Coffee Flavor Terminology

An version attempt at our Coffee Glossary

Sometimes you need to communicate something to others: Terms tend to shift meaning in the coffee industry, but these should be generally comprehensible definitions

Note – this is a very early SM page that eventually became our much more complete Sweet Maria’s Coffee Glossary !

Variety and Processing-Related Terms

These adjectives relate mostly to the origin of the coffee and the method of processing it (dry, wet, or both):

Acidity. Acidity in relation to taste has nothing to do with acidity in terms of the gnawing pain in your stomach. Acidity in coffee might be described by terms like bright, clear, snappy, dry, clean, winey, etc. Coffees without acidity tend to taste flat and dull, like flat soda. Acidity is to coffee what dryness is to wine. Different varietals s will possess different kinds of acidity, like the wine like high notes of some African coffees versus the crisp clear notes of high grown coffees from the Americas. Unpleasant acidy flavors may register as sourness. Dark roasts tend to flatten out acidity. This is a key term in coffee tasting!

Aroma. The aromatics of a coffee greatly influence its flavor profile and comes from the perception of the gases released by brewed coffee. Aroma is greatest in the middle roasts and is quickly overtaken by carbony smells in darker roasts. Green beans can also have a distinct aroma that may hint at their cup qualities.

Balance. A coffee that has several attributes present but does not have one that overpowers others, might be called balanced or mellow. If it simply lacks strong attributes in any significant amount it might be called dull.

Body. Body is the perceived heaviness of a coffee, sensed on the back of the palate. Extremely light roasts and extremely dark roasts have reduced body, but the term is determined by the type of coffee too. Distinguish between body and the thickness of some brewing methods, like Presspot coffee, where a lot of fine matter floats in the cup after pressing, or Espresso, where a lot of coffee oils are present in a small quantity of liquid. conversely, if you brew using too little coffee, or too coarse a grind, the result will be light on body.

Clean. The opposite of wild coffees. Clean-tasting coffees are free of defects, shadow undertones, or varietal distractions.

Complexity. Complexity relates to the co-presence of attributes in a coffee. Acidity, body, earthiness, sweetness, etc., combine to make a coffee complex. Varietals are often blended to increase their complexity.

Flavor. Just a general term to describe the overall impression you get from a coffee.

Musty, Dirty, Rioy, Rough. A bunch of bad words. The first two terms relate to poor storage conditions, improper aging, or unpleasant earthiness. “Rioy” is an industry term for harshness, (pronounced ree-o-ee after Rio De Janiero), like poor quality low-grown Brazilian arabicas.

Spicy. Underlying “spicy” accent, either aromatic or flavorful. It might relate to the coffee being natural, the character of the acidity or the two combined. Examples are some Ethiopian and Guatemalan coffees.

Wild, Earthy, or Natural. Relates mostly to the processing method used, when the fruit of the coffee cherry is allowed to dry on the beans before removal. Earthiness can also be detected, I presume, based on the soils the coffee grows in (there are earthy Indonesian coffees that are wet processed). Earthiness can quickly become dirtiness. Dirty coffee is unpleasant. The winey flavors of some wild coffees are called sour when it becomes unpleasant.

Roast-Related Terms

Roast flavors exist alongside varietal flavors, although they often can mask or destroy them.

Sweet. Sweet refers to the presence of some caramelly flavors developed in a Full City type roast, in balance with other characteristics of a coffee. An overall pleasantness and balance achieved by good roasting that is sensitive to the varietal character of the bean. Sweet might also refer simply to a varietal characteristic, also called soft, mild, or mellow.

Baked or Bready. Under-roasted coffees that haven’t developed their character, or coffees that simply sat in the roaster too long without enough heat. It can also refer to scorched coffees where the outside of the bean is browned and the inside is under-roasted. There’s a particular parched taste that can come with under-roasting too, as with a recent batch of Ugandan Bugisu I roasted recently.

Bittersweet. The bittersweetness of a coffee develops as the roast gets darker and eventually overpowers other flavors. It dark roasts, acidity is reduced until completely absent, while the caramelly taste of burnt sugars form the stimulating bittersweetness. This is a newer term but I like the way it refers to the strong flavors of dark chocolate. Its also the quality people love about Peets and Starbucks blended coffees.

Burnt: Either the pleasant flavor of Dark French or Spanish roasts or the flat taste of burnt rubber in your mouth, depending on how you view such things.

Other terms may apply related to brewing and serving attributes or problems. Make up a few.

Roast Names

Here is Sweet Maria’s list of roast names from lightest to darkest:

1. Light Cinnamon Very light brown, dry, tastes like toasted grain with distinct sour tones, baked, bready

2. Cinnamon Light brown and dry, still toasted grain with distinct sour acidy tones

3. New England Moderate light brown, still sour but not bready, the norm for cheap Eastern U.S. coffee

4. American or Light Medium-light brown, the traditional norm for the Eastern U.S.

5. City, or Medium Medium brown, the norm for most of the Western US, good to taste the varietal character of a bean.

6. Full City Medium dark brown with some slight oily drops, good for varietal character with a little bittersweet.

7. Light French, or Espresso Moderate dark brown with oily drops, light surface oil, more bittersweet, caramelly flavor, acidity muted.

8. French Dark brown oily, shiny with oil, also popular for espresso; burned undertones, acidity diminished

9. Italian or Dark French Very dark brown very shiny, burned tones become more distinct, acidity almost gone.

10. Spanish Very dark brown, nearly black and very shiny, charcoal tones dominate, flat.