Many people often describe their coffee quite simply like expensive, sweet, black, or hot. However, this unique drink is extremely complex physically and chemically since each bean contains more than 500 flavour and aromatic components. And that is just for starters. The roasting process enhances that number threefold, making coffee one of the most nuanced and complex beverages that your taste alone cannot process.
The Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel
Introduced in 1995 by the American Specialty Coffee Association, the Coffee Taster’s Flavour Wheel has been quickly becoming the standard for every coffee professional. It is an illustrative wheel which features a list of terms to describe the taste and aroma of coffee.
Many studies have found out that there are more than 800 aromas found in coffees. Most of these can be divided into three categories.
a. Enzymatic aroma
The most enzymatic, pleasant aromas are the by-products of some active chemical reactions which occur when the level of pH in the coffee beans ranges from 5 to 7. They create some common features of coffee such as herby, floral, and fruity.
b. Sugar-browning aroma
This is the most sought-after type of aroma by roasters. It gives rise to the nutty, caramelly, and chocolatey features of coffee.
c. Dry distillation
During the process of roasting, fibrous materials in coffee beans start to burn and release resinous, spicy, and carbony aromas. Many consider those characteristics undesirable and unpleasant though they can sometimes create a unique leathery and clove-like smell.
Coffee taste can be described in four basic terms: sourness, sweetness, saltiness, and bitterness.
A sour taste shouldn’t be thought of as a negative or positive characteristic. In fact, it is sometimes considered as a desirable feature of fine coffee. The biting or mild sharp sensation that you might feel on the tongue’s sides typically comes from acidic components produced by under-extraction in the brewing process. This leads to a tart and weak flavour.
Contrary to sourness, bitterness is created when your coffee is over-extracted, which might be caused by a coarse grind or over-steeping. It is important to note that this is an omnipresent and indispensable feature to coffee’s flavour. At low levels, bitterness can overshadow acidity and bring an interesting taste to the cup. Nevertheless, an excess level would dominate other components and produce an unpleasant flavour.
This taste is closely associated with the ripeness in coffee cherries, which are rich in natural sugars. Sweetness is typically a good sign that the coffees have been cared well through all stages – from washing, drying, roasting to storing. Many professionals might also use “sweet” to describe the level of sugary qualities in specific coffees.
Most coffee experts often considered saltiness as a defect. This undesirable feature is often a sign of contaminated content or inorganic materials.
In addition to salty, sweet, bitter, and sour characteristics, there are other coffee tastes that you can find. To understand more about the Flavour Wheel, watch the following clip:
Common words to describe coffee
Here are five words which are worthwhile understanding in describing coffee.
This term seems vague, but it actually indicates that no specific flavour is dominant. A typical example is the blend of Sumatran, African, and Central America beans, which is a balanced combination. Panama Esmeralda isn’t a balanced type due to its incredible lemony citrusy scent. Similarly, Sumatra coffee is known for the unbalanced flavour with earthy mossiness.
As an independent variable, body simply indicates the level of flavour and thickness of coffee. Along with acidity, aroma, and flavour, it is one of the main features that professional roasters use when rating in most coffee cupping competitions. Colombian coffee and other types in South and Central America are famous for their body. Robusta beans, on the other hand, have much less body. Basically, if you can chew on the coffee, then it does have body.
Fruitiness is a distinctive feature of coffees from Latin American. These types can taste like blackberries, grapes, cherries, hibiscus, or berries. Naturally or dry-processed coffees from Kenya or Ethiopia typically have stronger fruitiness because they are often dried with cherries on the beans. For most people, fruity is a desirable characteristic that can create an amazing flavour.
Citrusy acidity is a desirable quality in well-balanced coffees. Sometimes it can taste like lime, orange, or lemon, and isn’t followed by bitterness. This can help round out the flavour. Some types of coffee with acidity include Central American, Ethiopian, and Kenyan coffee.
Perhaps you think this term means that coffee doesn’t have any flavour. However, the real meaning is completely different. Clean indicates that coffee is totally free of flavour defects such as bagginess, rotten fruit, or fermentation. That’s why this is one of the most important factors that many roasters, dealers, processors, and growers use to assess coffees before making decisions.
The bottom line
It’s simple to see that many flavour and taste profiles often overlap. It takes time and practice to build a nuanced palate. Drinking coffee is more than just the matter of your tongue meeting liquid. All senses of the body play an essential role in completely surprising ways. To get the best experience, listen for those flavours in your cup and enjoy!