Friday, May 21, 2004


useful coffee tasting glossary

devoted readers know i often discuss and describe coffee as a fine beverage, using the linglese terminology and the jean le noir nez du café.

so i was happy today to see a nice glossary -- a little more accurate, i think, -- than many you see on the 'net -- and i'm just gonna quote some of it right here, right now for future reference:

  • Bitter: Refers to the basic taste sensation perceived primarily at the back of the tongue.
    (note: as in dark chocolate and stout, bitter in coffee should be a light, pleasing kind of bitterness. a nasty, gagging kind of bitterness is a flavor fault, and actually there are several perjorative terms used to describe bad bitterness in coffee. good bitter in coffee usually can be attributed to a darker roast.)
  • Bright: A coffee that has a tangy acidity is often described as "bright."
  • Buttery: A smooth, rich flavor and texture, found in some Indonesian coffees
    (note: this is a term describing body/mouthfeel, meaning the brew has a lot of delicious caffeol and natural oils. i'd say this term is more likely to describe espresso. you might also hear terms like heavy, thick, creamy or syrupy. heavy, thick, and syrupy can describe non-espresso coffees, to my mind, although certainly great espresso is syrupy like gravy or even motor oil. bean fibers and sediment also can contribute to body).
  • Clean: A characteristic of high-quality coffees that have a distinct taste, as opposed to muddied impressions of flavor.
    (note: most commonly used to mean defect-free or low-defect coffee. a clean cup as opposed to a dirty cup.)
  • Crisp: A clean coffee with bright acidity can be described as crisp.
    (note: there's sort of a range here, from brisk, to nippy to crisp to snappy to piquant. . .some informal order, having to do with the way the natural properties of the coffee interact to heighten this sensation. remember, these terms are aiming to describe the feelings we receive from compounds that actually exist in the coffee; it's not a rorschach test.)
  • Earthy: Refers to the herbal-musty-mushroom range of flavors characteristic of Indonesian coffees.
    (note: this often derives from the fact that some coffee is actually dried on the ground; the natural fats in the coffee absorb a little flavor from the soil. a touch of this is acceptable in some coffees, but too much and the coffee is deemed "groundy" or "dirty," which is definitely an all-bad flavor taint. usually "earthy" is felt in the aftertaste, but sometimes appears in the aroma as well.)
  • Fruity: Coffees that have a berry or tropical fruit-like flavor or aroma are referred to as being fruity. Kenya, Ethiopia Harrar, and Ethiopia Sidamo are a few examples.
    (note: these flavors are wide-ranging, and can include feelings of lemon, grapefruit, mandarin, apple, apricot, blueberry, and raspberry. usually this is sensed towards the front of the bouquet. see here for my super-post on the parts of the coffee bouquet.)
  • Mouthfeel: The sensation or weight you feel inside your mouth when tasting coffee
    (note: a.k.a. "body").
  • Nutty: An aroma or flavor that is reminiscent of nuts. Colombia and Mexico are examples of nutty coffees.
    (note: well, i don't quite agree with this, since roast color has a lot to do with this quality as well, imvho! the compounds creating the feeling have to be in the beans, of course, but this feeling could be highlighted or buried by the roast level.)
  • Soft: Low-acid (note: a.k.a. "low-brightness"), mild-flavored coffees are referred to as soft.
  • Smooth: A coffee that has no edges and leaves a pleasant mouthfeel.
    (note: this term describes the body of a coffee with a medium or moderate amount of coffee oils. compare to buttery.)
  • Spicy: An aroma or flavor reminiscent of a particular spice. Aged coffees are often called spicy.
    (note: the "sweetly spicy" sensations in coffee are usually perceived in the fragrance of the dry grounds and are often referrd to as "cardamom," "caraway," "anise", "sweet basil," etc. while the "woody spicy" feelings usually develop later on the coffee and tend to include "clove," "cinnamon," "allspice," "mace," "nutmeg." again, i think roast level has a lot to do with this: in that while the spicy-feeling components have to be in the coffee, the roast level can help bring this out, or can obscure it. woody spicy feelings are often towards the back of the coffee's bouquet.)
  • Sparkling: This term describes a coffee with a bright acidity that dances on your tongue before it quickly dissipates.
  • Stale: Coffee exposed to oxygen for extended periods of time loses acidity and becomes flat and cardboard-tasting. This is the taste of stale.
    (note: any coffee poorly stored will stale from attack by environmental factors such as light, heat, humidity, and plain old age. pre-ground coffee stales within an hour, if not minutes, which is why you should always buy whole-bean coffees and grind just before brewing. most coffee is "fresh" for only a short time, maybe 14 days, unless technologies like nitrogen-flushing and special packaging are used to help extend freshness. but even these technologies, to my mind, preserve a coffee's life span only a few days/weeks, no matter what the expiration date on the supermarket coffee says!)
  • Sweet: Sweet is a positive coffee description that is associated with a pleasant flavor and mouthfeel.
    (note: i mostly disagree with this. sweet is a basic taste, and coffees judged sweet usually have a certain kind of amino acids present in them. how other compounds -- such as natural mineral salts, etc. -- combine with these determines whether we judge the coffee mellow or bright, a.k.a. "acidy." see the scaa flavor wheel for categories of sweet and acidy. sweet in coffee is generally a feeling of sweetness similar to that sweet sensation you get when you chew a cracker slowly for a long time.)
  • Syrupy: A thick coffee with a lot of body that leaves a lingering aftertaste.
    (note: i personally don't think syrupy necessarily includes an aftertaste perception, per se.)
  • Tangy: A lingering acidity is often described as tangy.
    (note: in the great linglese, tangy is a subcategory of winey, where the winey-feeling compounds have combined with sweeter-feeling ones to modify the basic winey sensation.)
  • Wild: Exotic flavors with extreme characteristics are described as wild. There is good wild - bursting blueberry in an ethiopian say - and bad wild. Don't confuse the two, except of course, the term's confusing! Welcome to the antique charm of coffee vocabulary.
    (note: see my previous post on this term.)
  • Winey: A taste similar to that of red wine or having a fruit quality is called winey.
    (note: ethiopian coffees like djimma, sidamo, or yrg are often examples of winey.)

you can see the full story for yourself here.

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