Dictionary of Gourmet Coffee Tasting

The Many Flavors of Premium Gourmet Coffee

Learning the language of coffee tasting is a great way to delve deeper into the world of premium gourmet coffees!

Though detailed descriptions of gourmet coffee taste characteristics may sound to some people like just so much highbrow jargon, the coffee flavor terminology is actually an attempt to solve a very difficult problem—putting into words what the human senses perceive as we savor these premium coffees from around the globe.

Describing gourmet coffee flavors can be challenging because it is often hard to describe (and compare) the multitude of distinct tastes and smells our senses perceive.

Experts have determined that coffee has some 800 discernible flavor characteristics—by comparison, wine only has about 400.

ACIDITY—Sharp, pleasant aftertaste, a sharpness toward the front of the mouth; dryness at the back of the mouth and under the edges of the tongue; denotes the quality of the gourmet coffee.  Acidity ranges from lively to moderate to flat and dull.

Acidity is sometimes described as a sharp radiance that enhances the gourmet coffee’s flavor.  A low acidity is referred to as “smooth” while a high acidity is called “bright.” If the acidity is too low the coffee is considered boring and unexciting, while no acidity makes the coffee flat.

Subtleties of a gourmet coffee’s acidity include fruity (e.g., lemony, citrusy, berry-like) or a numbing sensation on the tip of the tongue. Acidity does not refer to the coffee’s ph level (degree of acidity), and acidity should not to be confused with bitterness (which also may be desirable to some degree), or sourness (which is undesirable). In general, acidity is a common characteristic of high altitude gourmet coffees (e.g., Kenyan, Costa Rican, Guatemalan).

ACRID—Intense impression of tartness on the back of the tongue.

AFTERTASTE—Taste remaining in the mouth after swallowing a sip of coffee; may have hints of chocolate, caramel, spiciness, fruitiness, smokiness, roastiness, and other flavors.

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ALKALINE—Dry feeling that remains on the back of the tongue after sipping the coffee.

AROMA—Refers to the fresh-brewed gourmet coffee’s fragrant smell, which also affects the more subtle aspects of the taste characteristics. Human senses work together, and so aroma indelibly affects taste (on the palette). The aroma/smell of a gourmet coffee is known as its bouquet.  Some descriptions of aroma include fruity, nutty, smoky, herbal, complex, and floral.

ASTRINGENT—An undesirable level of acidity; sometimes used to refer to an intense briny sensation at the tip of the tongue after sipping the coffee.

BITTER—A strong taste or twinge or aftertaste noted on the back of the tongue (one of the four basic tastes detected there). Not to be confused with acidity.

The bitterness, if it is well balanced, may add to the fullness of the flavor of the gourmet coffee and provide a desirable taste sensation. Too much bitterness, however, can be unpleasant, especially if it is the result of over-extraction during brewing, or making too little of an amount of coffee and using too fine of a grind.

Darker roasts tend to be prominently bitter, and this adds to the coffee’s fullness. Bitterness may be noticed in a coffee’s aftertaste. Not to be confused with acidity. (See The Bitter Brew for a more thorough discussion of bitterness.)

BLAND—Neutral flavor, pale; common in low elevation robusta coffee; also may be due to under-extraction.

BODY—Describes the “mouthfeel” of the coffee as it settles on your tongue, its tactile impression or weight and consistency as perceived in the mouth; the coffee’s heaviness or viscosity (thickness), which contributes to a sensation of the coffee’s richness, its flavor and aroma.

Extracted oils resulting from the brewing process also contribute to the body. French Presses and espressos have more body due to the brewing method, while drip/filter machines remove desirable flavor oils resulting in a coffee with a lighter body.  A coffee’s body may be light or thin, medium, full, or very full (e.g., buttery or syrupy). A fuller-bodied gourmet coffee retains more flavor when diluted.

BOUQUET—The coffee’s fragrant aroma and aftertaste, sometimes referred to as the gourmet coffee’s “nose.”

