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You’ll be able to taste coffee more knowledgeably if you understand the terms used to describe its flavour and aroma. As you sample different types of coffee, keep these characteristics in mind. Analysing the aspects of your tasting experience will help you determine your favourites, and your knowledge will sharpen your guests’ enjoyment of the coffee you serve.
This refers to sharpness or snappiness that you can feel at the edges of your tongue, and it’s a positive quality. Sometimes it’s also described as “brightness.” Coffees with less acidity are sometimes called “mellow,” but all coffees need some acidity in order to avoid being flat or dull.
Since our taste buds are only capable of discerning four flavour categories (sour, sweet, salty and bitter), our sense of smell provides all the other dimensions of flavour. Coffee aroma adds qualities such as smoky, flowery, fruit-like, earthy, or it may remind you of certain berries or nuts.
Even though all coffee is brewed with water, some types feel physically heavier and denser in your mouth. A full-bodied coffee may remind you of having whole milk or cream in your mouth, while a medium or light-bodied coffee will be more like skim milk or water.
Described in detail below, the amount of time that the beans undergo heating has a big effect on their finished appearance and taste.
This is a descriptive word for the way in which the above factors interact. Good coffee beans usually present a high level of balance between acidity and mellowness, and they include a complex and satisfying overall aroma and flavour. Coffee with a low balance level would be extreme in one aspect of taste, and the experience would feel shallower.
Taken from the world of wine-tasting, the term “finish” refers to the taste and sensation left in your mouth after you swallow. Some varieties of coffee have a cocoa or chocolate finish; others leave an aftertaste of fruit, berries or nuts.
Just like wine, the taste of coffee reflects the geographic region in which the beans have been grown, as well as the exact species of the coffee plant. Certain regions have distinctive characteristics, depending on the soil, elevation and farming methods of the individual grower. Other factors that can influence taste include whether the beans are shade-grown or organic, the methods of enriching the soil and processing the beans and whether the farmers and pickers are paid enough so that they care about doing a good job.
There are two varieties of coffee beans: Arabica and Robusta. Both varieties are grown all over the world; however, Robusta beans are easier to grow and the plants don’t require high elevations in order to thrive. In general, Robusta beans are cheaper to buy, and they tend to be used for mainstream commercial coffee blends. Their flavour is harsher and more nut-like, and they have higher levels of caffeine.
Artisan coffees are generally made from the Arabica variety of bean, which has a more balanced taste that is sometimes called “winey” or “soft.”
Because so many factors influence the final taste of coffee, it’s hard to generalize about specific regions. There are a few regional generalities you should be aware of:
Central American and Colombian coffees tend to be familiar to Americans since most of our major brands are sourced there. They are mostly fairly light and well-balanced, a bit acidic, with good fruity undertones.
Brazilian coffee can vary in quality and consistency. The most reputable are named after the port of Santos. It is a simple coffee with low acidity and medium body.
Ethiopia is where coffee plants originated. Here they have more biodiversity than other growing regions. Many of their coffees are described as syrupy, with strong overtones of strawberry or blueberry.
Kenya features bold-tasting coffees that some people find tropical, with a blackcurrant quality and sometimes even a tomato-like acidity.
Indonesian coffees have a dark earthy or smoky quality with a long aftertaste reminiscent of unsweetened cocoa.
Hawaiian coffees have a sweet scent and a mild, floral mellowness.
When beans are harvested, they are graded, or separated into different categories according to their appearance. Even good coffee plants can produce some defective beans, which are off-colour, broken, sour, or the wrong size.
We only use the best quality coffee beans from suppliers that are specific and transparent in describing the origin of their beans.
The first question to ask about freshness is how long the green coffee berries were stored. Coffee beans are dried seeds, quite stable in their unroasted form. Their outer shell is not very porous, and the moisture content can be as low as 10%. Because of this, they can safely be stored for as long as a year without losing quality, if the storage conditions are good. It’s important that they not be stored in a very humid storage facility, however, because bacteria can grow on the bean and the oils in the beans can take on some off-odours from the environment.