Coffee Tasting Terms

October 07, 2010

Coffee flavor is a sensation that calls for an entire dictionary of words.

Coffee flavor is a sensation that calls for an entire dictionary of words. In fact, professional coffee tasters have an entire glossary of terms they use to determine if the coffees they taste measure up to the standards of their company. Supermarket Guru recently commented on ‘cupping’ and wanted to elaborate further, giving you more insider insights on the art of tasting coffee, with coffee tasting terms. Use these terms to classify your coffee preference, choose the right cup when dining out, or to impress your dinner guests.

In coffee tasting we must engage our senses, especially smell and taste. Our taste buds help determine the main elements: sweet, sour, bitter, and salty, but in coffee tasting, there are a handful of other attributes that professionals must determine. For example, acidity, softness, harshness and more are typical elements that can be found naturally in the bean and others which are the result roasting. Here are some of the most commonly used words amongst professional coffee tasters:

Acidity: This is a highly desirable characteristic that reveals itself as a winey, lively taste in the coffee, not to be confused with acidic tastes like citrus. Acidity refers to the brightness of flavor - without it, coffee tastes flat and dull. All good coffees have some acidity, but to varying degree. 
Aged: A pleasant, distinctive “cellared” aroma, found in aged coffees.

Berry/Citrus: a sweet berry or citrus flavor

Bitter: One of the four basic tastes, it is detected on the back of the tongue. While some dark roasts have intentional bitter characteristics, they should be hearty and welcoming rather than harsh on the tongue. Bitter is a prominent aspect of very dark-roasted coffee; it is also used to describe an unpleasant taste of coffee resulting from too fine a grind, too thin or over extracted.

Body: This is a feeling in the mouth of richness, thickness, or it could be syrupy or buttery in the best sense of those words. 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?

Buttery: Full- bodied with an oily and rich mouthfeel.

Caramel, Chocolate, Nutty or Fruity: While one can obviously add syrups to give a coffee these flavors, these four terms are also found naturally in beautifully grown, perfectly roasted beans; that offer up a sweet edge to the inherent coffee taste that tastes akin to one of these four flavors. In addition, some coffees reflect chocolate or nuts in particular because these foods are grown nearby, and when fruit trees border coffee trees, their redolence can be reflected in the beans.

Carbony: An aromatic roasted or burnt taste, found in very dark-roasted coffees.

Clean: A coffee with a clear and refined texture in the mouth; opposite of dry.

Complex: A taste or aroma with many aspects (as opposed to simple).

Dry: A coffee with a parching or drying finish. It can also be called astringent.

Groundy or Earthy: This is a negative characteristic meaning that the flavor is earthy from mustiness.

Fine: A coffee with distinct positive quality characteristics such as acidity, body, etc.

Flat: A lifeless coffee lacking in any acidity.

Flavor: 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.

Floral: Reminiscent of flowers.

Full: A prefix to good characteristics such as acidity, body, or range of flavors, to indicate a strong character.

Herbal: An aroma reminiscent of grass, dried herbs or grains, or fresh foliage.

Lively: A coffee with high palate acidity.

Mild, Mellow or Soft: A lovely characteristic of low-acid, good drinking quality with nothing unpleasant to mar the flavor.

Musty: An undesirable element that results from improper aging, incorrect drying or overheating the beans. Mustiness that results from intentional aging, however, is a desirable taste to some connoisseurs.

Nutty: Reminiscent of freshly roasted peanuts, almonds, hazelnuts, etc.

Pungent: A strong and penetrating effect on the palate.

Rich: An indicator of a coffee with depth and complexity of flavor, full body, and an overall satisfying taste.

Rioy or Rio: This is a harsh, bitter, undesirable element that reflects poor farming and/or roasting techniques. Some people call it medicine-like. Although it is not popular, there are some people who enjoy this characteristic, which can be found in even mild coffees.

Roasty: 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.

Scorched: An unpleasant bitter or acrid taste, created by brewing coffee with boiling water.

Smoky: A naturally occurring aroma of wood smoke, or a synonym for roasty.

Smooth: A coffee low in palate acidity.

Soft: A well-rounded flavor lacking any harshness or acidity; mellow.

Spicy: An aroma suggesting spices such as cinnamon or allspice; also, a slightly “hot” sensation in the finish.

Strength: The ratio of ground coffee to water.

Sweet: A much-desired characteristic meaning softness, and undamaged. One of the four basic tastes, detected at the tip of the tongue. A mild coffee with sweet fruity, caramelly, or chocolaty flavors.

Syrupy: Sweet, rich, and viscous mouthfeel.

Tangy: Taste designation frequently given to a pleasant sharpness, or a fruity acidic level in the flavor.

Tart: Pleasantly pungent and sour.

Watery: Because each tasting cup is made exactly like all the others, a coffee that tastes watery doesn't mean it was made with too much water; instead, it means that the flavor is so thin, so unpronounced, that it barely flavors the water used to brew it.

Wild: A coffee with varying flavors from cup to cup, or odd, gamey, tangy nuances.

Winey: Named for the flavor profile of a great red wine, winey flavors in coffee indicate a good balance of acidity/fruitiness with smooth body.

Coffee tasting terms courtesy of Peet’s Coffee & Tea