If you're getting into coffee, you might be intimidated by the huge variety of options. You might not understand how to describe its taste, either. Chocolate, fruit, nuts, caramel, flowers... how can coffee taste like food that isn't coffee, and what foods can coffee taste like?
With a little research and mindful exposure, you'll be able to describe your favorite coffees and discover new ones to love.
Where do coffee beans get their flavor from?
On a chemical level, brewed coffee is almost all water and water-soluble molecules, with a small amount of oils and suspended particles (contributing to aroma and body). However, the roasted beans themselves contain very little water, so what of the bean winds up in the cup?
For starters, caffeine: a neutrally-bitter, odorless stimulant. The pleasant flavors and aromas of coffee are provided by hundreds of other molecules, some of which are even formed during the roasting and brewing processes as the bean is exposed to heat.
While it’s true that coffee naturally contains a little sugar—but very little sucrose and fructose. That means that coffee's sweetness is subtle and easily distinguishable from added sweeteners, creating a "brown" flavor evoking anything from caramel to fresh-baked bread. Roasting also inflates the amount of tannin, a mild acid that causes a "dry mouth" feeling present in tea and red wine.
Coffee also contains a significant amount of acid, and several different types thereof. While the real pH of coffee depends on the degree of roasting (between 5 for a light roast and 6 for a dark roast), the perception of a cup as sour mostly depends on the specific acids present. Citric acid causes the sharp pucker of a lemon, lactic acid the tang of fresh cheese, and tartaric acid the pleasant mouth-watering of a tart grape. When a barista describes coffee as having notes of lemon, fermentation, or grape, they're making comparisons to these qualities.
It can be hard for beginner tasters to draw comparisons between coffee, which we conceptualize as its own food, and other foods. But we get lots of practice eating every day, and lots of opportunities to consider what kind of sour, sweet, and bitter flavors we taste in those foods. If you can identify a tangerine as being more sharply acidic and yet also sweeter than a cherry, you can make the same distinctions in coffee.
There are several species of coffee commonly grown for commercial processing and blended together. The most common species you'll find in coffee is Coffea arabica, closely followed by Coffea canephora.
Each species of coffee is further subdivided: populations of plants that maintain the same traits either naturally (varieties) or through human intervention (cultivars) but which can still interbreed. (Because the evolution of coffee plants is so entwined with human effort, "variety" and "cultivar" are often used interchangeably. A word we use at Bean & Bean is "varietal," which refers to the traits typical of a variety or cultivar without getting into the weeds about the plants' genetic origins.)
For example, the produce of Coffea canephora is typically called robusta, after the most prominent variety; another variety called nganda grows as a shorter shrub and produces beans of a different flavor. Meanwhile, Coffea arabica is cultivated across such a wide range that beans of that species grown in different areas have genetically diverged. Though those beans are all called arabica, you'll also find beans called Bourbon or Gesha: two very hot varietals with distinct characteristics.
How might you perceive the differences between species and varietals in your cup? Robusta is commonly derided as being the "cheap" species, being more resistant to pests and disease and yielding more per acre. It's most associated with commercial coffee—the coffee you might buy alongside a 12-pack of donuts, or in a diner. Fresh robusta beans contain twice as much caffeine and half as much sugar as arabica, but though it's less smooth and sweet, it's often intentionally blended with arabica to achieve certain flavor profiles.
Arabica coffee, the darling of the specialty coffee industry, has many varietals famous for their distinctive tastes. You may have heard of Kona coffee: this is the Typica variety of arabica coffee, as grown in the Kona region of Hawai'i and known for its sweetness and fruit flavors.
Meanwhile, Ethiopia is home to tens of thousands of varieties, often blended and described simply as Ethiopian Heirloom. Despite combining so many different varietals, it still maintains a different profile from Typica: floral and heavier in body.
What is the SCA Tasting Wheel?
The Specialty Coffee Association formulated a tasting wheel to help put words to the flavor on the tip of your tongue. Going from the center out, it moves from very general words for genres of flavor-aroma combinations ("roasted") to very specific ones ("malt"). Since related words are adjacent, you can try a neighboring description if the one you started with gives you something that's not quite right.
How to cup coffee like a pro
Cupping is a low-volume, high-speed method of systematically comparing coffees. Each coffee's grounds is mixed with water in a cup and brewed by the pour-over method, and you slurp spoonfuls of each to get a sense of how the coffee smells, feels on the tongue, and tastes on the palate all in a moment. It's a great way to hone a more critical palate and gives you the chance to decide how each coffee should be prepared. After a cupping, you can compare your favorites by the method you usually take your coffee—as an espresso or in an Aeropress, with milk or with sugar—and see the effects of those changes.
Each coffee you taste builds your palate and your knowledge of your own preferences. As you take on the challenge of examining coffees objectively, don't forget to consider whether you like them!
Looking to practice coffee tasting? Try all of these and see if you can taste the notes listed under each one: