Decoding Coffee Descriptions
Coffee descriptions can be cryptique. Lots of terms and references that to the uninitiated can seem weird, even absurd. Let’s see how coffee descriptions are written and how you can decode them
Coffee descriptions have left many drinkers baffled. I bet half of consumers barely read them. Understandably. Many descriptions are either too vague (“sweet and strong”) or seem unrealistic (“lemon meringue with undertones of sandalwood”).
Fact being, the vast majority of us are not trained nor take time to train in tasting what we ingest. We simply find something tasty, understand in general what we like, and learn to favor sweet over savoury, or fatty over bitter and so on. Generally speaking, we only taste superficially what we eat and drink. And why wouldn’t we? We aren’t food critics or sommeliers, we just want to enjoy a good dish or beverage. Nothing wrong with that.
Coffee descriptions are instead written by experts, people who spend their lives tasting hundreds if not thousands of different coffee, go to the farms to understand the coffee processing and talk with roasters to identify the best way to roast the beans to conserve the flavours in them, possibly exalting them. They do this as a job, it is only natural that they can identify much more in a coffee than most of us.
If you have the time and inclination, learning to taste coffee is a fun and enlightening hobby. I’ll probably talk about how to taste coffee in a future article. For now, for all of you who don’t have the time to train your palate to savour all the nuances of a cup of coffee, I’ll go through the general elements that make a coffee descriptions, to help you understand what they mean and how they can help you choose your next coffee bag to purchase. Let’s see how to decode the coffee description!
The aroma is the first impression of a coffee. If you dislike it, you’ll have a worse image of it in your mind, lowering your expectations. Even before touching the cup, the aroma tells you a lot about coffee.
I am sure any of you are familiar with the aroma of brewed coffee; it is easier though to pick subtle aromatics in unbrewed coffee. The beans or, better, the freshly grounded coffee tell you a great deal about it. If you have the chance, take the time to smell the grounds or beans. Then compare it to the same coffee after brewing and see how it changed.
While you’re tasting the coffee, try to recollect what you smelled and if you can find it in the cup. Sometimes you will, sometimes you won’t. Check the aftertaste of the coffee, or the smell that you can feel in your nose while you’re drinking. Often the aromatics you smelled in the aroma are to be found in those places.
In coffee descriptions often the aroma is called floral or sweet or earthy or nutty and so on. These are self-explanatory descriptions. When coffee descriptions talk about aroma, it’s not much about how the coffee tastes but only about what you can perceive in the smell, aftertaste and odour, and it may or may not have a correspondence in taste.
Don’t be put off by a description of an aroma you don’t like. The actual coffee may be quite different.
Coffee high in acidity may sound terrible. Why would you want to drink something that tastes like acid?
Point is, when coffee experts talk about acidity in coffee they don’t mean a super-acid, nearly rancid, taste. It’s not like drinking pure grapefruit juice, not an astringent, pungent type of acid/sour taste. Not at all.
Unless the reviewer is honest and therefore the coffee sucks.
Acidity in coffee is a welcomed taste. It is supposed to resemble the acidity of an orange or in berries. It is often connected with some sweetness, which is also a pleasurable aspect of drinking coffee. When coffee experts talk about acidity in a coffee, they most assuredly mean citruses, tangerines, berries and pineapple-like acidity. Adjectives like lively, crisp, vibrant, or bright are commonly associated with this type of acidity.
You may not like acidity and that is fine. Just keep in mind though that when talking about coffee, the acidity is related to the most pleasant types.
Body is commonly not much understood as a quality by most casual coffee drinkers. Rarely do we stop and think how something feels in the mouth, how heavy or light a food or drink is. We are sort of expecting bread to be “spongy”, or green tea to be nearly watery, or a cola to be sparkling.
But we rarely, if ever, take the time to consider if these definitions match what we are eating or drinking. We usually take it for granted.
