Start here: how to taste coffee like a boss…
“Huh? What do you mean the coffee tastes like grapefruit? What does full-bodied mean?
Sound familiar? If you have asked yourself any (or all) of these questions before, then this is the article for you. Let us help you understand the terminology associated with how to taste coffee!
Trying to interpret tasting notes or flavour profiles can be confusing without understanding the terminology used throughout the coffee industry. For some reason though, these terms are not usually defined for the actual consumers of coffee.
In this article, we’ll break it all down and clear up some commonly-used terms, allowing you to make informed decisions about finding the best coffee for you. If you have tried our Coffee Selection Tool and weren’t quite sure what to choose, this guide will help you really dial it in next time and also make sense of your first recommendation.
THE TERMINOLOGY USED WHEN TASTING COFFEE
There are usually three to four components to a coffee flavour description:
- Flavour/Undertones &
These descriptions are used to paint a sensory image by drawing on your existing flavour memories. This helps you to construct a concept of what the coffee will taste like. With so many different varieties of coffee out there, flavour notes are a useful guide to help you discover coffee blends and origins that you are best suited to your unique tastes.
The first sensory component you will experience when brewing a coffee is its aroma.
This term refers to the actual smell of brewed coffee.
The idea with all coffee terminology is to relate the experience back to everyday smells that you are familiar with, such as cut-grass or rose-petals etc. It’s not the case that you should only smell this particular fragrance (duh, it smells like coffee!). Instead, you can discover an impression of the in the taste or smell of coffee which is distinctly present with the otherwise overwhelming sense of coffee!
Although the aroma does play a role in the overall experience of a particular coffee, it doesn’t necessarily need to have everything in common with the other sensory dimensions. In fact, you will often encounter sensory memories from the aroma that do not appear in the actual flavour of the coffee at all. To put this in other words, a specific blend could have a medicinal aroma but then taste like apple pie! Yep, coffee is weird stuff…
It is also worth mentioning that there is a difference between fragrance and aroma when referring to coffee tasting notes.
- Fragrance is used to describe the smell of ground coffee that has not been brewed.
- Aroma describes the smell of coffee after brewing.
The next descriptor is Body, which is also referred to as Mouth-Feel. This one is a little more self-explanatory: it refers to how the coffee feels in your mouth. Is it thin and watery or does it feel more viscous and creamy? How heavy does it seem?
How you roast and then brew your coffee will play a big role in how “big” the coffee feels in your mouth. Espresso will almost always have a full body when compared to a drip filter, mostly due to the crema produced in the process of extraction which adds viscosity to the extracted coffee. As a general rule, a filter/light roast will have a much lighter body when compared to a dark roast.
These are general rules and different blends with varying roast levels will balance in a number of ways. The enormous range of coffee origins used in blending and roasting can, of course, produce surprising interactions, often resulting in an impression delightfully contradictory to what should be expected!
FLAVOUR AND UNDERTONES
If we are being completely honest, of these two terms, it is the latter that conveys a more accurate description of a blend or origin’s taste. Why is this? Well, barring a few very unique coffees, you will find that the overwhelming flavour is typically… coffee!
There is usually an undertone of something else present as well. The impression could be of dark-chocolate, port or oranges. In truth, there are a vast array of undertones that can that detected in coffees from around the world, and specific regions often come to be known for producing coffee with distinct characteristics (Like the citric undertones associated with Ethiopian coffee or the distinct chocolate flavour found in beans from Colombia).
The final piece of the puzzle is probably the least understood coffee descriptor. Acidity is used in two ways, the first is to describe the brightness of a coffee (you could almost call it a fizziness). It would read something like “with a crisp bright acidity”. The second is used to describe the perceived chemical origin of the acidity. Does it seem to come from a citric source? Or a vinegar-based source?
The first use of the term serves a purpose and does describe the coffee experience well, however, it’s the second use that we believe to be more useful in creating an accurate mental model of a coffee as it goes deeper into the experience.
There are a handful of chemical compounds that are classed as acidic which tend to show up in brewed coffee. Some of the most common are citric acidity, acetic acidity malic acidity and quinic acidity. There are many more but these are the most common ones you will encounter.
Of these, the most common and relatable is citric acidity. When you taste the tartness of a lemon, that is citric acidity. Likewise, when you eat a mandarin, that bright, zesty quality is the nature of citric acidity. The main differences in flavour between a lemon and a mandarin could be understood by looking at how this acidity is balanced by fructose. The ratio of sweet to acidic gives each fruit its flavour profile. Other sources of acidity include the malic acidity in apples and acetic acidity in balsamic vinegar.
When you are reading tasting notes that see “grapefruit acidity” you can use your existing sensory memories to draw a mental picture of a grapefruit tartness which is quite a complex acidity, and hopefully well balanced by the sugars and lipids present in the coffee.
CONTEXT AND PUTTING THIS INTO PRACTICE
Flavour descriptors are used at various stages of coffee production.
The first use of descriptors is by the farmer or producers. Once the coffee has been processed, it is roasted very lightly and tasted by cupping. Cupping allows any defects, faults and the primary flavours to really stand out.
Usually cupping notes are simple and focus on the acidity and undertones. They will look something like this:
“Chocolate, Berry and Malt”.
These descriptors are mostly used by coffee roasters who are looking for a particular flavour to built a blend. The additional descriptors of body and aroma can be added after roasting because the roasting process has such a strong influence over these qualities.
You will now have a descriptor something like this:
“A floral rosebush-like aroma, L.A. Deluxe has a sweet, green-apple acidity paired with an undertone of cinnamon. Medium to light mouth-feel, ideal for both espresso and a smooth milk-based coffee.”
Now that we have the terminology down, let’s put it to practice.
- Start building your sensory memory. This involves eating a lot of fruit. When you are eating the fruit, try to find the acidity and how well it’s balanced. Ask yourself “how tart is this apple” and “does it have enough sweetness to make it pleasing?”
- To develop your taste-buds we’re going to tackle filter coffee first. We start here because undertones are more prominent and easier to discern in lighter roasts. If espresso is like straight raspberry cordial, then filter coffee is like cordial but diluted. Now you can taste it was a raspberry cordial not just sugar.
- It is very important to remember everybody’s taste-buds are different and your coffee buddy may taste something that you just can’t. This only means they have that particular sensory memory.
- Most importantly enjoy the coffee and share experiences.