BRIGHT—A pleasant amount of acidity in a coffee; sharp acidity; tangy; leaves a dry aftertaste.

BRINY—A salty feeling/sensation in the mouth after drinking coffee that has been over-brewed or exposed to excessive heat after brewing.

BUTTERY—Rich and oily sensation/flavor produced by flavor oils in the coffee; may resemble the smooth richness of butter; often found in fuller-bodied gourmet coffees. This buttery sensation is more pronounced when the method used to brew the coffee is one that allows more oils to extract into the coffee.

Premium gourmet coffee that is brewed with a French Press will have more oil than a drip/filter because paper filters tend to remove the coffee’s oils.

CARAMELLY—Sweet taste/aromatic sensation caused by the coffee’s sugar compounds producing flavors suggestive of syrupy candy—caramel-like.

CARBONY—A roasty aroma common in dark roasted coffees; burnt (charcoal) smell/flavor.

CHOCOLATY—Sweet, roasty aroma and/or aromatic aftertaste reminiscent of unsweetened chocolate, cocoa, or vanilla.

CINNAMON—Spicy cinnamon aroma.

CLEAN—Finishes clear, smooth, and gracefully in the mouth; not dry; pure flavor, no changes or twists in the mouth or different after-taste.

COCOA—Aroma reminiscent of unsweetened chocolate; bittersweet.

COMPLEX—Many layers of taste sensations amongst the flavors.

DIRTY—Grimy (different than musty or earthy).

DRY—A particular type of acidity; when a coffee’s finish gives a parched or dehydrated sensation in the mouth; bright. Opposite of clean and sweet. Often present in light/delicate gourmet coffees.

DRY-PROCESSED—Coffee that is dry-processed is dried in the sun and then raked free of the dried fruit.  When the coffee is bagged there may be fruit remnants along with the beans, and thus dry-processed coffees will have more body though they may lack the “snap” or acidity of wet-processed coffees.

EARTHY—Musty taste or aroma, like moist black earth or soil, cellar-like, mushroomy. May or may not be desirable. Indonesian gourmet coffees typically have a spicy, earthy flavor.

FINE—Describes a premium gourmet coffee with a good balance of body and acidity along with its other positive characteristics.

FINISH—Refers to the sensation remaining on the palette after the coffee is swallowed or spit out (as a “cupper” will do after tasting the coffee).  The coffee’s aftertaste may be quick or lingering, dry and light and crisp, or sweet and heavy.

If a gourmet coffee has a “clean aftertaste” that is a description of its finish. A premium coffee that leaves a pleasant lingering feeling and/or taste on your palette is said to “develop in the finish” with a lingering aftertaste sensation that may change significantly from the initial flavors of the gourmet coffee when it is in your mouth.

FLAT—Describes a coffee with no acidity, lackluster, boring and dull.

FLAVOR—An overall perception and description of the coffee’s distinctive characteristics including Aroma, Acidity, and Body—in essence, flavor is the fusion of these qualities.

If no one characteristic overpowers the others, then the flavor is well-balanced. Components of a gourmet coffee’s flavor may be, for example, rich (full-bodied), bitter, nutty, complex (multi-flavored), or reminiscent of citrus or berries (fruity), or red wine, in which case it is called winy.

FLORAL—Very pleasant flavor and/or aroma.  Said to be reminiscent of flower blossoms.

FRAGRANT—Substantial aroma—may be floral, spicy, etc.

FRESH—Describes a gourmet coffee with a vibrant aroma; freshly roasted.

FRUITY—Aroma or flavor reminiscent of various fruits including berries, cherries, citrus, currants, etc.; sweet or tangy. Generally a desirable flavor characteristic. Always accompanied by some degree of acidity, which is usually positive though may indicate over-fermentation (over ripeness). Often found in Arabica premium gourmet coffees.

GRASSY—Aroma and/or taste suggestive of grass or alfalfa; herbaceous.

