A number of terms are used by the industry experts and connoisseurs to describe the flavors and other characteristics of a given coffee. While the exact definitions may shift around a bit from one source to another, we think that the following list represents well of most of the common terms to we use to describe the flavor and characteristics of a coffee:
A key descriptor of coffee, acidity relates to the liveliness of a coffee. While the term "acidity" may sound unappealing, in coffee-related terms it's actually a highly desirable quality. Acidity might be described with terms like bright, clean, snappy, or winey. Not to be confused with the ph level, "palate acidity" is the brightness of flavor. Without it, coffee tastes flat and dull. All good coffees have some acidity. Different coffee varietals will possess different kinds of acidity. Higher roast levels tend to flatten out acidity.
A pleasant, distinctive "old" or "cellared" aroma, found in aged coffees.
Generally associated with the fragrances released by brewing coffee, it can greatly influence a coffee's flavor profile. Subtle floral notes, for example, are sometimes experienced most clearly in the aroma, particularly at the moment when the crust is broken during the cupping process. Typical coffee aromas include floral, winey, chocolatey, spicy, earthy, and fruity. Coffee aroma is also experienced after drinking the coffee when vapors drift upward into the nasal passages. Aroma typically exists more in middle roasts, and is quickly overtaken by carbony smells in darker roasts.
Essentially, the balance of a coffee is exactly what it suggests: while several attributes may be present, they are even and balanced. One particular characteristic doesn't overwhelm the others.
One of the four basic tastes, it is primarily detected on the back of the tongue. A subtle degree of bitterness is considered desirable and can add to the fullness of coffee's flavor. High bitterness levels can be very unpleasant, especially if due to the over-extraction of a coffee during the brewing process.
Body can be described as "mouthfeel" -quite literally, how a coffee feels in your mouth. It's an impression of a coffee's weight on your tongue. The best way to determine the degree of body in a coffee is to take a small sip and let it rest a moment on you tongue. Is it medium? Full? Very full? "Body" in our coffees varies from medium to very full.
Full- bodied with an oily and rich mouthfeel.
A sweet note reminiscent of candy or syrup produced by caramelizing sugar without burning it.
An aromatic roasted or burnt taste, often found in very dark-roasted coffees.
A flavor reminiscent of unsweetened chocolate or cocoa powder.
Flavors reminiscent of sweet berries or citrus.
A coffee with a clear and refined texture in the mouth; opposite of dry.
The array of flavors and flavor shifts experienced when smelling and tasting a coffee. 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.
The caramel or golden colored layer that forms on top of pressure-brewed coffee and espresso. The nature of a crema is complex, but in general, it can be considered an emulsion or a colloid. Both of these terms describe a substance that is really two things in one: dispersed gases in the form of a foamy liquid, in this crema. A thick, golden crema is one of the signs of a properly brewed espresso or crema coffee.
A coffee with a parching or drying finish. It can also be called astringent.
An aromatic fresh soil or wet earth characteristic. While not necessarily a 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.
A coffee with distinct positive quality characteristics such as acidity, body, etc.
A lifeless coffee lacking in any acidity.
Flavors and aromas are as varied in coffee as they are in wine. Naturally, coffee tastes and smells like coffee. But other flavors and scents --such as chocolate, fruit, or flowers-- are what make coffee drinking such an enjoyable experience. The next time you have a cup of coffee, take a deep whiff before your first sip. Use your nose to give your mouth a preview, to enhance the flavors on your palate.
Used to describe the scent or essence of flowers. Examples of this might include honeysuckle, jasmine, dandelion or nettles. Mildly floral aromas are found in some coffees and are generally perceived along with fruity or herbal notes.
Not to be confused with "sweet", this term is used to describe berry or citrus aromas or flavors. Many coffees possess fruity notes, which is not surprising considering that coffee beans are seeds of a fruit (coffee cherries). A coffee's acidity, or wine-like brightness, is often related to fruit or citrus. This attribute appears often in the flavor description of our African coffees.
Describes a coffee whose body is almost heavy, but not overwhelmingly so. Full-bodied coffees are satisfying and pleasant. Usually precedes positive characteristics referring to acidity, body, or range of flavors used to indicate a strong character.
Aroma associated with freshly mown grass, herbs, green foliage, or unripe fruit. A grassy aroma, also called green, herbal, or herby, is often a characteristic of coffees not fully dried to the usual 10% to 12% moisture content during processing. Can also be characteristic of sour tasting under-roasted coffee beans, and under-dried or water damaged coffee beans.
Describes a coffee whose body is dense, or weighty in the mouth. Compare to a coffee whose body is "watery" or "thin".
An aroma reminiscent of grass, dried herbs or grains, or fresh foliage.
A coffee with high palate acidity.
A rounded and balanced coffee, sometimes with acidity and/or sweetness, and without pungent, dry, or strong flavors.
A measure of the body, describing how heavy or dense a coffee is on the tongue.
A pleasant "old" or "cellared" aroma sometimes found in aged coffees.
Reminiscent of fresh peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, etc. Coffees from South America commonly possess nutty characteristics.
While many subtle tastes can be recognized, there are only four distinct tastes: salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. These are also known as Primary Tastes. Each of the taste buds on our tongue contain between 50 and 100 taste cells, and each taste cell has receptors.
While receptors are capable of recognizing all tastes, some tend to specialize and congregate in certain parts of the tongue. For example, some tend to recognize sour foods and are usually located around the sides of the tongue. Sweet and salty foods are usually tasted best near the end of the tongue.
Bitter foods are usually tasted toward the back of the tongue. The middle of the tongue usually has no taste buds. Professional coffee cuppers may describe flavors detected by the tongue as primary tastes, and flavors detected through the nose as secondary tastes.
A strong and penetrating effect on the palate.
An indicator of a coffee with depth and complexity of flavor, full body, and an overall satisfying taste.
A bittersweet smoky or carbony flavor created by dark-roasting coffee. It can sometimes be described as the taste of the roast, rather than an inherent flavor of the bean.
An unpleasant bitter or acrid taste, typically created by brewing coffee with boiling water.
Also called "aspiration", this term describes the action of drawing a brewed coffee into your mouth by quick, shallow suction, thus spraying the coffee evenly across the tongue and releasing its vapors. Slurping helps greatly when evaluating a coffee's nuances.
A naturally occurring aroma of wood smoke, or a synonym for roasty.
Describes a coffee that is neither bitter nor sour. Smooth coffees are generally low in palate acidity, not overly complex.
Sometimes a difficult attribute to place. Coffees described as "snappy" frequently possess a distinct (but not unpleasant) "zing" that hits the back, top or middle of the tongue. Tanzania Peaberry is an example of such a coffee.
Very well-rounded and mellow flavors, lacking any harshness or acidity.
An aroma suggesting spices such as cinnamon, or allspice. Also, can be used to describe a slightly "hot" sensation in the finish.
Generally used to describe the basic ratio of ground coffee to water.
Another of the of the four basic tastes, this characteristic is typically detected at the tip of the tongue. Might be used to describe a mild coffee which possesses sweet fruity, caramelly, or chocolaty flavors.
A thick, rich, and viscous mouthfeel.
A savory combination of sweetness and sour acidity.
We use this to describe a sharply bitter, stale-tasting coffee.
Generally describes a coffee that possess a very weak body and little flavor. Most often, watery characteristics of a coffee are the result of it being brewed incorrectly.
A coffee with varying flavors from cup to cup, or odd, gamey, tangy nuances.
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.