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Velvet, Grass and Chocolate: An Intro to Coffee Flavor Terms

Have you tried any new types of coffee lately? Perhaps you want to branch out a bit in your coffee selections, but are finding the breadth of choices a little tough to decipher. As with any beverage with a wide range of tasting characteristics, coffee has developed its own descriptive vocabulary of terms. The four main traits to note in a coffee variety are body, acidity, aroma, and flavor.

Body: This refers to “mouthfeel;” how thin or how heavy the coffee feels when you drink it. Think about the difference between plain water, lowfat milk, and whole milk. That's body. Regional coffees produce their own distinct mouthfeel, but brewing methods can really make a difference in the body of the actual drink. Using a French press, for example, will bring out a heavier body than drip-style brewing.  Thick, heavy, watery, thin, velvety, and full are common words used for body.

Acidity: When not referring to the actual pH, this describes the tartness of a coffee. Terms like bright, crisp, clear, dry, fruity, wine-like, flat, sour or dull may be used to convey acidity. This characteristic is akin to dryness in a wine, and some of the same terms may be applied to both beverages.

Aroma: The smell of the coffee when freshly brewed and hot. Many of the most delicate notes of a coffee are sensed with the nose. Some are expressed as you begin to take a sip, while others are registered in the nasal passages as the coffee is swallowed, forming the aftertaste. Floral, citrus, caramel, perfumy, tobacco, herbal and grassy are a few of the words used to evoke aroma. Because taste and smell are closely linked, some descriptors may be referring to both senses.

Flavor: The taste of the coffee apart from its acidity, aroma and body. Chocolate, earthy, berry, nutty, peppery, sweet, smoky, musty, rancid and burnt are a few of the common flavor terms.

These are all ways to help describe the subjective experience of drinking a cup of coffee. Whether a given term is positive or negative depends on what you like. One person's earthy delight may be another's musty, dirty laundry.

Here are some ideas to begin with:

Fruitiness: Try a cup of Ethiopia Yergacheffe. You won't believe the blueberry tones. This can also be muted a bit by adding a pinch of cardamom to the grounds or to the brewed coffee.

Chocolate and earthy: Bali Blue Moon. Indonesian coffees often have a touch of earthy flavor to them; this particular bean evokes everything good about the concept.

Crisp and nutty: Colombia Huila. A great medium roast with loads of character and velvety body.

There are so many interesting varieties out there to taste. Hopefully this short list can get you started on the road to discovering new coffees. Challenge yourself (and your taste buds) today!


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