Coffee Flavor Terminology – A Coffee Taste Dictionary for the Noob

Coffee Tasting Words

Being able to name the flavors in coffee isn’t just another method for coffee professionals to display their knowledge. If you want to master coffee brewing, knowing how to taste coffee and having the proper vocabulary to express the flavors you distinguish, is an important instrument.

It doesn’t matter if you find the coffee you just tasted appealing or not. Improving your ability to discern a coffee’s unique features, will help you discover more about about your coffee taste. As you progress, you will begin to observe what changes in your brewing method result in a better cup.

We said it before, espresso is not the best brewing method to explore coffee flavors, since the heavy body masks many of the more delicate notes in coffee. However, you will still be able to detect hints of the origins, varietals, and processing method of your coffee beans. But let’s dive in and see what flavors can we get from a coffee.

We are not going to talk about added flavors in this article. This article is talking about the flavor of the black coffee, without any sugar, milk, or added flavorings.

This coffee tasting dictionary is part of the Coffee and Espresso Dictionary of Terms.

What is Coffee Flavor?

Flavor is different from aroma and taste. Sometimes confused, the terms are definitely not interchangeable. To make things more complicated, mouthfeel will modulate the taste, and contribute to the overall flavor of your coffee. Here is a little explanation of these terms. 

  • Taste refers to the senses inside our tongue and palate when comes in contact with a substance.
  • Aroma is perceived with the help of or smell sense and it occurs in the nose. Aroma refers to the good odors we perceive when we smell a substance.
  • Mouthfeel is the physical sensation perceived in the mouth when tasting coffee. It is distinct from taste, but it can influence the way we perceive taste and flavor.
  • Flavor is the overall sensation when tasting a coffee, (wine, or food). It is a combination of aromatics, taste, and mouthfeel.

Why Does Coffee Taste Different? Factors that Influence Coffee Flavor

A coffee’s flavor describes the combination of all sensations and perceptions of coffee’s aromatic and taste characteristics, and the mouth feel and aftertaste.

Specialty coffee perceives a cup of coffee as a unique experience, that is the product of the carefully selected coffee brewing method, to emphasize the unique characteristics of a coffee bean. 

As a result, coffee offers a blend of flavors, sometimes incredibly complex. This complex flavors, produce a range of sensory experiences that specialty coffee promotes.

Some of the variables that determine the flavor of a coffee are:

  • The origin of the coffee beans, (geographical region)
  • Variety or species of the coffee plant
  • The processing method after harvesting
  • The roasting degree and equipment
  • The brewing method

In the following section we describe many of the important flavors and notes of brewed coffee. 

Coffee Origin – Terroir

The origin of the coffee determines the taste of the beans. Various geographical factors such as soil composition, altitude, climate, amount of sun, etc… will determine the flavors of the beans. 

The combination of these various geographical and climate factors is called terroir, and it’s the same concept as  in wine.

The Species and Variety of the Plant

This factor is more obvious, similar to any other fruit, or vegetable. Carrots, apples, grapes come in different varieties, hence the various flavor traits. More than that, coffee has different species of the plant, with the most commonly used Robusta and Arabica.

The organoleptic properties of beans from different species of coffee are even more distinct, and they are used in blends to enrich coffee. 

The Processing

Coffee processing varies from region to region, even from farm to farm, and this is is important to know because the way the farmer, or the processing facility  process the beans after harvesting can greatly influence the coffee’s flavor. 

For instance coffee cherry will lend some of its sweetness to the coffee beans if it’s left long enough on. Natural processing involves leaving the cherry pulp longer on the beans, and natural coffees have a pronounced fruity flavor. 

Washed coffees will have cleaner flavor profiles, and will allow you to discover subtle nuances, provided you are using the right brewing method. 

There are a lot of other changes in the beans depending on the processing, but it’s not the subject of this article.

The Roasting

Roasting has a few effects on the coffee beans, however we are focusing here on the flavor only.

Lighter roasts maintain more of the terroir and varietal characteristics of the beans.

Darker roasts, on the other hand, tend to acquire more roasting flavor. The more we roast batches of beans, the more they will taste similarly, getting the roast bittersweet flavor and losing their unique flavors. 

The Coffee Brewing Method

The brewing method will affect the flavor of coffee. Some brewing methods such as espresso, French press, Moka pot, will create more body, hence giving the coffee cup a different mouthfeel. 

More body doesn’t necessarily mean better coffee. Excessive body will mask the origin notes. We are partial to espresso, and we think it’s the best coffee – period. But espresso has the tendency to muddy the delicate origin notes of high quality coffee beans. 

A great method for retaining and underlining the origin notes is filter pour over. 

As a final example, cold brew has a particularly distinct flavor profile. Brewing cold will selectively extract coffee compounds that are more soluble. It will avoid extraction of tannins and bitter compounds, but at the same time will also lack the depth of a hot brewed coffee.   

Coffee Flavor and Notes Dictionary

Coffee flavor is so complex that coffee specialists have a dedicated dictionary to describe these flavors. The words in this dictionary can help you classify your coffee preferences, choose the right cup for your meal at a restaurant, or refine your coffee taste.

Acidity

The sharp, lively flavor characteristic of high-altitude grown coffee. Acidity is tasted mainly at the tip of the tongue. The brisk, snappy quality that makes coffee refreshing.

The acidity notes are perceived as citrus, or wine and it is not the same as the sourness of an under-extracted coffee. Flavor acidity is not in a relationship with coffee’s pH. Flavor acidity does not cause any more stomach than other coffees, contrary to a popular belief.

Aftertaste

In coffee, aftertaste is the taste left on your tongue and in the mouth after swallowing. Coffee flavors are perceived for a long time after swallowing, compared to other drinks. Among coffees, espresso has the longest aftertaste that can last up to 15 minutes, and even longer.

