Coffee is one of the most beloved beverages on the planet, and few of us can do without our daily caffeine. We love the taste when sipping that cup of coffee, but often don’t realize the complexity of tasting involved in the cup.
Comparable to wine aficionados, coffee professionals have defined terminology for tasting & cupping notes, and shed a whole new perspective on exactly what we are tasting, or shouldn’t be tasting, when we take that delicious sip.
Acidity: Acidity, used as a coffee term, refers to bright, tangy, fruity, or wine-like flavor characteristics found in many high grown Arabica coffees. Coffee with high acidity is described as acidy, which has nothing to do with amount of acid, or pH. Coffee actually has a relatively neutral pH of between 5 and 6. When green coffee is stored for more than a year it will have a perceptible loss of flavor and acidity. Also, acidity is reduced as coffee is roasted darker.
Acrid: A harsh, sour taste. An acrid coffee can be described as tart, sharp, or acerbic.
Aftertaste: The taste of brewed coffee vapors released after swallowing. Also called “finish”, aftertastes can be chocolatey, burnt, spicy, tobaccoy, tangy, etc.
Alkaline: The taste term “alkaline” describes a dry taste sensation mostly at the back of the tongue. An alkaline taste, while somewhat bitter, is not necessarily disagreeable and is characteristic of many dark roasts and some Indonesian coffees.
Ashy: Coffee odor similar to that of an ashtray or fireplace. An “ashy” aroma indicates a dark roast, and is not necessarily a negative attribute. Ashy coffees generally have a carbony flavor.
Aspiration: Drawing coffee brew into the mouth by vigorous suction to spray it evenly across the tongue, releasing vapors. Aspiration helps cuppers attain a better sensory evaluation of a coffees’ nuances.
Astringent: A dry, sour, salty, and generally disagreeable sensation detected mostly at the sides of the tongue.
Baked: Flat, dull and uninteresting coffee. A baked flavor may be caused by roasting too slowly. Coffee roasted in a drum roaster for much more than roughly 17 minutes will likely be burnt or have a baked flavor.
Balance: A balanced coffee may be complex, but does not have any overwhelming flavor or aroma characteristics. A well balanced coffee has flavors that can be sensed evenly across the tongue. Blending several different coffees together, if done correctly, can create a flavorful and balanced coffee. Balance, however, is not necessarily a positive taste attribute, since some people prefer coffees with particularly strong flavor distinctions.
Bitter: A harsh, generally unpleasant taste detected mostly in the back of the tongue. Bitterness is characteristic of over-extracted, defective, or extra dark roasted coffees.
Body: The physical mouth feel and texture of a coffee. Full bodied coffees have a strong, creamy, and pleasant, mouth feel. A coffees body (light, medium, or full) is its thickness due to the amount of dissolved and suspended solids and oils extracted from the coffee grounds, and may range from thin and watery to thick and creamy.
Bouquet: The aroma of freshly ground coffee.
Bready: A bread-like, or grain-like aroma. Insufficiently roasted, sour tasting coffee will often have a bready aroma. Bready coffees may also be described as “green” or “beany”
Bright: Coffees with a pleasant, tangy flavor. Bright coffees may also be described as having a wine like acidity.
Caramelly: A flavor and aroma characteristic of candy or syrup in which sugars have oxidized and become caramelized. Coffee beans contain sugars which caramelize during roasting and, if not burned, may be detected as caramelly notes in the cup.
Carbony: The flavor and aroma characteristic of burnt wood, or burnt food. Carbony flavors and aromas are often used as an indication of roast degree when cupping darker roasted coffees. Also called “smoky” or “burnt”.
Chicory: An herb used as a coffee substitute and to flavor coffee. Chicory, or Cichorium Intybus, has been used as a coffee additive for centuries, both to enhance flavor of coffee and to stretch coffee supplies. In New Orleans, Louisiana, many have developed a preference for chicory coffee.
Chocolatey: The taste or aroma of chocolate. Coffees rarely have a very strong chocolatey flavor or aroma, but some Central American and Yemeni coffees have a distinct chocolatey aroma and a slightly bitter-sweet chocolatey taste.
Citrus: The aroma and taste of ripe citrus fruit. Citrus notes are often found in coffee, which is not surprising considering the fact that coffee beans are the seeds of coffee cherries. Coffees with flavor characteristics of unripe citrus are described as “sour”.
Complexity: The array of flavors and flavor shifts experienced when smelling and tasting a coffee. While not necessarily a positive attribute, complexity can sometimes be gained by blending one coffee with another or by blending a dark roast with a light roast. Some excellent single origin coffees are by themselves both complex and balanced, but agreeable complex flavors are most often achieved by blending two or more complimentary single origin coffees.
Crust: The layer of saturated coffee grounds that floats to the surface when cupping (tasting) coffee. As part of the traditional coffee cupping method, called “breaking the crust”, the grounds are agitated to release trapped vapors allowing the cupper note the coffees unique characteristics. The crust is then scooped out with a spoon before tasting the brewed coffee.