Body in coffee, and in food descriptions in general, describes how it feels in your mouth, regardless of the actual taste. It’s a measure to differentiate a creamy, buttery coffee from a tea-like, light one. Drinking a cappuccino differs vastly from drinking a tea: they have a specific weight in your mouth that even if you ignore the aroma and the taste, makes you immediately identify which is which. Even in a blind test, any drinker can differentiate between an espresso and water, and that’s because of the different body the two liquids have.
In coffee descriptions, a light body means a coffee that is the most similar to water, in consistency, in mouthfeel. A medium body would resemble a “heavy tea”, or a very light milk (more close to a milk surrogate). Heavy-bodied coffee can feel like honey, molasses, syrups.
Again, the body in coffee has nothing to do with taste. If you read “heavy body”, don’t think it will taste like honey. It might, or might not. It’s unrelated. Body describes only how it feels in your mouth.
As you can imagine, some coffee drinkers love light and crisp coffee and others prefer super-heavy, syrupy ones. It is an area of coffee descriptions where there’s not a binary answer (good vs bad) but simply an indication for the drinkers. It is up to them to take it as positive or negative.
Coffee has more than 850 volatile aromatics compounds. More than wine. Meaning that you can taste numerous different flavours in your coffee.
This is an area where decoding coffee descriptions is the hardest. Coffee cuppers, those who take the role that sommeliers have in wine tasting, take a lot of freedom in their descriptions, using comparisons that may be truly far-fetched for the 99% of coffee drinkers. Some flavours are easily identifiable by most of us: chocolate, honey, berries, citruses, nuts are commonly found in most coffee and clearly defined. Any coffee drinker will have tasted at least once a coffee and thought that it is very “chocolatey” or “sweet like honey” or “acid like a lemon”.
A coffee cupper can differentiate between a grapefruit-like acidity and orange-like one. A dark chocolate taste compared to a milk chocolate one. Slight differences for most drinkers, but in coffee descriptions it matters a lot. That 850 number comes from being able to recognize tiny differences in taste that, unless one’s trained to, will hardly be able to.
Most importantly, when talking about flavours, decoding coffee descriptions means knowing what to expect. A “nutty” coffee won’t taste like an almond or a hazelnut. It will still be absolutely coffee-like, but some of its aromatics will lean toward a taste that resembles one of these nuts. Usually it’s specified which. The coffee description is a resemblance, not an equality. Don’t expect nor be turned off by a coffee that is described as containing “lemon and orange tones” to taste like an orange/lemon juice. It will be like 20% similar, at most, but it will still taste and smell like a classic coffee. It’s like adding an orange flavour to a chocolate cake, it’s not like it will prevent you to taste the chocolate at all.
The differences in flavour notes are thus minimal and should not deter you to try a coffee whose coffee description contains terms you don’t like. It may be just the right amount of different aromatics that you can appreciate, enriching your taste experience.
And, obviously, no flavour is bad per se. Flavour notes are another area where coffee descriptions aren’t objectives but rather subjectives.
Learn to decode coffee yourself
Taking the time to savour each sip of your coffee can teach you a lot. It will be at first impossible to recognize more than a handful, and that’s ok. Nobody has trained taste buds from birth.
Starting to pay more attention to what we drink and eat can pay not only in feeling smart by knowing the differences and being able to identify various flavours. Even if you aren’t planning to become a food writer, it will repay you in identifying a quality ingredient or dish from an average one. It is an important step in being better consumers, by awarding with our choices those who produce great food, or coffee in our case, against those going for the cheap ingredients and making consumers pay excessive prices.
Next time you’re brewing coffee, take a pen and a notebook with you and smell the grounds/beans, and then your brewed coffee. See how many aromatics you can discover, first in the aroma and then in the taste. The more you do, the more you’ll know what is exactly that you like in your coffee. Decoding then coffee descriptions will be easy and useful to make you buy precisely the coffee that you’d enjoy the most.