“I was taken by the power that savoring a simple cup of coffee can have to connect people and create community.”
Growers, traders, experts, and baristas are already skilled in trying coffee at controlled tastings called cuppings. This piece is intended to help an average person know what separates a great cup of coffee from one that has little to show for its price. Here we go.
WHAT COFFEE IS
Coffee the drink is made from coffee plants that yield cherries. What we know as coffee beans are essentially the seeds that are obtained from these coffee cherries. These are then roasted. As coffee beans are the seeds of a fruit, they organically hold fruity flavors that can be influenced through different processing and roasting methods. Different coffee environments, fermentation, roasting, and brewing processes generate different organic chemical compounds that are not much different from the chemical compounds found in other fruits or foods.
Like wine tasting, coffee tasting also involves considering several characteristics of the drink. It requires practice to acquire a sophisticated palate for coffee flavors. You can train your tastebuds and your nose to differentiate among different aromas and tastes. A simple coffee cup can contain a wonderful range of taste experiences. Taste of a good coffee tells a story that connects generations, continents, and cultures. It is the language of coffee to communicate about the environment it was grown in, the plant cultivar, and how it was processed, roasted, and brewed. Taste sums up coffee’s journey from seed to your palate.
WHAT ACCOUNTS FOR VARIATIONS IN TASTE?
Numerous factors influence how a coffee tastes: terroir, origin, coffee variety, processing methods, roast profiles, brew method, and recipe. Even the water used for brewing can affect the taste of a cup of coffee. A simple alteration in the brew can change its taste. After being picked, coffee goes through a minimum two-month process before it can be sold as raw beans — it is picked, depulped, fermented, washed, dried, rested, and finally dehulled of the parchment layer prior to being sold on. All of this can improve or impair the sensory experience the product engenders. Variations in the taste of coffee can be caused by a number of factors. Let’s discuss the most significant ones of those factors.
Origin: Beans’ origin influences the taste of coffee. Each growing region imparts special characteristics to your coffee and enhances a blend’s flavor profile.
Climate in Brazil, the top coffee producing country of the world, produces a wide variety of coffee beans. Brazilian coffees are treated in three ways – wet, semi-washed, and dry. The most prominent flavors in their coffee are chocolate and spices. Some also have a nutty flavor that is highly suited for espresso blends. Colombia and the rest of South America are also a region that produces first-rate coffee. Coffee from this region displays mild acidity with notes of chocolate, caramel, and nuts. Colombian coffee gives us an excellent espresso blend. Central America is another major coffee producing region and its countries are the mainstay of the standard coffee commonly prepared. Their coffee has bright and clean taste with fruity and light cocoa flavors.
Kenya produces coffee with a sweeter flavor reminding one of tart blackcurrant. Ethiopia is renowned for its fine Coffea arabica variety. Beans from Ethiopia exhibit two main flavor profiles. Washed beans carry notes of jasmine and lemongrass, and naturally processed beans have sweet, syrupy berry flavors.
Indonesia is another major coffee producing country that supplies both Arabica and Robusta coffee beans. Their beans have heavy and moldy notes evocative of dark chocolate. Vietnam is the world’s second-largest producer of coffee. In Vietnam coffee beans are almost always Robusta, nearly twice as strong caffeine wise, with a thick lingering taste and higher acidity.
Preparation: Various coffee varieties from different regions display different tastes based on how the coffee is brewed, prepared, and served.
Additives: Many people enjoy their coffee mixed with milk or other ingredients. If you like a latte or cappuccino, you must know how milk changes the coffee’s taste.
Also, there are numerous ways to spoil a batch of coffee. For instance, a coffee can be flat if: it was over dried (optimal is around 12 percent); it was stored for too long (over a year) without being roasted; or it was not brewed with the right amount of hot water in contact with the grounds. A sour coffee can mean that either the brewing temperature was low or the cherry over-ripened before harvest. A coffee that contracted mold as green coffee will taste like burnt rubber.
