Please may I have 5 potential descriptors? I’m not being an arse – but both you and David have offered no suggestions.

  8. If you could crystalize the taste of an apple with words, you wouldn’t eat it, because words alone would bring you the sensation.

    Factors to indicate taste resolves more around mouthfeel. How the tongue contracts around the feeling of having a liquid or object in your mouth. Does the sweetness open your tongue, or does it’s finish kill your loyalty to it’s sensations?

    Excellence is a cup of coffee that entertains you from the brew hits your mind to you begin to plan your next cup.

  9. I may be a philistine on apples, but I haven’t had the opportunity to be shown where I’m wrong, I will do my best to pick up different apples next time I’m by the green grocers. I too would like to hear some descriptors I’ve not heard much toward what I ought to be looking for.

  10. Funny… a few days ago Ian went shopping and gathered a bunch of different apples for our next cupping in hopes of strengthening our taste buds to recognize the unique attributes of such varieties as “Golden Delicious”, “Gala”, “Honeycrisp”, “Granny Smith”, and “Braeburn” to name a few. I suppose we will focus on tasting different attributes of the apples and quite possibly may compare apples to share similar sensations to other fruits or… objects maybe? but we’ll see! Descriptors of sensation will likely include; tart, sweet, sharp, sour, crisp, juicy, course, nutty, tender, and according to a few apple-lover sites… hints of strawberry and even pineapple!

    Hint of Strawberry in the nose and taste-

    http://www.treesofantiquity.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=1&products_id=127

    Hint of Pineapple-
    http://www.treesofantiquity.com/index.php?main_page=product_info&cPath=1&products_id=18

    Must be that time of year. Apples everywhere!

  11. But the problem with those descriptors is that they mean virtually the same thing… tart, sharp and sour are all just different degrees of acidity, and crisp, juicy, course and tender are all texture descriptors rather than taste.

    I personally think that our appreciation of an apple is largely down to the texture and the ‘crunch’. The taste itself is largely determined by the sugar and acid content. Apples that appear hard and ripe, but do not crunch will almost always disappoint on flavour, even if the sweet/sour balance is bang on.

  12. The great state of New York’s already dunn it!!

    http://www.nyapplecountry.com/varieties.htm

    If you look at braeburn (my favorite), you’ll see “Sweet and tangy flavor.” Is that the sort of description you were thinking of, James? I wonder if you’re wanting something at a higher level of abstraction, though? Not just sweet, but sweet like…

    Are apples simpler, biochemically speaking, than coffee? If so, then there’s less going on for the tongue to perceive in an apple. Then again. If we dried apples out, ground them into a powdered, slammed them with nine bars of pressure and 202 degree water, maybe they’d sing a different tune…

  13. I agree with David here; we have an amazing variety of apples in Canada (climate’s perfect for growing them almost sea to sea) and there are some very distinctive tastes.

    I was gonna post a slightly tongue in cheek reply and say something like
    “well granny smith apples taste like a young reisling…” (lol, usually the reverse is said) but I think I can do a bit better.

    Granny smiths are definitely on the tart, spritzy side with a taste that is reminiscent of some melons I’ve had in the past, but with more texture to the bite.

    Macintosh apples (my fave, as I grew up with a Mac tree in the back yard) are full body robust apples that have a big sweet impact that balances well with apples’ inherent tartness. There’s almost a red wine like characteristic to good macintosh apples.

    Red delicious – what’s especially interesting about red delicious even more than most other major varieties of apples I’ve tried is that it seems change taste the most between refrigerator-cold and room temperature (and even warm or hot, as in cooking). It gains an almost brown sugar – caramely aspect when eaten at room temp or warmer. One of the sweeter apples, and definitely big texture in the taste. Almost seems to more “melt in the mouth” when eaten at room temp, more so than other apples.

    One last one: j0nagold. First time I ever ate one, I was really surprised – there is a bit of spice in this apple! Something about the BC environment maybe, but Jonagolds taste different than most apples. They are tart and sweet, a nice balance like macintosh, but there’s also big time hits of coriander in the taste and aroma.

    How’s that?

  14. Description then for arguements sake… my favourite variety of this summer – Pink Lady – Lively apple with abundant sweetness, and acidity, lots of berry like aromatic notes, especially, cranberries, pomegranate, occasionally veering towards darker fruit like blackberries especially as the fruit approaches peak ripeness.

  15. Wait, um… what exactly are you trying to say?

  16. Tim, please highlight your problems to find meaning in my words, and I will try to provide a remedy.

  17. floral – sometimes that overwhelming sweetness of Sweet Peas. I realise thats an aroma and not a taste. Tart? something like slightly under-ripe apricots or rhubarb … or even baked rhubarb (but cleaner…) if there’s a little more sweetness than sourness in the apple? Sometimes hints of lavendar or other sweet herbs – again armomatics not taste.

    Hmmmm…

  18. I agree James. Apples have a very distinctive flavour that the palette isn’t easily comparable with other foods. Every apple variety has a distinctive flavour/note of its own, but that’s not what you are getting at is it. It’s about Apple. What does an Apple taste like, not to other apples, but as a flavour… the answer is, kind of like apple.

  19. I love how this post on over romanticizing coffee descriptors turned into describing apples. And Mark Prince, you’re right, our apples rule.

    C

  20. I think you have a point James. Beyond any taste descriptors that can define an apple, there is an apple-ness that is (mostly) unmistakable.

    This goes to the deepest questions of perception. Think of another sense for a minute. What is blue? Can you describe blue? You can compare different shades of blue. “Oh, that’s an ocean-like blue.” “That’s blue like the clear Alberta sky.” But in the end, they all share a blue-ness.

