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The Taste of Gourmet Coffee -- A Four Dimensional Experience

  1. Aroma/Smell
  2. Acidity/Spark
  3. Body/Strength
  4. Flavor

When tasting coffee - which the coffee industry calls "cupping coffee" - we must look at it as a multi-sensory experience of sight, smell and taste. The industry uses standard terms such as aroma, acidity, body and flavor to describe this experience. We added the descriptors of smell, spark, and strength to help clarify exactly what the tasters are sensing when then use these categories.

Aroma/Smell

Also called aroma, the scent of the coffee is the kick-off. Even unroasted green beans have a scent. Roasted and brewed coffees are described in-depth by their smell. It can range from strong to weak and can also be described with terms like floral, citrus, nutty, smoky, or chocolaty. New crop coffees have a strong smell, sometimes grassy or hay-like, while older coffees often lack noticeable aroma.

Acidity/Spark

What the coffee industry traditionally calls "acidity" really means the spark of tartness upon your palate. In other words, how lively, or un-lively, is the coffee on your palate? Like water that can range from flat to bubbly-carbonated - coffees can cover a wide spectrum of spark or liveliness. Acidity/Spark can be described as weak, good or strong. East African Kenya AA coffees have high acidity spark, while Brazilian naturals rank very low, but make up for it with other characteristics, like body strength.

Body/Strength

Coffee tasters value what they call the strength or body of a coffee. This essentially is a way to describe the 'mouth feel' of the coffee. Think about the coffee as you swallow. As it sits on your tongue does it have weight or thickness? How does it coat your mouth? Strength or body can range from light (Mexican/Costa Rica) to full (Brazil naturals/Sumatra).

Flavor

Flavor is flavor - The connoisseur in all of us knows a flavorful cup of coffee. What it really describes is the balance of the taste, and the lack of any defective traits in the coffee. The art and vocabulary of taste are helpful in assessing flavors (see below). In the case of the home roasters, by being able to adjust the roast or blend one can find their individual flavor favorites.

A basic flavor dictionary:

BITTERNESS

bitter is when the coffee tastes harsh. Many times this flavor sensation is caused by the degree of roast, less often by over extraction in the brewing.

BLAND

a neutral taste, tending towards salty.

FRUITY

a flavor with a lot of sweet aroma - usually leaning toward berries or citrus.

MILD

that smooth, delicate mellow taste. Sometimes hints of sweetness.

NUTTY

like nuts!

SHARP

is what you experience from the salt sensation in the coffee. It can be rough or astringent.

SOURNESS

this is the taste when coffee has a terrible bite like vinegar. It can be acrid, and is hard to fix by roasting.

SPICY

a warming sensation with hints of cinnamon, cloves or pepper.

SWEETNESS

a taste most often characterized by sugar, commonly associated with fruit and chocolate.

WINEY

you guessed it - fruity like wine!