As the raw bean is in fact very dense and dull in taste and aroma, roasting is vital. The quality of the raw coffee beans determines the result of the roasting process. If you start with low quality beans, roasting will not transform them into something special. For that you will need to work with fresh, seasonal, and high-quality product.
Roasting is aimed at balancing the acids in a coffee bean. If it is roasted too light, too many chlorogenic acids will linger and the coffee will taste vegetal and metallic. On the other hand, if it is roasted too dark then all tasty acids will vanish.
Roasting unleashes a number of chemical reactions such as caramelization, maillard reactions, and the treatment of amino acids, sugars, phenolic acids, and lipids. They all disclose hundreds of aromatic amalgams giving coffee its “bouquet” of various olfactory sensations we come across in the gases and vapors of coffee.
Once coffee beans have been roasted, they are ready for brewing. They are available in several roast varieties. Coffee lovers are particular about beans and roasts. The flavor profile of coffee beans depends on their origin, variety, and how they have been roasted. The amount of caffeine in coffee drops from light roast to dark roast.
Different roast varieties are as follows:
Light Roasted: Light Roast Coffee shows a brighter shade of brown and there is no oil on the surface. This coffee roast preserves most of its original coffee characteristic, has high acidity, and can hold on to most of the caffeine from the coffee bean. Therefore, light roast allows you to enjoy the full flavor of the bean. Even though light roast coffee has a thinner body, it is more complex as it delivers more caffeine and acidity These beans are ideal for white coffee and non-pressure brews. Light roasts are generally preferred by coffee enthusiasts.
Medium Roasted: Medium Roast coffee is a little darker than light roast and, like light roast, it does not have any oil on the surface of the beans. Medium roast has a more poised flavor, aroma, and acidity flanked by dark and light roasts. This level of roasting retains the unique flavors of the coffee and yields a great balance between acidity and body.
Dark Roasted: These coffee beans are left the longest to roast in higher temperatures than the others. Dark roast has a dark brown color and often has an oily surface. The beans lose more moisture, become less dense, and have less acidity and a bitter and smoky taste. As coffee roasts longer, its original flavor is lost and it takes more flavor from the roasting process, similar to roasting nuts. Dark roast offers a more full-bodied coffee with a bold flavor.
Espresso: Espresso beans are various types of beans belonging to the dark roast category and espresso, is a strong black coffee, made by forcing hot water through tightly packed grounds. It is the extraction process that imparts a shot of espresso its distinctive layers – a shot of coffee at the bottom with a small layer of foam, or crema, at the top. By definition, you could use espresso-roasted beans to prepare drip coffee and dark roasted coffee beans to make espresso if you ground the beans properly and used the right method.
TRAITS THAT DEFINE THE TASTE OF COFFEE
Understanding how to describe coffee enables you to recognize the brew you are imbibing. Here are some of the major characteristics of your brew that you need to identify:
Acidity: You can define coffee based on its acidity. When we discuss acidity in the taste of brewed coffee, it is not about its pH level (which tends to be around 5 on the scale). Instead, it is about how you perceive the brew on your palate. Acidity is not an unpleasant quality in coffee. Coffee with high acidity has a crisp, pleasant, and sharp aftertaste, whereas coffee with low acidity has a dull aftertaste. You will feel acidity on the lateral areas of your taste buds. Your tongue’s perception of acidity describes it as citrus (citric acid), acid notes similar to green apples, winey acidity, or pineapple-like acidity.
Aroma: Aroma of your brew is what starts telling your brain what your palate should expect before you even get a chance to take a sip. Aromas are highly effective in identifying hints of flavors in coffee. For example, you can notice citrusy, floral, and fruity airs in your coffee. Some of these can be missed out when you rely solely on your taste buds. Best known variations of aroma are herbal notes, floral notes, and fruity notes.
The aroma of coffee can be divided into three main types:
- ENZYMATIC: Floral or more fruit-like aromas are described as enzymatic properties that are reminiscent of the original plant life provenance of the coffee bean. These smells can differ vastly from berry-like to citrus, and even oniony and melony.
