Chocolate, Coffee, Bitterness (Part 1)

Why is bitter a bad word?

As a flavor descriptor, “chocolate” seems obvious at first glance. It’s pretty clear what it means, and tastes and images come to mind quickly when saying something is ” chocolaty.” In our coffee reviews, chocolate is an adjective we use broadly and liberally.

Botanical illustration of the cacao pod, leaf and branch.
Botanical illustration of the cacao pod, leaf and branch.

But things get complicated quickly when considering what we mean by chocolate, what form and type of chocolate we might refer to, and even the notions of a clear, agreed-upon definition of what chocolate is, and what constitutes its flavor.

…but let’s start with the basics…

Types of Chocolate Described in Coffee Flavor

What kind of chocolate we might describe, and in what coffees? How do these show up in a coffee flavor<flavor profile?

Baking chocolate: Starting with the more austere form, unsweetened baking chocolate has the most bittering and intense notes, with minimal sweetness. Looking at our reviews, we find this most in Indonesian wet-hulled coffees, Sumatra and Sulawesi in particular.

The (generally) low acidity of these origins also heightens the chocolate bittering sensation. Sidenote: We often call it Bakers chocolate, which is actually a brand.

Bittersweet Chocolate: This is a generic catch-all we use to describe something like the crafted chocolate bar, high-percentage cocoa solids with less sugars, cocoa fats and other flavor additives. This is admittedly a sloppy classification, like speaking of all special beers as “ales” which is obviously just wrong.

But it describes a quality of chocolate that actually has a lot of chocolate in it, as opposed to commercial supermarket chocolate. It means balanced bittersweet flavors, well-defined, articulate. These are found in a broad swath of coffees form many origins, but

Cacao is a much larger export from Sulawesi than coffee, but it is mostly grown in lower areas (although I see plenty of it all around Toraja). Minanga town, Tana Toraja, Sulawesi Sulawesi
Cacao nibs in Sulawesi marketplace. Cacao is a much larger export from Sulawesi than coffee, but it is mostly grown in lower areas.

generally would not be the more acidic coffees (Kenya, some Ethiopia etc) nor the most floral or sweetest: We have never used the term with a light roasted Gesha coffee. They are balanced, high grown, and definitely the coffee people increasingly like to drink.

In Africa, Burundi is the first to come to mind, with the classic Bourbon variety facilitating this bittersweetness. In Central America I think Guatemala is tops; high altitude coffees with balance between sweetness, acidity and good bitterness.

Milk Chocolate: This too is a terribly large container to toss a lot of material into … but generally describes a softer coffee experience, one where sweetness and dairy aspects (whether in flavor or moutfeel) are bearing equal weight, if not more, than the chocolate aspects. So for us, milk chocolate is a bit second tier, as lower grown coffees can have this soft-focus chocolate aspect.

Cocoa Powder, unsweetened
Cocoa Powder, unsweetened

However, in coffee and chocolate, not everyone wants to have grandiose experience with flavor every time the imbibe. Milk chocolate makes me thing Brazil right away, naturals and honey type (pulp naturalcereja descascada) that can have chocolate with less clarity, yet more relatable too. I think Sees Candy versus Scharffenberger, but that’s my frame of reference.

We find milk chocolate in a host of other coffees too, Mexico, Honduras, some Colombia and Peru lots, and in Indonesian coffees from Java, Flores, as well as nearby Timor Leste.

Cocoa Powder: We use this term a whole lot, and it describes a clear chocolate taste that might be on the dry side, towards nut flavor rather than fruit. Or perhaps it’s just that cocoa powder and nut seem to coincide in a certain set of coffees.

Two origins come to mind: Brazil, again, in the lighter roasts lean toward cocoa powder (and nut). And  we actually find it quite a bit in some Guatemalan coffees, especially ones with more moderate acidity and no fruited aspects.

Secondary Modifiers

The categories above  are (for me)  the main 4 categories of descriptors we use for chocolate taste/aroma found in coffee … but there are quite a few others we implement regularly.