Interestingly, espresso is the fastest coffee beverage to drink, but with the longest aftertaste.

Aroma

The fragrance, or smell of freshly brewed coffee. This is different than bouquet. Fresh coffee beans produce a coffee with a stronger aroma than older, stale coffee.

Bitterness

Coffee bitterness is both a subjective measurement that evaluates the extra bitterness in the coffee. We say that we evaluate the extra bitterness because coffee is bitter non matter what.

The bitterness in coffee is given by caffeine, and phenolic compounds among which chlorogenic acid. Both caffeine and chlorogenic acid are compounds that we want in our coffee, it’s what makes it so great as a nootropic beverage. However, when we over extract coffee, we dissolve in our cup some other compounds that are bitter and do not benefit us in any way.

In other words, when we over extract coffee it will taste more bitter than it should. Our Espresso Extraction article talks about over extraction in more details.

Sometimes coffee tastes bitter because the coffee beans are of poor quality, or they were poorly processed.

Bland

The word “bland” in the coffee context, refers to the pale flavor often found in lower grade coffees. Under extraction can also cause a cup to taste bland.

Body

Body, is a partially subjective term that refers to the mouthfeel of the coffee. Body is coffee’s heaviness, tactile richness, or thickness when you swish the coffee around your mouth. Body is not about the taste, it is rathe a sensation we feel. But it can greatly influence our flavor perception.

We can distinguish three major body types: light, medium or full-bodied. A coffee’s body is largely created by the amount of suspended and dissolved particles in a coffee drink.

Although body is directly related to TDS, (total dissolved solids), TDS is only part of the coffee beans’ mouthfeel. Coffee oils, organic acids, sugars are extracted during the brewing process, so the brewing variables and brewing method also play a role in how much body a coffee has.

Coffee oils play an important role in coffee’s mouthfeel, so paper filtered coffees tend to have less body, whereas screen filtered coffees have more body, (espresso, French press, Moka pot, Turkish coffee).

To make things even more complicated, we can also be more specific about the body and describe it as: watery, thin, syrupy, heavy, or buttery.

Bouquet

The smell of coffee grounds. This is a unique characteristic that is determined by the variety of the coffee plant, the origin, (soil, altitude), harvesting, and processing. See also aroma and flavor.

Brightness

Brightness is another way to describe acidity. Brightness is an acidity that pops, and we can distinguish a few acidic flavors that brighten a cup: lemon, oranges, grapefruit, green apples, blackcurrant, red fruit.

Complex

A multi-flavored coffee or blend is complex. A multitude of flavors experienced when tasting a coffee. Often times the and flavors shift, offering a complex tasting experience. Complexity can be obtained by blending, but the best complexity comes from great single origin coffees that are both complex and balanced. Complexity is tricky, because it’s not always a good quality in a coffee. Many times blends muddy the flavors and the cup is flat, or bland.

Earthy

An earthy aroma reminds of fresh earth, or wet soil, and it’s characteristic to Indonesian coffee beans. Kona coffees also have some earthiness. Earthiness is great flavor in coffee, even though it may seem to like a bad flavor to have in your drink. You will need to try it and you will understand why earthy flavor is so appreciated by specialty coffee people.

Rich

full-bodied coffee

Flat

Describes a coffee that lacks flavor and aroma. A coffee can be flat because of stale beans, poor quality beans, under extraction, or because it was brewed too weak.

Floral

A flavor reminding of the jasmine flower scent, or even the coffee plant flower itself. Ethiopian coffees are notorious for their floral notes.

Fruity

A coffee that has a fruity flavor. A fruity flavor, will remind of berries, or other fruits such as  apple, mango, pineapple, or guava.

Spicy

Flavor notes of particular spices. When tasting a cup, spiciness flavors can be distinguished clearly as part of the flavor profile. Spice flavors in coffee can be cinnamon, chili, nutmeg, clove, vanilla, etc…

Note that spice notes in coffee occur naturally. The terroir, varietal, processing and roasting all play a role in the spiciness of a batch of coffee beans. This is different than adding spices to your coffee.

Sweetness

The smooth and palatable coffee, free from defects, and without any bitter, or sour flavors. Coffee sweetness doesn’t come from sugar, as we would be tempted to think. Although green coffee does contain sugar, (about 9% sucrose), most of it is caramelized during roasting. Coffee sweetness is the perception on the tongue of many other flavors that we can describe as sweet.

Sweetness in coffee can be described as smoothness, or lack of astringency, and harsh tasting extracts.

Light roasted coffees have a fruity, or floral sweetness, while dark roasts have a darker, deeper sweetness, or caramelized sweetness.

Skilled roasters can preserve more of the sugars in coffee even after roasting, however, this requires the right equipment, skills, and coffee varietal/origin. The brewing method and variables also play a huge role in extracting the sweetness from the beans.

Sourness

Sourness is a sign of under extraction. A sour coffee is different from an acidic coffee. An acidic coffee will have only a faint acidity, that balances perfectly the flavor profile of a cup. A sour coffee is predominantly acidic, without any other noticeable flavors. This is a clear sign of an under extraction.

Acids are dissolved firstly during extraction, because they are the most soluble compounds in coffee. Because of this, an insufficient extraction, (short brew time, inadequate brew temperature, etc…), will extract mostly the acids.

Winy

A flavor reminiscent of fine red wine. Kenya AA coffee is one of the most notables. One of my favorite coffees.

Further Reading

If you are serious about understanding coffee flavors, and mastering the vocabulary to describe them, World Coffee Research published a coffee sensory lexicon, that is a more comprehensive version of the one on this page.

The lexicon is published as a pdf file and you can download it at the address above.