- SUGAR BROWNING: This denotes a chemical reaction that takes place when amino acids and sugars are subjected to heat. These smells reek of toasted nuts or cocoa.
- DRY DISTILLATION: This happens as the fibrous bean material is literally burned during roasting. This exudes aromas redolent of wood or maybe pipe tobacco. Some coffees even give out a clove or leather smell. Dry distillation scents become more pronounced in the beans from a darker roast as it allows more time for these aromas to be marked into the beans.
Body: How you identify its body defines the texture of your coffee. It can be watery-like, rugged due to tiny ground particles in your drinks, or substantial with honey-like texture. For the sake of simplicity, it can be put as light, medium, or full bodied. Body and texture will differ based on the variety of coffee beans you use, the brewing method you employ, and the filter you choose. Body needs to be in sync with the rest of the brew’s characteristics and can make or break a cup of coffee.
Flavor: Flavor is your taste experience while the brew is in your mouth. It is the balance that emerges when many different attributes of coffee work in unison to create an overall savory taste. Flavor takes the whole mouthful into account and reveals how well each attribute blends with the others. For example, you will not get a great flavor if the acidity is too dull for the strong fruit flavors the coffee displays or if the coffee’s body is too light for its strong chocolate notes.
Aftertaste: The final impression your cup of coffee leaves on you is the length and quality of its aftertaste. Does the flavor dissolve too quickly? Is it enduring but bitter? Most people enjoy a long and pleasing finish as a satisfying reminder of the great brew they enjoyed.
BASIC TASTES OF COFFEE
As we discussed, coffee’s taste is influenced by its origin, processing, roasting quality, and preparations. Coffee tasting starts with four basic tastes – sour, salty, sweet, and bitter. Further subtleties unfold as you explore further. Let’s first discuss the basic distinctive tastes for coffee.
Sourness: A sour taste is a desirable characteristic of high-quality coffee. It can be acerbic or fruity and mellow or biting on your tongue. It usually comes from the acidic compounds formed by virtue of under-extraction in the brewing process.
Bitterness: While bitterness is a universal feature of coffee, it is also a differentiating essence of a brew. Bitterness becomes pronounced when coffee is over-extracted in the brewing process. Factors instilling bitterness include coarse grind and over-steeping. Low bitterness means lower acidity and accounts for a mellow flavor. Too much bitterness can suppress other nuances of coffee.
Sweetness: Sweetness in coffee comes from its cherries that contain natural sugar when ripe and harvested. Hints of some sweetness reflect that the coffee has been cared for in every phase of the process – washing, drying, roasting, and storing.
Saltiness: Saltiness detracts from coffee’s quality as it points to inorganic materials or impurity of mineral content in the coffee. Saline hints manifest an unwelcome taste in a brew.
SOME COMMONLY USED COFFEE TASTING TERMS
Here are some of the most commonly used coffees tasting terms that will help you in building your own reference repertoire to sustain flavor memories.
Acrid: A harsh, sour taste that is tart or sharp.
Ashy: Typical of dark roast coffee, this aroma reminds the smell of an ashtray or fireplace.
Baggy: Typical of coffee that has been stored too long or light roasted coffees that remind of mildew.
Baked: Flat and dull.
Bitter: A harsh, sour taste perceived typically in the back of the tongue.
Bouquet: The aroma of freshly ground coffee.
Bready: A grain-like aroma, that is reminiscent of bread, present in sour tasting coffee or coffee beans that have not been adequately roasted.
Bright: Pleasant tasting coffee with a spicy flavor.
Briny: A slightly saline taste caused by reheating or overheating.
Caramel: Brings to mind caramelized sweet taste such as candy or syrup.
Carbon: Like burnt food or wood, usually accompanies darker roasted coffees.
Chicory: A herb used to flavor coffee.
Chocolatey: Resembles chocolate.
Citrusy: Redolent of citrus fruit.
Earthy: Like fresh earth or wet soil. Can be both good or, when moldy, bad.
Ferment: A sour or oniony taste typical of over-fermented coffee.
Floral: The aroma of fresh flowers.
