What does it mean when we describe a coffee’s aroma, and just what is the difference between that and fragrance? And what’s with all this talk about acidity? Won’t that upset Aunt Alice’s tender tummy?
Spend some time reading coffee descriptions, including our own, and you’re likely to find many references to these and other terms, including flavor, body, balance and bitterness. They read a bit like wine descriptions, and I admit they sometimes run the risk of seeming overblown and pretentious, but like wine, coffee is much more than just the sum of its parts.
To better help folks understand what’s going on, many specialty coffee roasters, ourselves included, have borrowed and adapted the idea from the wine industry. It seems to be a reasonable way to distinguish among the many unique characteristics our favorite beverage can offer up.
Wait a minute here. It’s only coffee, right? Shouldn’t it taste like, well, coffee?
Of course it should, but that’s only one aspect of the complex chemical dynamic at work in your morning cup. Almost everything that touches the beans, from the soil and climate they’re grown in to how and when they’re picked, processed, shipped, roasted, packaged and prepared, affects what we ultimately taste and experience. When all these stars align the result should be much more than just a cup of coffee-flavored water.
Of all the descriptors used, flavor is probably the most self-descriptive and the easiest to wrap your lips around. The first step is to understand that what we think of “coffee flavor” can actually be a combination of many individual flavors and sensations. Some, like the much sought-after blueberry and other fruited flavors of some dry processed Ethiopian coffees, can hit you over the head with their intensity. Others, such as the chocolate tones in wet processed Central American beans and the nutty flavors from Brazil, can be more mellow and less pronounced.
Flavors also become more discernable, and changeable, as coffee cools. In fact the hotter the coffee is when you drink it, the less flavor you’ll taste. For example, our current La Minita roast offers up sweet berry and chocolate flavors, but as it cools to room temperature it turns to a smooth milk chocolate.
It is true that many people don’t pick up on some of the more subtle flavors that coffees from different parts of the world can present, but you don’t have to be an expert taster to enjoy them. Identifying subtleties is a skill that can be developed if you wish, it just takes some practice. To enjoy them you need only drink.
What follows are my own interpretations of the most common terms used to describe coffee. It’s certainly not an official be-all and end-all guide, just my own simplified way of approaching a complex and often very subjective topic.
So with that caveat in mind. . .
Acidity: I think it’s somewhat unfortunate that the flavor and coffee industries rely so much on this term because it has nothing to do with sour, astringent flavors or that pain in your belly. In fact, acidity is a good thing because without it, our favorite foods and beverages would taste dull, flat and uninteresting.
In coffee, acidity is often described in such terms as clear, bright and winey, but the descriptions tend to vary depending on where the coffee is from. For example, the acidity of Kenyan and other East African coffees is often said to be winey or wine-like, while the acidity in high-grown Central American beans, such as those from Costa Rica, tend to be described as “crisp” or something similar. There are real differences between the two, hence the differences in how they’re described.
You can also get some idea of the amount of acidity you might expect from a bean based on the post harvest processing it receives, as well as its roast level. Washed coffees, such as many from Africa and Central America, generally have higher levels of acidity than do those that are dry processed — Ethiopians for example. As for the effect roast levels can have, a lighter roast tends to emphasize acidity, while darker roasts generally mute it. (See previous posts)
Aroma: This refers to the smell of hot, freshly brewed coffee. Since most of what we taste is defined by what we smell, aroma plays a huge part in how we perceive the flavor of everything we eat and drink.
Geeky Science Fact! Coffee is comprised of more than 1,600 compounds and more than half of them are aromatic in nature. Just a few aroma descriptors include floral, fruity, citrusy and spicy.
Fragrance: Fragrance descriptors attempt to define the smell of freshly ground coffee before it is brewed. It is often the strongest, most powerful characteristic of any coffee and, in my opinion, the fragrance that can fill the room after grinding is one of the major benefits of grinding your own beans. For coffee lovers of all stripes, from geeks to casual drinkers, fragrance is often the first thing to grab our attention. Think about it. If the first thing you do when you get a bag of fresh roasted coffee is to stick your nose in it, inhale deeply and sigh, you know how important fragrance is to your enjoyment.
Descriptors tend to be the same as those used to describe aroma.
Balance: In general, coffees that are said to be balanced are simply mellow, good-tasting and without defects. They don’t have any particular aroma, acidity, body, flavor or other characteristics that override everything else. Many fine coffees, such as Costa Rica’s La Minita, Hawaii’s Konas and Jamaica’s Blue Mountain, are highly prized (and priced) because they exhibit high levels of balance. Each is different from another, but all of them just do everything right in their own way.
Bitterness: Coffee can taste bitter for a number of reasons. If you buy fresh roasted specialty grade beans and your coffee still tastes bitter, the fault is probably not with the beans. Just a few of the things that can cause bitterness include how dark the coffee is roasted, the mineral content and brewing temperature of the water used to brew it, how long the water is in contact with the grinds, the grind size and the brewing style you use.
In general, the “stronger” you brew, the more grinds you use in relation to the amount of water, the more bitterness you are likely to wind up with in your cup. Similarly, brewing with water cooler than 195°F, a fatal design flaw in all too many drip brewers, can also increase bitterness. So does leaving a brewed pot on a warming plate (Don’t do it! Use a carafe). Still another culprit can be the Robusta beans used in some blends. These contain higher levels of both caffeine and chlorogenic acids, both of which contribute to bitterness and astringency.
Body: Also called mouthfeel, this is all about how the coffee feels in your mouth — its’ perceived heaviness and texture. To get a handle on body don’t swallow right away — swish it around in your mouth to sense how it feels. Does it have a thick, satisfying feel that lingers a little, or does it dissipate quickly? Think of the differences between a weak, tea-like beverage and a stronger brew, or a light beer versus a dark beer or stout. The weak stuff would be described as having light body while the strong stuff would be heavy.
The goal is to find simple ways to communicate the often complex and interrelated sensations you can expect to find in a cup of coffee, encourage you to expand your coffee horizons and ultimately help you find beans you’re likely to enjoy.