Earthy: The aroma characteristic of fresh earth, wet soil, or raw potatoes. While not necessarily negative characteristic, earthiness may be caused by molds during the processing of harvested coffee cherries. Earthy notes, for example, are commonly found in semi-dry processed coffees from Indonesia.
Ferment: A sour and oniony taste characteristic of over-fermented coffee. After de-pulping coffee cherries, which removes the skin and some attached mucilage (pulp), the separated beans will still have a significant amount of pulp attached. The remaining pulp is often loosened by fermentation, allowing it to be washed away prior to drying. If fermentation is not stopped as soon as the remaining parchment (husk) is no longer slimy, and has a rough texture, the coffee may acquire a ferment flavor.
Fruity: The scent of flowers including honeysuckle, jasmine, dandelion and nettles. Mildly floral aromas are found in some coffees and are generally perceived along with fruity or herbal notes.
Harsh: Pungent and disagreeable, such as a low quality bitter Robusta.
Herbal: Aroma associated with freshly mowed green grass, herbs, green foliage, green beans, and unripe fruit. A grassy aroma, also called green, herby, or herbal, is characteristic of sour tasting under-roasted coffee beans and under-dried or water damaged coffee beans.
Hidey: The smell or taste of hide (leather). Hidey notes, for example, may be found in some east African coffees.
Instant taste: A taste characteristic of freeze dried instant coffee. Many find the taste of instant coffee objectionable. Ironically, instant coffee is commonly served in Colombia and Brazil, both large volume coffee exporters.
Malty: The aroma of malt. Often used together with Cereal and Toast-like to include the aroma of cereal, malt, and toast. “Cereal”, “Malty”, and “Toast-like” describe grain-like aromas and flavors of roasted grain (including roasted corn, barley, or wheat), malt extract, freshly baked bread, or toast.
Medicinal: The smell of medicine, or iodine. A medicinal flavor with notes of iodine which can result from cherries drying while still on the coffee plant. Medicinal flavors cannot be hidden well by blending.
Mellow: Balanced and mild, without strong tastes or aftertaste. Medium roasted, low grown (less than 4000 feet) Arabicas, for example, generally have a mellow flavor.
Neutral: Neutral coffees do not have a predominant taste sensation, but may still have a pungency felt by the tongue and are often used in blending. Coffees from Colombia or Brazil, for example, commonly have a neutral flavor.
Nose: The aroma and taste characteristic of a coffee sensed by the nose, especially when exhaling coffee vapors after swallowing.
Nutty: The aroma and flavor characteristic of fresh nuts. Coffee cuppers are careful to avoid using the term “nutty” when describing coffee with taste or aroma characteristics of rancid nuts or bitter almonds. Coffees from South America commonly have a nutty flavor.
Oniony: Flavor characteristic of onions, and often associated with the use stagnant water when processing coffee by the wet method. Oniony characteristics are often avoided by recycling the pulping water during processing.
Papery: A taste characteristic of coffee stored in paper bags or prepared using low quality filter paper.
Past Crop: Coffee from a previous years harvest. Past crop, old crop, old, or oldish are also used as a taste terms to describe coffees stored for more than a year. Past crop coffees tend to have a woody, strawy, or hay-like flavor and less acidity.
Peas: An unpleasant bitter taste similar to fresh green peas.
Quakery: A peanut-like flavor that results from processing unripe or underdeveloped coffee beans.
Rubbery: The aroma and flavor characteristic of hot tires or rubber bands. A rubbery characteristic, while not always negative, is highly recognizable in some coffees, especially fresh Robustas.
Scorched: Roasted coffee with burn marks caused by inadequate tumbling or by roasting too hot. Also called “tipped” or “charred”. Scorched beans may look completely roasted, but are likely to have soury and bready flavors.
Sour: An excessively sharp, biting and unpleasant flavor (such as vinegar or acetic acid). Sour or soury flavors are sometimes associated with the aroma of fermented coffee. A sour taste can be caused by overripe or already fermenting cherries, or by improper fermentation where yeasts and alcohol form vinegar-like acids To avoid this defect, coffee still in its parchment (husk) is washed immediately after fermentation when the parchment coffee is no longer slimy and has a rough texture. Soury flavors are often confused with acidity, which is the slightly tangy sensation associated with bright coffee flavors.
Spicey: The aroma of sweet spices such as cloves, cinnamon, and allspice. The term “spicy” when describing coffee does not include the aroma of savory spices such as pepper, oregano, and curry.
Taint: An unexpected off-flavor not clearly defined by usual taste categories. Too much pulp in fermenting parchment, for example, will produce tainted coffee.
Winey: The combined sensation of smell, taste ,and mouth feel experienced when drinking wine. A winey taste is generally perceived along with acidy and fruity notes. Often used incorrectly to describe a soury or over-fermented flavor.
Woody: A taste characteristic of old coffee. Woody coffee has a smell of dry wood, an oak barrel, dead wood, or cardboard. This defect results when beans are improperly stored for an extended period of time. Coffees stored at low altitudes in high temperatures and humidity (as in many ports of shipment) tend to deteriorate quickly and become woody. All coffees can become woody if stored long enough.
There we have it! Now take that next sip of coffee with all of that in mind and discover a whole new world within your cup 🙂