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A Coffee Tasting Primer - Coffee Taste Characteristics

This is the second in a series of coffee tasting articles that explores the taste characteristics of coffee.

There are over 30 varieties of coffee available from the growing regions around the world. Some of the differences in how these coffees taste are obvious and easy to recognize and others are more subtle.

So do all of these coffees really taste that different? And can you tell the difference, or learn to taste the difference?

The answer is yes. With a little bit of practice, you can expand and educate your palette. In the process, you'll learn to recognize the taste qualities that are similar and different across the many coffee varieties.

As you become more familiar, the unique taste and flavor of the different coffees will begin to stand out.

There is also a commercial reason why we need to measure and categorize the taste characteristics of coffee. The coffee industry is highly competitive and producers compete vigorously for your cup of coffee. It's helpful that we have a reasonable way to standardize how we talk about the taste characteristics and qualities of coffee, so that we have a way to rate, measure and compare coffee.

How is Coffee Taste Described

Here's a typical coffee description that you might encounter. I won't tell you which coffee this is, but think about what this communicates to you about the taste characteristics. Is it helpful?

"a smooth mellow brightness with hints of dark chocolate, berries and a touch of citrus ...."

These tantalizing descriptions are sometimes a bit overdone to lure you in and motivate you to buy. But there is some helpful terminology woven in. With a bit of explanation, you can become familiar with this coffee tasting language and terminology that helps everyone get on the same page.

Industry professionals that taste for the purpose of rating coffee characteristics and quality are called "cuppers". While our sense of taste is subjective, cuppers have established a reasonably standard way to categorize the taste elements of coffee.

The basic characteristics to describe the taste of coffee include flavor, acidity, body, aroma and finish.

Acidity

Contrary to what you may have learned in chemistry, acidity doesn't have as much to do with the ph levels of the coffee (acidity vs. alkaline). Many people have the incorrect perception that acidity is a negative characteristic, and the less the acidity, the better. Actually, acidity is a very desirable characteristic that describes the brightness of coffee. A coffee with more acidity has a sharp, pleasing aftertaste.

Because the term acidity may have an unpleasant connotation, you will see more common and acceptable terms such as "bright" or "lively" to describe a coffee with higher acidity. A coffee with lower acidity would be considered smooth. A higher acidity would be considered lively. A coffee without any acidity is less desirable, and is generally described as "flat".

Body

Body refers to the sensation as the coffee settles on the palette and tongue. Body is considered a desirable quality and has more to do with the feel of the coffee in your mouth. A coffee with more body has a thicker, heavier quality that creates a sensation of richness.

Much of the sensation of body comes from the coffee oils that are extracted during the brewing process. Brewing methods that extract more oils such as an espresso or a coffee press will result in a more full bodied coffee. While a conventional drip machine will produce a coffee with less body because the paper filter tends to remove more of the desirable flavor oils. A full bodied coffee has a richness of flavor. A coffee that tastes thin and watery without flavor is said to lack body.

Aroma

Aroma has everything to do with the smell of the coffee. Our sense of smell adds many more subtle and complex dimensions to the limited and basic capabilities of our taste buds. With just our taste buds, we would only be able to detect the four basic taste sensations of "sweet", "sour", "salty" and "bitter". It's our ability to smell the aroma of coffee that adds the many interesting and subtle nuances of flavor such as "winy", "floral", or "citrus".

Coffee aroma is also described using terms such as "bouquet" or "fragrance". It's all in the nose.

Flavor

Flavor is a subjective aspect and is dependent on how we perceive taste. Nonetheless, coffee tasters use a number of accepted flavor terms to communicate the common or distinctive taste aspects of coffee.

For example, "winy" is a desirable flavor that suggests a hint of red wine. A coffee may have a "caramel" taste or a "bitter" component. Some coffees may have a "fruity" quality with a subtle taste of "berry" or "citrus".

In a more general sense, flavor is the overall perception of the coffee and speaks to the balance of acidity, body and aroma. When the basic characteristics of acidity, body and aroma compliment each other, and no single component overwhelms the other, the coffee is said to have good balance.

Finish

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.

Putting it all together

Let's revisit the coffee tasting description we looked at earlier in the article.

"a smooth mellow brightness with hints of dark chocolate, berries and a touch of citrus ...."

Does it start to make a bit more sense? A "smooth mellow brightness" refers to the acidity. In this case, the "smooth mellow" probably indicates a slightly lower acidity. And the hints of chocolate, berries and citrus are flavor and aroma characteristics that you should be able to detect when you taste the coffee.

In the next installment of the "Coffee Tasting Primer", we'll explore the different types of coffee roasts and how the degree and style of roast is important to bring out the best qualities of a particular coffee.

Then we'll be ready in a later installment to start matching some of these taste descriptions with the actual coffee varieties and origins.

In the meantime, don't be afraid to start experimenting and tasting different coffees and see if you can begin to detect some of these characteristics and qualities.

Previous - Coffee Tasting Primer Introduction             Next - Coffee Roasting

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