Fruity: Resembles different types of fruits.
Grassy: Reminds of mown grass. usually found in beans that have been under roasted or impaired by water.
Herbal: The aroma of herbs typical of coffee that not fully dried when processed.
Hidey: Resembles leather. Characteristic of some east African coffees.
Malty: Like malt or grain, resembling the aromas of freshly baked bread.
Mellow: A balanced and mild coffee.
Nutty: An aroma similar to fresh nuts.
Oniony: A flavor of onions. It occurs when stagnate water is used for processing in the wet method.
Papery: Results from storing coffee in paper bags or using a low quality filter paper.
Quaker: Like peanuts, because of using unripe coffee beans.
Rubbery: Suggestive of hot tires or rubber bands, found in fresh Robusta.
Scorched: Over roasted coffee with burn marks.
Sour: A stinging and unfriendly flavor.
Spicy: Evocative of cloves, cinnamon or other spices.
Tobacco: The aroma and flavor of fresh tobacco.
Winey: Smacks of the combinations of wine’s taste, smell and feel in the mouth.
Woody: Typical of old coffee.
Tasting coffee is about your ability to discern the variances between different roasts, origins, and flavors of coffee. There is more to a cup of coffee than just the way it tastes. Acidity, aroma, balance, body, clarity, finish, and mouthfeel all combine to account for your total experience. In order to be drunk to its full potential, coffee has to be freshly roasted and freshly ground for its intrinsic flavors to come out. Stale coffee will taste insipid. Coffee beans should be brewed within 15-30 days after being roasted and you should be grinding them a few minutes before making the coffee.
When you taste a coffee, think about how it is different. Try and understand what accounts for that difference in taste. The process of tasting coffee comprises four main steps. Remember, tastes are subjective and what you taste will always have private property because your own reference points for tasting will be different from someone else’s. The idea is to develop your personal stock of tastes.
Smell: Always savor the smell of your coffee before taking a sip. Your olfactory glands can discover a number of aromas that your tongue cannot taste. Hold your cup close to your nose, inhale, and identify the aromatic suggestions made by the beverage.
Slurp: For really tasting it, you need to slurp your coffee and not just sip. Having a mouthful distributes coffee across different taste zones of your tongue and helps you distinguish its flavors.
Experience: Pay attention to the flavors you experience on your tongue as you taste your coffee. Which taste zone on your tongue was more stimulated? How heavy the brew felt on your tongue?
Describe: Think how you can best describe the experience. Label its acidity, aroma, body, and flavor.
COFFEE TASTE WHEEL
Here is a Coffee Taste Wheel that can guide your senses as you make sense of a fresh brew. This wheel is one of the most salient coffee industry tools. It has been an industry standard since it was first used in 1995. It was further refined in 2016 in collaboration with World Coffee Research. At present, this tool is the most consummate synthesis of the extensive body of research on coffee flavor.
YOUR EXPERIENCE AT HOME
Here are a few things you can do to make sure that you taste good coffee every morning right at home.
Pick Good Beans: High-quality coffee beans are a must for excellent coffee. If you are seeking great experience, pick specialty-grade quality coffee. Make sure the beans are freshly roasted. The top freshness of coffee lasts around two to three weeks and then staleness sets in.
Pick the Right Coffee Brewer: Make sure your brewer reaches the ideal brewing temperature of 195 degrees. Coffee experts usually prefer to use manual coffee makers as they allow better control over brewing time, water, and grounds. You can also calibrate your technique -varying your brews, time, and water- for achieving the flavors you prefer.
Use Better Water: After all your coffee is still 98% water. Filtered water is better because if there are many minerals in tap water it will lead to dull and lifeless coffees. Best coffee shops use special filtered water.
Pay Attention: In order to discern its tastes, drink your coffee slowly and pay attention to its taste. This will inculcate a keen awareness of taste and the vocabulary to define it.
Try Change: Try different coffee beans to appreciate the difference in your cups of coffee. Try different methods of preparing coffee. As you taste new things, you will have a new experience and will learn something new about flavor.