    What about coffee? Coffee has a coffee-ness. We can compare coffees based on taste or aroma. We compare them to other natural things (plants mostly) but coffees have a coffee-ness.

    Likely, we will diverge when we talk about why this is. I’m inclined to conclude that, in a similar way that each shade of blue is a wavelength of light, each coffee (or apple) is a combination of chemicals. Though coffees will differ in their composition, they show similar patterns and it’s those patterns that we associate with the taste of coffee (or apple).
    When our coffee has the right underlying pattern of acids and sugars, I can see why we might associate it’s flavour with other plants. But I’m no expert on gustation.

    In the same way that the frequency of blue light won’t actually tell you what blue looks like (it’s between 440-290nm by the way), the chemical composition won’t tell you what coffee actually tastes like.

    For the record though, I certainly could understand that apples could have hidden patterns that we might associate with all kinds of other natural items.

  21. apple is very much similar to pear/apricot/banana/coconut because of the lactone flavonoid. Also it’s fresh taste and anise like compound makes it very much a like estragol, basil/celery, etc…
    That’s some of the primary volatil compound in apple, but there’s so much more that gives complexity and uniqueness to each apple. I think it’s a bit simplistic to call something tasting apple because there’s so much more going on. Nonetheless it’s a good way to give an exemple of the flavor profile found in the product.

  22. I find the responses here fascinating – yet they don’t seem to actually address the question James has posed, and that is: “how do you describe the taste of an apple?”

    Certainly you can describe characters of the apple – as many have above. But the only way to know the taste of an apple is to taste the actual apple. Until then, we only have an “idea” of what “apple” tastes like.

    I came across this kind of conundrum very frequently when our company’s focus was Jays Shave Ice. With that side of the company, we dealt with a lot of flavors unfamiliar to American palates. Flavors such as lychee, pandan, langka and others were unfamiliar and quite unlike the typical fruits found at American grocery stores.

    So, when people asked me what lychee tastes like, I encouraged them to try a sample. Because to my mind, tasting is the only way to understand. Some would get a little bent and then I would tell them: “can you really describe what an orange tastes like?” Most people cannot accurately describe because we’re using a common understanding of flavors based on what we have tasted before.

    So if someone were to ask me what an apple tasted like, I would encourage that person to taste it for themselves and understand. Beyond that basic concept there are a wide range of apples to try.

    On an additional note: many years ago, while doing R&D work for the company, I discovered that the variations on flavors are nearly infinite. I went to a flavoring company looking for a strawberry flavor that we could use. From this one company, I was presented with over 250 strawberry variations – all based on actual fruit. However, if those 250 were unsatisfactory, the company would custom build a strawberry to our exact specifications.

    Taste is where it’s at.

    And that ridiculous argument about who has “the best” apples. Please take that out and shove it. That’s as absurd as claiming that any one place makes “the best” coffee.

  23. To be honest I quite like it when people don’t answer the question, or get the point I was trying (and usually failing) to make – because it spins the discussion off into unexpected and interesting directions. (Though sometimes it ends up down blind alleys, but this is the internet….)

    I’d quite like to try 250 strawberry variations – if only to struggle through describing how one might be strawberryier than another!

  24. There was a cider festival in Lostwithiel last weekend… Don’t just squeeze them, brew them. Taste a whole lot better, especially as the tastings progressed. Everyone got better looking and funnier too.

  25. The interesting thing about the 250 variations of strawberry was something I never really thought about before. A number of them were different varietals of strawberries and yet even more were those varietals at different stages of development. Fascinating work – we worked our way through about 65 of them before taking that project in a different direction.

    Quite honestly, it was bewildering. I was brand new to food research kind of work and was literally thrown into the deep end. And while we might poo-poo on artificial flavoring, to see a fruit broken down in a chromatograph to its chemical composition and then recreated via chemicals was absolutely fascinating and gave me a whole different perspective on artificial flavorings.

  26. Hello James,

    I deal with this matter for a few years now, not necessarily through experiments, but the thought floats in my mind again and again.
    We humans tend to rely too heavily on our intellectual ability to describe things. However, we seldeon realize that this is a highly limited “ability” of ours, for we could only compare, but seldom describe.
    How do you wish to describe the unique taste of an apple, of coffee, of a banana, or of rocket, without comparing, without using a reference point? Apparently we need samples, but instead we might want to go into the taste of any particular – everyday or exotic – food and dive into what THIS specific ingredient is, without the necessity to compare.
    Nothing against the interesting experiences we may witness while doing comparisons, but in order to make a choice between several tastes and aromas at any given point, comparsion is necessary. However, if we wish to taste AN APPLE for what IT is, then it is perhaps helpful to forget other frames of taste and dive into the tasting kingdom of apples alone.

  27. I do not really understand at all how showing that grocery stores do not typically put flavour descriptors next to apples shows that such flavour descriptors are alien to many people. In my personal experience, I go into the act of eating/tasting anything expecting to be told at least a little something about what I should expect to experience. I am somewhat disappointed if this does not come about, especially at restaurants. Additionally, up and coming high-end restaurants are finally beginning to catch on to what we in the beverage industry have been doing for quite some time now … having chefs prepare and describe food for you, at your table, such as Victory 44 in Minneapolis.

  28. Try describing the flavor of milk. Gotta love Mother Nature!

  29. Question:  What is the word for an unripe or over ripe apple with a thick skin and unpalatable flesh?
    Thanks,

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