Coffee descriptors, to the layman, they seem pretentious and silly but when you’re in the world of coffee reviews they become a necessary evil. What you really need to know about tasting coffee can be broken up into a few simple categories.
Aroma is used somewhat interchangeably. It can varyingly mean the aromas that are given up by the raw beans, or the characteristic aromas you smell during the brewing process. Both can be heavenly. When trying to describe Aromas, we need to get a little creative, otherwise each review would be 3 sentences long, “It smells like coffee. It tastes like coffee. I liked it / didn’t like it.” With that in mind, reading in a review that a particular bean has “strong hints of chocolate” doesn’t mean you should be expecting a hot chocolate to hit your tongue. What’s important is to try and pick out the subtle smells contained within the overall coffee smell. In a way, it’s like deconstructing the scent and finding it’s component parts. When a coffee bean is “smoky” or “oaky” that can also come through in the aromas if you really take the time to pick them out.
Acidity is pretty much the main factor that goes into what your coffee will taste like. But acidity has a very negative connotation. Coffees that are high in acidity don’t have a higher PH balance than coffees low in acidity. Rather these acids are actually the fundamental components that provide some of our favorite flavors. Most people are familiar with citric acid, the acid found in things like lemons, oranges, limes, and kiwis (yes kiwis, look it up). Well, as you might imagine, coffee beans which are high in citric acid will produce hints of lemon or orange.
That’s not the only acid at play either! Tartaric acid is an acid commonly found in grapes, and by extension, wine. Coffees that are described as having hints of grape, or wine simply means it is a wine high in tartaric acid.
Phosphoric acid is the sweetest of the bunch and is responsible for providing tropical themed flavors like pineapple, passion fruit, or mango.
Likewise, Malic acid contributes flavors reminiscent to stone fruits. Fruits that we typically think of as growing on a tree like apples, plums, pears, and peaches.
Finally, we have chlorogenic Acid, don’t panic, it has nothing to do with chlorine what-so-ever. Chlorogenic acid is a main contributor of many of the flavours and aromas we think of as characteristically coffee like. It’s also the acid that provides “brightness” or “sparkle”. You might also hear that a coffee is “fresh” or “refreshing”. These are just coffees high in Chlorogenic acid. Chlorogenic acid is actually also an antioxidant! And it has shown some promise in helping to control blood glucose levels. It is however, highly susceptible to heat, which means you’ll find it in smaller and smaller quantities as you move up to the darkest roasts.
There are some negative acids too unfortunately. Acetic Acid usually means that there’s been a problems during the brewing process. There are some brewers who intentionally leave a little of it in, to provide “bite” or “sharpness”; but it’s generally undesirable. A coffee high in acetic acid will have a taste like common white vinegar. Finally, is Quinic acid. Quinic acid is actually a by-product that is created as the other acids break down. The most common reasons for high Quinic acid is that the beans are stale, or the coffee has been over brewed, or overcooked. The last one is common for coffee that’s left on a hot plate. Quinic acid is to play whenever a cup of coffee tastes “stale”.
The biggest contributor to acid content is the growing location and altitude. The more fertile the land, the more acid there is. The higher the elevation, the higher the acid content. That’s why some of the worlds best light roasts come from the mountains of Central America in places like Colombia, and Guatemala. Another good option is mountainous countries along the pacific as they feature a lot of volcanic soil which is very fertile. For this reason, places like Hawaii have become top coffee producers. Of course, not to be undone, Africa can also produce some of the world’s best light roasts.
After Acid content, the roast type is almost certainly the biggest contributor to the taste of your coffee. As the coffee beans are roasted, the natural sugars and oils within the bean start to become caramelized. As you get to the darkest roasts, the essential oils begin bursting out, leaving a visible sheen on the coffee beans, before the whole thing becomes caramelized. Because of this caramelization, dark roasts tend to have a much higher sugar content and tend to be sweeter. Dark roasts are often described as have notes of chocolate, vanilla, or black cherry. Likewise, you will pick up on the wood that was used in the roasting process which is what gives a smoky or cedar taste.
It’s not all good though, as the coffee beans roast, it breaks down the natural acids and components within it, meaning the coffee loses it’s natural flavors in favor of the flavors of the roast. This is bad news if you like those citric, malic, or phosphoric acids we talked about earlier. There’s also a delicate balancing act as all the while we are creating quinic acid, which will make the coffee taste stale in high quantites.
What is Coffee “Body”
Full bodied, light bodied, you hear it all the time. Alternatively, you may have heard it as “mouthfeel”. But what does it really mean? No shame in not knowing, I didn’t really understand it myself till I start making reviews. Body essentially describes the texture of the coffee as it moves through your mouth. Light roasts tend to be light bodied, delicate, or gentle given the amount of brightness and sparkle provided by chlorogenic acid. Dark roasts on the other hand will feel heavier and creamier, a dark roast is more likely to be described as “Full Bodied”, “Buttery”, “Syrupy” or “Velvety”.
The finish is that split-second just after the coffee has left your mouth, where you’re flooded with a totally new rush of flavors that weren’t there when the coffee was just sitting there. We’ve all experienced it before, something that tasted even better once you had swallowed it, or that left a disgusting aftertaste in your mouth.
Finish also has body characteristics that may be different from the body while it was in your mouth. All of these things are taken into consideration and you describe the finish both in terms of taste and texture.
Some people use Finish and Aftertaste interchangeably, but to me they are two totally different experiences. The finish, as I said above, is all about the moment when the coffee first leaves your tongue. It’s just a fleeting moment that is over almost instantly. The aftertaste on the other hand, lingers in your mouth for some time. Like when you feel the need to “wash out” your mouth after you’ve eaten something disgusting; aftertaste doesn’t just go away.
Hopefully, this will help to demystify those coffee reviews a little and help us to better communicate in the future. Happy Brewing!