Understanding the Common Flavours in Coffee

Posted by Andrew Scrivens on 22nd Jan 2020

Tried our quiz but weren’t sure what answers to put in? 

While you’ve undoubtedly heard coffee-tasting terms being thrown around by your local, heavily-bearded barista, you may never have paused for any great length of time to really think about what these words might mean! And you’d be forgiven for this too, life is complicated enough without analysing your morning coffee, right?

Yes! 

But, if you took our quiz and found that you weren’t sure what answers to provide, maybe we should spend a few minutes thinking about exactly what you are tasting each morning with the noble intention to make a great thing, even better!

Have you ever been to a Wine Tasting event? If not wine, then how about whiskey? Or perhaps craft beer is more your thing?

Regardless of your preference, tastings are a great way to become better acquainted with the different flavours, notes and ‘finishes’ across a range of your favourite alcoholic beverages. Much as we might hate to admit it when the tasting guide tells us we’ll get a hit of ‘fresh blackberry’, we can actually taste the blackberry.

We pretty much agree that discovering more about the flavours behind our beverage of choice helps elevate our enjoyment of it. Why are we talking about wine and whiskey flavours on a coffee blog? Well, much like these drinks, coffee also has a rich flavour background that’s well worth exploring.

What Do We Mean by Coffee Bean Flavours?

Much like wine, coffee has different flavours that are influenced by the region it’s grown in, the quality of the growing environment, and the processing (and roasting) method.

Our first focus might be to get that fresh espresso down our necks in the morning so we can reap the benefits of the caffeine goodness, taking the time to really taste the espresso could yield a whole new flavour town.

What Influences Coffee Flavours?

Although it might seem that flavours are just inherent to the particular bean, there’s more to it. Similar varieties grown in different environments can have radically different flavour notes. Likewise, the overall roasting process can have a big impact. Here’s a closer look at all that:

  • Origin

There are many different changes from bean to bean, and origin has a big effect on this – including flavour. What do we mean by origin? Essentially we’re talking about the specific environmental factors relating to where the beans are grown and where they originate. These factors include things like the soil, how much sun the beans get, rain, wind, shade – basically anything that has an impact on the way the beans grow.

  • Roasting 

Probably one of the final, but still significant, impacts on coffee bean flavour is the roasting process. We could literally write a blog or two going into the full details on differences between a light roast and dark roast in terms of the flavour profile. So we did! You can read Part One and Part Two for the full low down, but for ease here’s generally what you can expect:

  • Light Roast: Sharper acidity, clear and mild, more origin flavours.
  • Medium Roast: A greater balance between the acidity, sweetness and other aromas.
  • Medium-Dark Roast: The acidity is less pronounced, moving into chocolate-like flavour territory.
  • Dark Roast: Distinct dark chocolate flavours, and a heavy mouthfeel. 

While this is all good to know, getting to know the flavours going on in your fresh brew requires knowing what kinds of flavours you should be looking out for.

  • Altitude

Surprised? It’s pretty out there, but totally true that the altitude at which coffee is grown has a really significant impact on its flavour notes. The higher the elevation, the more pronounced the flavours become, as this diagram very simply illustrates.

The Most Common Coffee Flavours

When we talk about coffee flavours, we’re not referencing the French Vanilla or Salted Caramel sticky goop your local big chain coffee provider might be offering, although we’re not judging if that’s your thing (we lied, we’re totally judging).

You can find a multitude of subtle flavours in different coffees, which like wine, are often associated with their aroma. Some of the most common flavour descriptors include:

  • Chocolatey
  • Nutty
  • Caramelly
  • Spicey
  • Fruity

Coffee flavours go deeper into the bean and are an inherent part of the coffee drinking experience. It’s some serious stuff, so serious in fact, that the World Coffee Research organisation have even created what they refer to as a ‘sensory lexicon’.

The lexicon was developed to assist coffee fanatics (sorry, researchers) in understanding the taste and aroma flavours and notes behind the plethora of coffee beans available. It breaks these down into 24 key attributes or descriptors, that can all be used to describe the flavour of coffee:

Sour

Bitter

Salty

Apple

Grape

Coconut

Pineapple

Acetic Acid

Butyric Acid

Isovaleric Acid

Fermented

Peapod

Fresh

Papery

Earthy

Dusty

Damp

Phenolic

Petroleum

Brown Spice

Almond

Vanillin

Floral

Jasmine

You might read through that list and be left scratching your head (petroleum, anyone?). If it’s sounding a bit too complex, there is another handy little tool that is invaluable if you’re interested in exploring coffee flavours.

The Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel

The Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel was developed in partnership between the World Coffee Research and Specialty Coffee Association of America. They wanted to create something that could help everyone better understand and enjoy the flavour of coffee.

Using the wheel is easy: you start at the middle, and work your way outwards, selecting the descriptors that best describe the coffee you’re drinking. The World Coffee Research website has a great (quite in-depth) guide on getting the most out of the wheel.

A Short Cut Coffee Flavour Glossary

To really compile your flavour knowledge we definitely recommend exploring the coffee taster’s flavour wheel, but it’s also good to have a little short cut to refer to, that can also help you better understand what all these fancy words really mean when it comes to coffee.

