The more you learn about coffee, the more you realise what an intricate and complicated delight it is. Like fine wine and interesting people, quality coffee is complex, multi-layered, and a product of everything it has been through.
At Black Matter we are inspired by the art and science of amazing coffee. So many things impact the character of your cup. The life of the coffee plant, how it’s processed, roasted, prepared – these are all stories in themselves, and that’s why we’re bringing you The Coffee Matters Series.
Over the next few months we will navigate you through the depths of why your coffee tastes the way it does, and how we use this knowledge in our never ending search for the perfect cup.
Part I is about breaking down all those notes you read on the label of your specialty coffee.
A Matter of Taste
Even describing the taste of coffee is not straightforward. Coffee has around 800 different flavor characteristics, compared to about 400 for wine. If you feel like a little extra research, check out the Specialty Coffee Association of America’s flavor wheel (don’t worry, they don’t list all 800!). https://www.scaa.org/?page=resources&d=scaa-flavor-wheel
We’ve tried to capture the main elements for you below.
The most subtle and difficult to discern of all the elements, the aroma is the fragrance you get from your cup when you place it close to your nose and breathe deeply. It could be described as smoky, fruity, nutty, herbal, spicy, and/or floral. What you don’t want is rubber, chemicals or anything burning.
Aromas is influenced by the oils and suspended solids that make it into your cup from the brewing process.
The sharpness, or “sparkle” on the tip of your tongue. A high acidity coffee is described as “bright” – it has lively, tangy flavor that hits you when you first sip your coffee. The sensation is comparable to citrus, such as oranges and lemons, and it can leave a sense of dryness at the back of your mouth. Too much acid and your coffee will be astringent, leaving an unpleasant sensation at the tip of the tongue.
Acidity is influenced by bean dynamics and the degree to which it’s roasted. A coffee with low acidity is described as smooth.
Also described as the “mouthfeel,” body is quite literally how your coffee feels to drink – how it sits on your tongue, and satisfies your throat and palate. Body comes closer to the end of your sip and is the sense of thickness associated with the taste. If you think about water having a thin, light mouthful, then full cream milk is full bodied in comparison.
A fuller bodied coffee will linger on your tongue, and feel thick and heavy, like syrup or butter. It will also have fuller flavours.
The body is determined by the amount of undissolved solids such as oils and tiny pieces of ground coffee (fines) that make it into the cup. A coffee that is more full bodied will have more of these oils and undissolved solids.
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. Smooth coffee is well balanced, even and continuous.
Common flavours include citrus, cocoa, nuts and berries.
When a coffee has clear and distinct flavours and we describe it as a clean cup. You may also have heard coffee being described as a “classic cup” – this simply means there are no unusual flavour components. It tastes like coffee.
We hope this gives you a solid introduction to coffee tasting profiles, demystifying some of the terms. Upcoming posts will look at where these various elements come from, and how they make it into your cup.