HARSH—An unpleasant bitter or offensive taste; raspy, caustic; often compared to raw weeds—generally undesirable though some people prefer a hint of it in a blend. Most common in Robusta coffees.

HERBAL—Suggestive of dried herbs, grass, perhaps dry beans. Herbaceous flavor or aroma.

FULL—A gourmet coffee that excels in the major characteristics of body, acidity, and flavor; strong character.

LIGHT—Delicate body, acidity and aroma, a coffee with a mild character.

LIVELY—Pleasing acidity; vibrant.

MELLOW—Full and well-balanced; the gourmet coffee’s finish is delicate and mild, and lacks significant acidity (low to medium), but is not flat.

MILD—A gourmet coffee with moderate body and a balanced sweetness and acidity. The finish lacks dryness and bitterness.

MUDDY—Flat and thick.

MUSTY—Cellared aroma, stuffy; may be positive attribute if the gourmet coffee was aged properly.

NEUTRAL—Very low acidity; bland; implying no off-tastes which can make it good for blending; describes many Brazilian Arabicas.

NUTTY—A distinct flavor/aromatic taste sensation suggestive of roasted nuts (e.g., almonds, peanuts, hazelnuts, etc.).

PUNGENT—Piercing sensation in mouth, strong characteristic, common in many full-bodied premium gourmet coffees.

RANCID—Sour offensive flavor of coffee stored improperly.

RICH—Pleasingly full-bodied gourmet coffee with deep, complex flavors and finish.

ROASTY—Desirably smoky flavor of a high quality gourmet coffee that has been properly dark roasted.

RUBBERY—Burnt rubber smell.

SCORCHED—Improperly roasted or brewed coffee, likely subjected to too much heat, and possibly resulting in an acrid and bitter aroma.

SMOKY—Desirably roasty flavor of a premium gourmet coffee that has been properly dark roasted.

SMOOTH—A quality resulting from low acidity.

STALE—A one-dimensional flavor, flat (e.g., cardboard); the result of improper storage of the coffee.

SOUR—Undesirable level of acidity; sharp, tart taste detected toward the back of the tongue on the sides, or an intense briny sensation on the tip of the tongue; sometimes compared to the taste of unripe fruit; may be present in light roasted coffees, and it is sometimes associated with over-fermented coffee.

SPICY—A savory or sweet character with a flavor and/or fragrant exotic aroma reminiscent of spices like allspice, clove and cinnamon. Common in Guatemalan coffees and Indonesian coffees.

STALE—Flat, cardboard taste—the result of coffee being overexposed to oxygen.

STRAWY—Undesirable flavor or aroma reminiscent of hay.

STRONG—Full bodied, rich.

SWEET—Smooth and mild; palatable; free of harsh flavors and defects; perhaps fruity taste sensed on the tip of the tongue; lack of harshness.

SYRUPY—Heavy mouthfeel; thick and sweet; sticky.

TANGY—Piercing and intense sweet and sour sensation on the sides of the tongue.

TONE—The coffee’s color and appearance.

TURPENY—Turpentine-like flavor.

WATERY—Lacks body.

WEAK—Coffee with light body, but not flat.

WET-PROCESSED—Coffee that is wet-processed is known as washed coffee because it has been washed of any dust and dirt as well as fruit that was left on the beans.  The wet process is said to make coffee taste “clean” in the cup with an acidity that shines through with brightness.  The only problem with wet-processing is that the coffee loses much of its body. (See Dry-Processed.)

WILD—Gamey; usually but not always considered undesirable.

WINY (WINEY)– A hint of a taste sensation reminiscent of fine, mature red wine; rich, fruity essence; a flavor quality which derives from the contrast between a smooth body and a fruit-like acidity. Kenyan gourmet coffees commonly exhibit this attribute, as do the syrupy-bodied Sumatra gourmet coffees and the Harrar premium coffees with their snappy, acidy flavor.

WOODY—Floral aroma suggestive of oak or tree bark; the result of proper aging of gourmet coffee.

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