This list is not definitive but a great starting point (we think):

  • Acrid – Harsh, sour taste often described as tart or sharp.
  • Ashy – A coffee aroma usually found in dark roasts. A fragrance reminiscent of the smell of a fireplace.
  • Baggy – Coffee that has been stored too long or a light roast with notes reminiscent of mildew.
  • Bready – A grain-like aroma akin to bread. Usually found in sour-tasting coffee.
  • Bright – A pleasant tasting coffee with a tangy flavour.
  • Briny – A slightly salty taste caused by reheating or coffee that has been left on a burner for too long.
  • Caramel – A candy or syrup flavour, like sugar that has been caramelised.
  • Carbon – A flavour or aroma with characteristics of burnt wood, usually found in darker roasts.
  • Chocolate – Exactly as it sounds – a sweet flavour or aroma that resembles chocolate.
  • Citrus – This can be broken down into other descriptors that are citrus related including lemon, orange and pineapple.
  • Earthy – An aroma of fresh earth, wet soil, and sometimes refers to the presence of different types of mould.
  • Floral – An aroma of fresh flowers, often found in coffees with a fruity or herbal flavour profile.
  • Grassy – Separate from earthy, grassy is exactly as it sounds, detecting the fresh aroma akin to cut grass.
  • Hidey – Unusually, this refers to an aroma or taste akin to leather and is frequently found in some East African coffees.
  • Malty – Similar to bready, this is a flavour or aroma akin to malt or a grainy taste.
  • Nutty – Quite a common flavour note, referring to fresh nutty taste or aroma.
  • Rubbery – Reminiscent of rubber bands or hot tyres, this is a common aromatic flavour note in fresh Robusta beans.
  • Spicy – Think cloves, cinnamon and similar spices over chilli. A fresh and warming aroma or flavour.
  • Tobacco – Not always a negative thing, despite the profile of tobacco. This is a fresh and fragrant aroma or flavour, adding an earthy depth to the coffee.
  • Woody – Similar to tobacco, an earthy related taste or aroma, adding a distinct depth.

A Closer Look at Origins and Flavour

As we briefly touched on, the origins of coffee have a significant impact on the ending flavour profile. It’s easy to assume people who state they have a preference for particular origins are just being pretentious, but genuinely, you can pick out a wide range of tasting notes across different origins.

So, what origins create different flavours? Broadly, there are three main coffee growing areas: Africa, America and Asia, and each has some distinct flavour profiles that are well worth knowing about.

  • Coffee Grown in Africa

With a distinctly fruit-driven flavour profile, coffees from Africa tend to boast high-quality acidities. These are often clarified through processing techniques to aid bringing the fruitiness out in the beans. Kenyan coffee beans have proven popular for their delivery of blackcurrant, grape and even ripening tomato-like flavours and acidity. Along with a touch of sweetness and brightness in the cup, if a fruity flavour appeals to you, it could be well worth picking up a bag. 

Travel up the coffee belt North to Ethiopia and you’ll find one of the most distinct flavour regions in the world when it comes to coffee. Sweet, juicy, milder acidity, but still offering that fruity touch, you can expect more strawberry or blackberry tasting notes. Yum.

  • Coffee Grown in America

Coffee is grown in three main areas in America – the North, Central and the South.

In Central America, Panama coffee has repeatedly been voted as some of the best. Offering a range of rich fruity, juicy and floral flavours. Costa Rica and Honduras offer a different flavour profile. Here you’ll discover more balanced aromas and crisper acidity, with the beans offering apple and cherry notes. Over to Guatemala where you can discover those deeper flavour profiles, like raw cacao.

When it comes to South America, Brazil really needs no introduction. A stand out number one in terms of countries that export coffee, with Columbia coming at a close number three. Brazilian coffee tends to be extremely balanced, offering a sweet-tasting profile of chocolate, caramel or a sumptuous blend of the two. Columbian coffee will usually offer a crisper flavour profile when it comes to the acidity, and more mellow sweetness, along the lines of maple syrup flavouring.

  • Coffee Grown in Asia

When it comes to Asia, the most prominent coffee-growing region is Indonesia. Here is where the impact of environmental conditions is really noticeable in the resulting flavour profiles. You’ll usually be able to pick out very distinct, meaty earthy tasting notes, and in some beans, a toasted, smokey flavour profile may be apparent.

Sumatran similarly offers a more savoury flavour profile in their beans, with tasting notes that are heavier and complex, but you might also discover some strong berry-like flavours with crisp acidity.

Over to Papua New Guinea, you’ll find a much cleaner and balanced flavour profile, with bright citrus acidities and even a herb-like taste.

Common Coffee Flavour Terms to Know

And while we’re on a roll with expanding your coffee flavour knowledge and vocabulary, there are just a few other keywords that are useful to know about when reflecting on coffee flavours (or attempting to decipher what your local barista is telling you while you wait for him to pour):

  • Acidity: While anything acidic might sound like a bad thing, it’s actually a good thing when it comes to coffee. Acidity refers to the bright, tangy, citrus flavours you can find in coffee (yup, they’re really in there!). Think lemon, apple, and even pineapple.
  • Body: Another term that you might only associate with wine – it’s also a great descriptor for coffee. When we talk about the ‘body’ of a coffee, we generally mean the physical taste sensation. Think along the lines of creamy and smooth, or coarse.

Now you’re well on your way to impressing that barista. You’re welcome.

How to Find Out More About Coffee Flavours?

If learning more about the flavour of your coffee is sounding a bit like too much hard work, we hear you. It can be a great world to dive into, but once you do, it might feel a little bottomless!

The good news is that most roasters put the hard work in for you. We’re generally quite a proud bunch of the beans we roast and we’re keen to share everything we can with you about what you’re drinking – which includes the flavour notes.

Keep in mind, many roasters have been doing this for years so don’t be disheartened if at first you really cannot detect that touch of almond or blackberry, no matter how much the bean packet insists it’s there! Work on this over time and you’ll probably surprise yourself when you do start to notice different flavours more.

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