Cocoa nibs, or  cacao nibs, are something we refer to increasingly. It’s an intense just-roasted experience of bold chocolate bittering, with nutty aspects of the roasted seed itself. (Note: Generally, “cocoa” refers to the product after roasting, while “cacao” is reserved for the raw bean that is processed (fermented, dried etc) but not yet roasted.)

Mexican Drinking Chocolate Cocoa
Mexican Drinking Chocolate Cocoa

Mexican Drinking Chocolate is also worth distinguishing,  as it blends cocoa nibs with sugar sweetness and sweet spices, usually cinnamon. It is also available with alternative spice additions like nutmeg or allspice, as well as chile, and nuts for texture. There are many variations. One issue is that in some brands or batches with cocoa can be poor quality and musty. When we find this flavor in coffee, that’s not what we mean! It’s certainly a more rustic form of drinking cocoa, but it’s mainly about the spice additions. (And some of the best I have had aren’t from Mexico, but like the picture, from Guatemala!)

Important Distinctions in Chocolate: Fruited, vanilla, spice and honey are four modifiers I can think of that are intrinsic to the category of high-quality Bean-to-Bar type bittersweet chocolate. Dutch cocoa is something specific that comes up, a powder treated to remove bitterness. (Dutch-process cocoa or, less-appealingly, alkalized cocoa, starts with cocoa beans that have been washed in alkaline solution of potassium carbonate).

Roast Matters!

Discussing the way chocolate flavors manifest in coffee would be lacking without addressing the critical element of roast. The degree of roasts, and formation of complex roast notes, along with coffee’s native bitter aspect, is a core factor in the presence of chocolate flavors and aromas. This can be described as either roasty tones, like roast meat or quality peanuts, or as ashy bitterness, that can be found by smelling a cocoa powder like Ghiradelli brand.

A coffee that might be nutty like hazelnut at a light City roast could turn to milk chocolate at City+ and bittersweet chocolate at Full City. This doesn’t necessarily  happen: Chocolate flavors are not intrinsically tied to roast level. But the relationship is there, dependent on the origin of the coffee and other factors.

Roasted Cocoa Nibs
Roasted Cocoa Nibs – I used a simple convection bake toaster oven for this roast. Or toast?

And what are those other factors? While some taste qualities seem to contribute to or even heighten the sense of “chocolate-like” taste in a coffee, I would say others can lead the taster away from applying a chocolate-related descriptor.

Sorry to be redundant, but light roast is one of them, or extreme dark roast. With light roasts, the most likely related attribute would be cocoa powder, either Dutch-process or not. Those with a lighter roast level (some made for baking in my experience) are easiest to find in lighter levels (City – City+) of coffees that lend themselves to it, liked Guatemalan coffees from 1400-1600.

Lower elevation centrals, or ones of mixed cultivars including catimors, like coffees from Honduras, tend to read as cocoa powder, but a more cheap commercial type. They lack clarity, and perhaps have greenish herbal suggestions or slight earth.

Acidity in a nice coffee modifies the reading of chocolate with the sharpness and definition it gives to the overall taste. In a coffee that is high elevation, this might push a chocolate flavor towards a high quality, refined bean-to-bar type chocolate. But high acidity, and it’s palate-cleansing sensations, can end up as “anti-chocolate” in cupping notes, guiding a taster away from reading chocolate.

I think in part this has to do with the way acidity changes mouthfeel as well, and that coffees with low/moderate acidity might give a greater sense of viscosity, and therefore lend themselves more to a chocolate character.

Some delicate notes in coffee, like floral aspects, might reduce a focus on chocolate flavor. I can’t think of many samples I have found extremely floral, where I have also noted primary chocolate or cocoa attributes.

Footnote: I don’t know a lot about chocolate but what I read on wikipedia (!) and my accidental encounters with it on coffee trips. And when I eat it, which is often. When I talk about chocolate above, I am referring to my own experience as it shows up in coffee flavor . -t.o.

Also see our artitcles:
Coffee Science – Green Coffee Science and Cup Quality,
Coffee Science: Academic Papers and Documents


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