John knows coffee. That shouldn’t be a surprise, his name is on the masthead after all. He has been a barista, roaster, importer, he knows the coffee fields of Rwanda. Make no mistake, he is an expert. I, on the other hand, enjoy the stories around coffee. It is my hot beverage of choice. But when John starts talking about the subtleties of coffee tasting, I feel like I’m back in my Finnish language course – I want to know more, but I’m lost.
In today’s blog, I want to put some of that right. I’ve researched what the words we use to describe coffee tell you, and I’d like to present my findings. If, like me, you’re new to this vocabulary, hopefully this will help you choose when you browse our selection. There are exciting new flavours to discover, knowing what the descriptions mean might help you find a new favourite.
Different places describe the roast of their coffee differently. Here at John’s Coffee we use the scale of light, medium and dark. That is the most common method among specialty coffee suppliers, when they list the roast level at all. If a specialty coffee does not have a degree of roast listed, that normally means it is a light to medium roast, the comfortable middle ground of coffee roasting.
If you buy coffee in a supermarket (and we forgive you, but try not to make a habit of it) they might give a numerical value of its ‘strength’, usually in the range of three to five. Typically, the higher the number, the darker the roast. Strength is an odd word to choose for this – your coffee is stronger if you put more of it in your hot water, regardless of roast!
Lighter roasts will tend to be more acidic, sweeter and more flavourful. The darker the roast, the more the acidity becomes bitterness. Some people really enjoy darker roasted coffee for that bitterness, but it is an acquired taste.
A lot of coffee is described in relation to its acidity. If you’re new to the world of tasting it may seem like an odd word to use for a positive quality. But a little acidity can really help bring the drinking experience to life. The coffee will taste fresher, lifting any fruit tones in the cup.
The difference between bitter and acidity can be difficult to spot if you are new to coffee tasting. A lot of people confuse them – I know I do! I’m told that with experience the two are very distinct and knowing your preference will help you shop.
So, you’ve found a coffee of the right roast level and acidity for your preference, and now you’re looking at the flavour notes. Does this coffee really taste of chocolate? Or berries?
Yes and no.
The flavour notes listed will usually come from comparing different coffees. This one tastes more like cherry than the others. The chocolate flavour in this coffee is more noticeable than in the others tasted. It means that your experience of the coffee, without comparing it directly to others, might well be different. Still, the flavour notes are useful. You may not taste chocolate when you try this coffee, but you can expect it to have a sweeter, deeper richer taste than something with more fruit-based descriptors.
- Light versus heavy. One thing that may make or break your coffee drinking experience is how light or heavy it is. Some people enjoy a light coffee, finding it refreshing, coffees like this might be described as elegant, delicate, tea-like or light-bodied. For others, these coffees may be unsatisfying, and would be better served seeking out coffees with descriptors like full-bodied, creamy or rich.
- Acidity. Some people like coffee with a lot of acidity, some very little. If you’re looking for high acidity, look for fruit descriptors. Something with a sharp taste like citrus fruits apple or pear would be a good sign of high acidity If the word is modified, such as adding jam, cooked or candied, that generally indicates less acidity. Words like caramel, chocolate or nuts suggest very little acidity.
- Sweetness. Other types of fruit in the descriptors, and words like chocolate and caramel will also give some guide on the sweetness of the blend.
- Tropical fruits. If you see words like pineapple or mango, or reference to dry or natural process in the descriptions, these tend to be more unusual flavours. If you want to try coffee with some unique notes, give these a go, but these tastes are not for everyone!
From the selection
For example, consider our Simba Special Coffee from Kenya. We describe it as “Medium roast. Blackcurrant, Chocolate orange, Lime.” We can see a balance of descriptors between acidity and sweetness, and the medium roast tells us there is a strong but not overpowering texture. Sounds like a fine choice to me!
So these are the results of my research, there is some fascinating information about this out there, (I found the James Hoffman YouTube channel particularly useful)
That said, none of this can tell you what you like, the only test for that is taste. Once you’ve found a coffee you like, this guide could help you find coffees that might be similar… or vastly different.