Aroma, Acidity, Sweetness, Body, Finish and Flavour. Let's Explore
In this article we want to start talking about the ever-controversial but crucial topic of tasting coffee. We say controversial because how industry professionals describe the taste of coffee can often alienate consumers. Those well-versed in speciality coffee sometimes have a tendency to search out the most obscure and complex flavours and, whereas this is certainly impressive, it doesn’t help consumers understand what a particular coffee tastes like.
The reason we’re talking about this is because understanding how to taste the coffee will help you understand the coffees you like. It will also help you effectively describe what you’re tasting and this can lead to more informed purchasing decisions, either when talking to the barista at your local coffee shop, or when purchasing coffee for home use.
In the industry, you may hear the term ‘cupping’. This is basically the process of comparing different coffees to help determine the coffee characteristics you enjoy. It’s very hard to develop your understanding of taste if you only drink one coffee - you need something to compare it to. You can setup your own cupping at home. Just make sure you have a minimum of 2 different coffees and make sure that your brew method is consistent across all the coffees you’re tasting as the brew method will impact the taste.
When carrying out a cupping, there will usually be a form that you fill in that allows you to score the individual coffees across a number of different categories. We’re not going to go into detail on these forms today as there are so many different standards and different roasters may you use different scoring criteria. We’re more interested in what these categories mean and how you can start to identify them. The categories we'll look at include aroma, acidity, sweetness, body, finish and flavour.
We don’t just taste with our tongues as the way that coffee smells often, even if subconsciously, informs our decisions as to whether we like a particular coffee or not. Some coffees have a very strong aroma (this can be good or bad) and some may be more subtle. Something to be aware of.
This is a controversial category and is often also misunderstood. A lot of consumers associate acidity with sourness, but professionals often enjoy acidity as it’s a characteristic associated with brightness, sharpness and freshness, and is often described as ‘crisp’. Imagine biting into an apple. That’s a pleasant kind of acidity.
Acidity is felt along the sides of the tongue, so when drinking coffee if you feel an unusual sensation along the sides of your tongue, that’s due to acidity. This isn’t to be confused with bitterness. Sometimes consumers will describe a coffee as bitter when they’re actually tasting acidity. The main difference is bitterness usually causes salivation whereas acidity doesn’t.
When tasting your coffee, just compare coffee A to coffee B and see which one gives you that sensation, and then it’s a simple question of do you like it or not?
This is a different kind of sweetness than you’d expect from sugar as coffee isn’t naturally sweet. In coffee, sweetness is often more complex and comes from a number of factors. We’re really asking the question of how ripe was the fruit and how good was the processing, roasting and brewing method - all components that determine sweetness. Good quality preparation methods and riper fruit will cause more sweetness. We all know sweetness when we taste it, whether we know what’s causing that sensation of sweetness or not. So, when tasting coffee A and coffee B, just see which one gives you that feeling of sweetness.
This is a key characteristic as it’s one that is very noticeable. This characteristic is more about texture than flavour so it will be felt in the mouth rather than tasted. Some coffees are light and almost tea like and would be classed as having very little body. Other coffees will be rich, full and feel much thicker and almost chewy. These would be described as having a very full body. For example, Robusta coffee is known for being very full bodied and this is something you’ll either like or dislike.
Finish describes the after-taste or the sensations we feel after we’ve swallowed the coffee. Is the after-taste and sensation pleasant or unpleasant? Some coffees may also linger a lot longer than others so the question really is do you like your coffee to have a strong after taste that lasts or do you prefer it dissipate quickly?
Again, compare coffee A to coffee B and see which one you prefer after you’ve swallowed it. It’s good to take time over this step as you’ll want to make sure your palette is cleansed so you’re able to fairly and accurately judge this. As a rule of thumb, coffee is still perfectly drinkable up to 30 minutes after it’s been brewed so don’t feel like you have to rush.
This is where things can get complicated with tasting notes and flavour wheels but we’re going to break this down into some really simple and easy to understand sections. When tasting coffee, the flavour normally relates to the fruit and you can break this down into the 3 (actually 4) different types:
- Fresh fruits - These are things like apple, grape, berries, pears. If you perceive a coffee to be sweet and a little acidic then it’s quite common for you taste these type of fruit flavours.
- Cooked fruits - These are often described as more jam-like, and you might hear things like cooked or baked pies. These will often have low acidity, so if you’re not getting much acidity when you taste the coffee, you can start to look for these types of descriptors.
- Tropical fruits - These are things like pineapple or mango and can also refer to more fermented fruits that are little more difficult to discern. These are very common in natural processed coffee.
- There is a final category for flavour which is different to fruit and that can be notes of caramel, chocolate, biscuit and nuts. These don’t taste fruity but are often used as descriptors if a coffee tastes sweet. If you are getting sweet flavours and you can’t perceive much fruitiness then you may be looking at one of these taste descriptors.
That concludes this introduction into tasting coffee. Whilst the cupping process does aim to make the process as systematic and scientific as it can be, taste is still subjective so don’t be alarmed if the outcome of your cupping ends up being different to others. The key here is to have fun cupping different coffees and enjoy the process of learning how to make comparisons using the categories we’ve discussed above. Now, let's discover your next speciality coffee - there's over 150 roasters to choose from -, or subscribe to a coffee subscription and let our curator's monthly coffee discoveries be yours to trust and enjoy.
GUSTATORY (adjective): curating excellence in taste.