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Characteristics of Coffee

Characteristics of Coffee

When someone says “I like my coffee bold”, what exactly do they mean? What are the specific denotations of the characteristics of coffee are they referring to? Do they actually know or understand what exactly the term “bold” is defined as by a coffee roaster? They may think of it as a higher caffeine content or are they referring to the body or the substance of the coffee? It came up in a conversation while discussing how a customer would like their coffee roasted, and it seems that he, his client, and I were on three different pages. That is to say one person’s knowledge may be skewed a bit and we need to figure out a way to speak the same language.

Distinguishing the characteristics  of coffee are based on the following when cupping coffee and going through the sensory evaluation. They are 1) Fragrance 2) Aroma 3) Taste 4)Nose 5) Aftertaste 6) Body 7) Acidity. There are several different forces at play when you cup coffee, which is another article in and of itself, but here we will try to establish some foundations for using the terminology so we all understand what we are talking about.

Let’s start with the given; this discussion is based on olfactory senses and taste, which is subjective from person to person but there are some hard and fast basic elements.

  1. Fragrance – The sensation of gasses released from freshly roasted and ground coffee as the aromatic compounds are inhaled. IE: Sweetly Floral, Sweetly Spiced
  2. Aroma – Sensation of gasses released from freshly brewed coffee.
  3. Nose – Sensation of the vapors released from brewed coffee as they are inhaled while swallowing. IE: Carmelly to Nutty
  4. Aftertaste/Finish – Sensation of brewed coffee vapors as they are released in the mouth after swallowing.

Putting these different characteristics of coffee together from the sensory evaluation will lead to the next portion where the description of the coffee is given to help the reader or customer understand what they should expect from the cup. We alway see and hear terms like winey, acidity, rich, bold, mellow, etc.. But what do they mean? Without getting too heady, some simple definitions help relate the olfactory evaluation into understandable terms.

  • Acidity – Acidity is a sharp and pleasing taste, which you notice as a ‘tingling’ sensation on each side of the tongue. You could also call it sharpness, vibrancy, liveliness or brightness. How much acidity should your coffee have? It’s a question of personal taste, but most people agree that without enough acidity coffee would be flat.The acidity of a coffee depends on many factors, including the place of origin, the type of plant, the way it is roasted and the brewing method used. The Darker the roast, the less acidity in the coffee.
  • Body – the weight of the coffee physically in the mouth. Rich, full feeling at the back of the palate. Body tends to increase in the darker roasts. It denotes the level of substance in the coffee brew. From Wikipedia, there is a great analogy as quoted “To an amateur coffee taster, body can be compared to drinking milk. A heavy body is comparable to whole milk while a light body can be comparable to skim milk.”
  • Flavor – Of course the most subjective, but most respected and accepted.  Can you describe it? Is it memorable, well balanced, chocolaty, nutty, winey, woody…..etc…..

Roasted coffee from light to burnt and destroyed

Given the above elements, it is a roaster’s challenge to meet these specific characteristics of coffee when we do our job  according to the customer’s preference. We know that a light to medium roast tends to let the consumer taste the origin of the coffee, as we roast darker, the origin flavour decreases and the roast flavor increases. There is also the fact that caffeine loss, though minimal, occurs during darker roasts. It is widely thought the darker the roast, the more caffeine it has, and that’s what makes a coffee bold. True in taste but in fact the caffeine content (or lessened amount) is not a factor. It is in fact the roast flavor giving it’s bold taste, taking away from the taste of the coffee’s origin. Hence the reason most coffee is cupped and evaluated at a light roast profile. If you just want a bold taste, the origin is very big factor  as well as  how dark you go. This is the best description of an answer I have come across on Yahoo:

“Bold Coffee:
Has intense, full body, rich and robust flavor.
Normally grown in Africa or Indonesia.
Bottom line: Bold coffee is all about flavor!” You will note that none of the olfactory sensations of the characteristics of coffee are described here and the caffeine content is not a factor although it is mentioned in the post, but is incorrect so it has been left out. Drinking any coffee made with a Robusta bean will generally have a higher caffeine content if that’s what you are looking for.

I hop this piece has shed some light on the coffee terminology that describes the characteristics of coffee, so that next time you in line at your local shop, you can join the discussion! Cheers!