A Guide to Describing Coffee

Everybody is unique and consequently have different perceptions of things. Although we may mostly agree on colour, when it comes to taste and aroma, our perceptions of a great cup of coffee can vary greatly. Indeed they can fluctuate from day to day depending on how we feel and what we may have previously eaten.

However, professionals in the coffee industry still need some type of criteria when discussing and analysing coffee samples and so they have attempted to create a common language among themselves to help them compare and understand certain characteristics of coffee taste and aroma.

Whether these professionals are testing for consistency of product or are sampling new blends, they have created four basic descriptive criteria that are recognised amongst themselves.

Acidity – This is the most important distinguishing characteristic of coffee. It is defined as a pleasant sharpness around the edges of the tongue and towards the back of the palate. The sensation may be described as dryness by some people. Acidity should not be confused with sourness, as a good coffee should have some degree of acidity. Acidity provides the pinch to a coffee and a lack of such will result in a dull, flat lifeless brew. Coffees described as mellow have low acidity but should have enough to avoid blandness.

Body – This refers to the texture of the coffee as it is perceived in the mouth. Is it rich and heavy or light and watery, for example. The body or texture of a coffee is in direct proportion to the amount of oils and soluble compounds extracted during the brewing process. A stronger brew for example would be considered to have more body.

Aroma – This refers to the sensation perceived by the nasal passages as a result of interaction with the aromatic oils and volatile compounds released during the brewing process. The nose should be very close to the beverage and one should inhale fully to appreciate the full aroma. Descriptive associations are then used to describe the smell. Examples include burnt, fragrant, musty, nutty, winey, spicy, chocolatey, earthy and bland.

Flavour – This is used to describe the overall effect of the previously discussed acidity, body and aroma plus the main sensations experienced by our tongues such as bitterness, sourness, saltiness or sweetness. This is the most difficult criteria to get right and can be very subjective. However a professional coffee taster will comment on the complexity of the flavour, the balance (if no one characteristic dominates) and the depth of body. In addition to the terms used for relating to the aroma, a professional will use other terms such as bright, buttery, caramely, fruity, grassy, harsh, lifeless, mellow, muddy, mild, rubbery and wild amongst others when describing the flavour.

Clearly describing and distinguishing between coffees can be complex but with these guidelines and some practice you will now be able to give it a go.