How do you describe coffee flavor? When it comes to our senses, describing what we perceive in words is pretty difficult. How do you describe the color “red” or “blue” to someone? Or the feeling of “hot” or “cold”?
Describing the flavor of coffee is a similar challenge. Coffee beans have over 800 flavor characteristics that our senses can detect, which is actually almost double that of wine which has about 400 discernable flavor characteristics. Most people would not consider coffee to have more depth of flavor characteristics than wine, but its true. Similar to wine, in order to communicate the characteristics of coffee flavor, a common set of terminology is generally agreed upon.
Cupping - A Professional Coffee Tasting Ritual
The activity of tasting coffee to rate or judge the flavor characteristics and quality of a coffee is called “cupping” and a professional coffee taster that performs this coffee tasting ritual is called a “cupper”.
With cupping, the coffee is ground into an small porcelain or glass cup, and hot water is poured on top of the coffee. The coffee steeps for a few minutes as the grinds rise to the top, forming a crust. The crust is broken with a spoon and the cupper evaluates the coffee's aromas. After the coffee cools down a little, the cupper slurps the liquid and evaluates the coffee flavor.
The cupper is only interested in the taste evaluation, not actually consuming or swallowing the coffee, and spits out the coffee into a container. During a cupping session, the cupper will typically evaluate many samples of coffee. Here are some of the terms used in cupping, and generally agreed upon by the coffee industry at large, to describe the flavors and characteristics of coffee.
The Basic Taste Characteristics of Coffee
Flavor – while flavor is somewhat subjective on how we perceive taste, there are terms that tasters use to communicate the common or distinctive taste characteristics of coffee. For example, “winy” is a desirable flavor, reminiscent of a hint of red wine. A coffee may have a “nutty” taste or a “bitter” component. Some coffees have a hint of “berry” or “citrus”. In a more general sense, flavor is the overall perception of the coffee and is also a balance of the acidity, body and aroma of the coffee. See the additional terms below that describe the different coffee flavor characteristics in more detail.
Acidity – this does not refer to the degree of acidity (ph). As a taste characteristic, acidity refers to the sharp and pleasing aftertaste, often referred to as the liveliness of the coffee. In coffee, acidity is a highly desirable quality that describes the brightness of flavor. Acidity ranges from low (smooth) to high (lively). A coffee without any acidity is generally undesirable and is referred to as flat.
Body – refers to the taste sensation as the coffee flavor settles on the tongue. Body is a desirable quality that describes more the feel of the coffee in your mouth rather than the flavor. It is the heaviness, thickness, and viscosity of the coffee that contribute to the sensation of richness. The coffee oils extracted during brewing contribute to the sensation of body and richness. An espresso or french press brew will produce a more full bodied coffee, while a conventional drip machine will produce a lighter bodied coffee because the paper filter removes the desirable flavor oils. A coffee with full body has a richness of flavor and aroma. A thin, watery tasting coffee with little flavor is said to lack body.
Aroma – is the smell of the coffee. Because of the way our sense of taste and smell work together, the more complex or subtle taste characteristics of coffee actually come from the smell or aroma more than the taste or palette. Without our sense of smell, we would be left with just our taste buds, which are only capable of detecting the four basic taste sensations of “sweet”, “sour”, “salty” and “bitter”. The more subtle nuances of coffee flavor such as “floral” or “winy “ come more from the aroma or smell of the coffee. Official coffee tasters, called “cuppers” will also smell the coffee grounds to judge or classify the flavor characteristics of the coffee. The smell of the coffee grounds is referred to as the fragrance or bouquet.
Finish – is a more recent term brought over from the wine tasting world. Finish describes the sensation in the palette after you've swallowed the coffee (or spit it out as cuppers do after every taste). Some coffees will develop in the finish. That is, they leave a pleasurable taste and/or feel in your palette that lingers. And that lingering taste sensation can change in noticeable ways from the initial sensation and taste when the coffee is in your mouth.
Additional Coffee Flavor Terms
Bitter - one of the four basic tastes that is detected on the back of the tongue. A darker roast can exhibit some bitterness. A balanced level of bitterness can add to the fullness of the coffee flavor and is a desirable sensation. Too much bitterness is unpleasant and can be the result of over-extraction.
Bright - refers to a coffee with good pleasant acidity.
Buttery - the flavor oils when present and more pronounced in the coffee create an oily sensation in the mouth that resembles the rich smoothness of butter. Brewing methods such as the French press allow more of the flavor oils to extract into the coffee, while other methods that use a paper filter will remove the oils from the coffee.
Earthy - An earthy or musty flavor, not necessarily unpleasant.
Finish - refers to the aftertaste and the sensation that the coffee leaves on the palette after swallowing. The finish can be described as quick or lingering. Describing a coffee that has a clean aftertaste refers to the finish.
Floral - a pleasant aroma or flavor that is reminiscent of flowers.
Fruity - an aroma or flavor that resembles fruit, typically cherries, citrus or berries, generally a positive attribute.
Harsh – refers to the unpleasant taste sometimes considered similar to “raw weeds”. This is more a characteristic of Robusta coffees. While an undesirable quality, some coffee drinkers prefer a hint of this harshness in their blend.
Nutty - a distinctive aroma or flavor reminiscent of roasted nuts.
Smooth - a coffee low in acidity.
Sour - one of the basic four tastes that is detected on the sides of the tongue toward the back. A light roasted coffee can exhibit a sour characteristic.
Spicy - a pleasant aroma or flavor that resembles a certain spice, sweet or savory in character.
Winy - is a desirable flavor reminiscent of a hint of red wine. The interesting sensation derives from a contrast between fruit-like acidity and a smooth body. Coffees from Kenya are an example of winy flavor.