We’ve all seen or heard discussions of what makes a “quality” coffee. Experts talk about the taste, the smell, the feel, and how it contributes to the overall experience of that particular roast. But what does it all mean? How can you use them to evaluate coffee?
Lilian Wong, Flickr
The fact of the matter is, taste and smell are very complex. Describing your perception of smell and flavour is a very difficult task and, like wine-tasters and sommeliers, coffee experts have developed special terminology to help them put into words what their senses experience. According to Gourmet Coffee Lovers, coffee has close to 800 discernible flavour characteristics, compared to the 400 found in wine, so it is important to standardise as much of the tasting and evaluation process as possible.
The four main elements of coffee tasting are: Aroma, Acidity, Body, and Flavour. All other descriptors will fall under at least one of these four categories. These elements are influenced by the origin, the processing method, the roast, and the way a coffee is brewed, as well as a number of other factors. These are generally marked on whole bean packages, so try a few different ones to get an idea of their differences.
Breaking the crust, detecting aroma in the cupping method - Dennis Tang, Flickr
Aroma is the smell and fragrance of coffee. Of the four elements, this is the most subtle, and should give a preview of what the coffee will taste like in your mouth. To get a proper sense of the aroma, place your nose close to the cup and inhale deeply. It may take a few tries before you can discern aroma, so make sure to take your time.
Common terms used to describe aroma include: smoky, fruity, nutty, herbal, spicy, and floral. It should not smell burnt, or of rubber or chemicals.
Aroma Lab: If you want to test your ability to detect aromas, try doing a blind test at home with a group of friends. Prepare items with different kinds of smells — mushrooms, fruits, spices, tea leaves, nuts, flowers — and place them into covered containers.
Blindfold yourselves before smell each item, and try to describe what you’re smelling. Without a visual, your olfactory senses will sharpen, and you can focus on the nuances in the aroma.
James Joel, Flickr
This is nothing to do with pH levels. It refers to the sharpness of the coffee on the tongue, which is detected at the front of the mouth, around the edges of your tongue, or can leave a sense of dryness at the back. The sensation is comparable to citruses, such as oranges and lemons.
A coffee with low acidity is described as ‘smooth’, while a high-acidity coffee is called ‘bright’. Many African and Latin American coffees, as well as those grown at high altitudes, share acidity as a common characteristic. A coffee that is too acidic is ‘astringent’, and can leave an unpleasant sensation at the tip of the tongue.
Orange Juice Test: This is as simple as taking a sip of orange juice, which is high in acidity, and taking note of how it feels in your mouth and on your tongue. Try and describe the sensations you feel, as well as the taste, and compare this to a beverage with less acidity, such as water.
Unroasted, light roast, and dark roast coffee - Jessica Spengler, Flickr
You may have heard this referred to as the ‘mouthfeel’. The body of a coffee is how it sits on your tongue, whether it is heavy and long-lasting, or light and fleeting. There are three types of bodies: Light, Medium, and Full.
A coffee with a fuller body will linger on your tongue, and feel thick and heavy, like syrup or butter. This is associated with fuller flavours, and are common in darker roasts, and coffees brewed in French presses. A lighter-bodied coffee, in comparison, will feel thinner, and the flavours and sensations will dissipate after a short time. This is commonly found in lighter roasts, and drip coffees, which remove a lot of the essential oils in coffee during the brewing process.
Milk Pour - Melissa Wiese, Flickr
The Milk Test: The easiest way to understand body is to compare Whole Milk with Skim Milk. Even when blindfolded, you can immediately detect the differences in the way they feel in your mouth and how it lingers on your tongue. The same principle is applied when tasting coffee.
This is a combination of the previous three elements, resulting in an overall perception of the coffee. Identifying the aroma, acidity, and body will help determine what sort of flavours are present — a coffee may be high in acidity, taste citrusy (or fruity), and light-bodied; it can also be full-bodied, smoky, and smooth. A ‘balanced’ coffee means that neither the aroma, acidity, nor body overpower each other, and there is no dominant characteristic. These are common in medium roasts.
Common flavours include: citrus, cocoa, nuts, and berries.
Comparison Test: Try this with different kinds of teas, such as an Earl Grey, and a green tea such as Genmaicha. Start by describing what you smell, and then what you taste, in terms of aroma, acidity, and body.
Quick glossary of the most common terms used to describe coffee
There are four steps to the coffee tasting process: smell, slurp, locate, and describe.
Vidya Crawley, Flickr
Our noses detect thousands of smells, while the tongue only detects four (salty, sweet, bitter, and sour), so smells are a major part of our sense of taste. Slurping the coffee sprays the coffee across your palate, which helps to detect subtle flavours and aromas.
After you sip, take a moment to think about where you are experiencing the flavours inside your mouth. Where are the flavours on your tongue — on the tip, or on the sides? How is the mouthfeel, heavy or light?
Try and locate these sensations and put all of these into words. When you first start out, it’s easier to use your own words, rather than trying to apply “standard” terminology. This makes it more meaningful to yourself, because you can apply your own knowledge and previous experiences to it, rather than someone else's.
If you want to try a professional coffee tasting, Campos Coffee holds Cupping Sessions for just $30, where you can see how the experts do it behind the scenes.