How do you know if you’ll like a cup of coffee? With so many origins, roast levels, and preparation methods to choose from, learning to taste and talk about coffee can be intimidating. When you read coffee descriptions written by professionals, you often see language like this:
“medium body, razor fine acidity, chocolatey mouthfeel, with hints of blackberry and sweet cream.”
How do you get all that from a single cup of coffee? Learning to articulate what you taste isn’t a superpower - but it does begin with learning some basic coffee tasting vocabulary. Saying “this Sumatra tastes like soggy running shoes” is an amazing insight, and completely legitimate! But since not everyone goes around licking the bottom of soggy running shoes, coffee speak can translate that impression into something a little more objective:
“Heavy body, low acidity, astringent mouthfeel. Hints of rubber, fresh earth, and cut grass - lightly fecal.”
Here are some basic coffee tasting terms that should help you learn to talk about coffee like a pro.
Body describes the weight of the coffee in your mouth. Think about drinking a glass of milk. Skim milk is thin and light on the tongue—almost like water. Whole milk, on the other hand, is much thicker and weightier. Body can be thought of in this way. Some coffees have a heavier feeling on the palate, while others are light and refreshing.
Body and mouthfeel are subtly different. While body refers to the weight of the coffee, mouthfeel refers to the texture or tactile sensation that drinking the coffee creates. Sure, it’s heavy bodied, but is it syrupy? Oily? Rough?
When we talk about acidity or “brightness” in coffee, we’re not talking about pH (though coffee registers around a 5 on the pH scale, if you’re curious). Acidity is a desirable characteristic that is generally attributed to high quality coffee grown at higher altitudes. Acidity is not the same as sourness, as it is NOT a flavor. It refers to the sparkly tactile sensation of biting into a fresh orange or ripe grapefruit.
Exactly what it sounds like. Sweetness can be a fruity like berries, rich like caramel, or floral like a gardenia.
This is a pretty straightforward concept. What does the coffee TASTE like? Let your imagination run wild. Any taste you can think of is valid in this category. Green peas? Ripe cherries? Cooked beef? Pandan? Almond? Dog kibble? Go for it.
Balance refers to the equal presence of different attributes. A well balanced coffee has several distinct attributes without one dominating the rest. A coffee that lacks balance might be mouth-puckeringly acidic, or cloyingly sweet. A dull coffee has no distinct attributes at all. We often use this term particularly when referring to the balance between acidity and sweetness.
Clean is a term used by coffee professionals to mean that the flavor of the coffee is not obscured by flavor irregularities caused by human error. This concept has come to be regarded as a little bit gate-keepy over the last 10 years as farmers have begun experimenting with unusual processing methods in an effort to intentionally influence the flavor of their coffees. Additionally, it has had the effect of reducing the status of coffees whose regional characteristics are often defined by their processes, such as wet-hulled coffees in Indonesia, and natural process coffees around the world (more on processing methods in a future post).
At Mocha Joe’s, we’re not out to yuck your yum. When we say, “this coffee is clean,” we mean, very literally, the coffee is free from specific defects that were not intentional, and create flavors widely regarded as unpleasant. We hope you don’t run into any of these flavor taints, which include musty, rubbery, phenolic, potato, sweaty, etc. These flavors are directly correlated to specific problems like mold, fungus, contamination, and pests. Just because you don’t like the flavor of a coffee, doesn’t mean it has defects!
Another Factor: Milk
Another factor that influences the way that we perceive the flavor of coffee is the addition of milk. If you generally take milk with your coffee, here are some factors to consider:
Acidic coffees may make milk taste sour. Additionally, the pH of milk falls as its freshness declines. Adding a very acidic coffee to milk that is close to turning may be enough to curdle the milk. Soy milk is particularly susceptible to curdling. One star, do not recommend.
Low body coffees may get lost in milk. A delicate Panama Gesha might taste great on its own, but add a few tablespoons of cream, and you may have difficulty tasting it at all.
Milk can completely change the flavor profile of a coffee. A very fruity coffee might suddenly be cloying, hazelnut notes might change to caramel, and that nose bursting with gardenia might not exist at all. If you’re deciding whether or not to buy a coffee, make sure to consider how you will prepare it at home. Our descriptors are based on the coffee’s flavor without milk.
Armed with this knowledge, we hope you will not only be able to impress your friends with your coffee-speak, but also take more educated risks and expand your coffee horizons with confidence!