Coffee Tasting Terms

When reading descriptions of coffees online, a lot of the words used might not have any meaning to you. For example, when a coffee is full bodied, what on earth does that mean?!

Fortunately, we’ve tracked down some of the common terms many roasters use in their marketing and explained what each one means. By the next time you’re ready to order your coffee online, you should be armed with the knowledge to make a decision that is right according to what you actually like!

A – C

Acidic: A pleasant sharpness to the taste. The more “acid” a coffee possesses, the more bite it has on the tongue.

Aftertaste: The tasting of brewed coffee vapours as they are released from the residue remaining in the mouth after swallowing.

Aged: When green beans are stored for a year or more prior to roasting. The passage of time reduces acid while increasing sweetness and body.

Alkaline: A dry, scratching sensation at the back of the tongue caused by alkaline and phenolic compounds that have bitter but not necessarily disagreeable tastes. An alkaline taste is mostly characteristic of dark roasts and some Indonesian coffees.

Aroma: The smell, odour or fragrance of freshly brewed hot coffee. The aroma can be distinctive and complex.

Astringent: The bitter, salty taste that makes you pucker when the coffee is first felt on the anterior sides of the tongue.

Baked: A plain bouquet and lifeless taste. This defect is caused by the application of too little heat over too long of a time period during the roasting process.

Bitter: One of the basic taste sensations felt mostly at the rear of the tongue. Darker roasts are often bitter intentionally, sometimes associated with over roasting.

Bland: The weak, dull flavour often found in low-grown coffees. Coffee that is under extracted is almost always bland.

Body: The physical sensation a coffee gives while in the mouth. Positive terms could be full, heavy, or thick; while negative terms may be thin or slight. A handsome body is connected with rich flavour and aroma.

Bouquet: The combination of a coffee’s aroma, fragrance, and aftertaste.

Bright: Coffee that possesses a pleasantly bold acidity.

Briny: A salty taste caused by exposure to excessive heat after the brewing stage is complete.

Burnt: A bitter, acrid flavour found in coffees that are overly roasted.

Buttery: Rich and oily in flavour and texture, often associated with Indonesian varieties.

Caramelised or Caramelly: A sweet, near burnt, syrup-like flavour that is similar to the taste of caramelised sugar.

Carbon: Tasting as if burnt intentionally, as with some dark roasted coffees.

Chocolatey: Coffees that echo a taste similar to a rich, sweet high-quality chocolate.

Cinnamon: A delicate, sweet, spicy flavour similar to that of cinnamon.

Clean: A characteristic of all quality cleansed coffees. When a coffee’s flavours are clear and untainted.

Cocoa: When coffees have a taste of cocoa, commonly associated with stale coffee.

D – G

Dead: Lacking a distinctive bouquet. Sometimes used to describe a coffee low in acidity.

Delicate: A subtle aspect of flavour. When used in conjunction with tasting coffee, it is used when detecting subtle flavours with the tip of the tongue.

Dirty: Tasting unclean or soiled.

Earthy: A complimentary term when applied to dry processed coffees. It is the herbal, musty, vegetative-like range of flavours characteristic of Indonesian varieties. For coffees that are washed, tasting “earthy” is considered a defect.

Exotic: Used to characterise coffees of East Africa, exotic refers to unusual flavour notes, such as floral and berry-like. Latin American coffees, conversely, are known for having clean, acidic flavours that provide the standard of reference, and are generally considered to not be exotic.

Ferment: The most common taint found in washed coffees, it occurs during the drying process and produces an offending spoiled-fruit quality. It is of the same spectrum of naturally processed Ethiopian coffees, but pushed to the extreme.

Flat: A fragrance defect that occurs when aromatic compounds depart from beans during the holding process in brewed coffee, or during the staling period in both whole-bean and ground coffee.

Flavour: The culmination of the tasting experience offered by coffee once it has been swirled around in the mouth. Often described in terms of acidity, Aroma, or Body – along with more specific comparisons to other tastes, foods, or sensations.

Floral: Possessing a subtle taste of flowers, found more often in lighter roasts rather than darker.

Fragrance: Related to a coffee’s aroma, discerned by smelling the brew.

Fruit-like: A term that applies to the natural aroma of berries, it also parallels the perception of high acidity. Note that it is different from fruity, which is the first stage in the taste defect ferment.

Fruity: A coffee that reminds the taster of fruit, particularly citrus or berries. Can be used in a positive or negative way.

Grassy: A fragrance and taste defect that lends the coffee a sense of alfalfa or green grass. Tasting sharp and herbaceous can result from premature harvesting or under roasting.

Green: The herbal, grassy taste caused by incomplete development of flavour due to improper roasting. It may also occur in the early pickings of each year’s new harvest.

H – N

Hard: A sharp, acrid, chemical-like flavour defect often caused by allowing cherries to dry too long on the tree. Neither mild nor sweet, it is often used to describe coffees that taste of iodine.

Harsh: Unpleasant, hard, or crude in flavour.

Hidey: Tasting of leather or animal hide. Occurs when beans are transported or held in storage with leather or hide materials.

Insipid: The dead, uninspiring flavour of coffee brewed from stale beans.

Lifeless: Lacking in acidity due to under brewing.

Mellow: Characterises a well-balanced coffee of low to medium acidity.

Mild: Describes a coffee with harmonious, delicate flavours. Mild is also used as a coffee trade term for arabica coffee grown anywhere in the world outside of Brazil. It can also be used as a negative term describing coffee with no distinctive character.

Mouthfeel: How the coffee actually, physically feels when in contact with the tongue and palate.

Muddy: A dullness of taste, the result of agitated or unsettled grounds.

Musty: A fragrance defect that gives the coffee bean a mouldy, mildewy odour. This is caused by the presence of fungus on or in the beans during drying or shipment.

Neutral: The absence of any predominant taste sensation on any part of the tongue when a coffee is first tasted.

Nutty: A taste that refers to the aroma of roasted nuts, usually associated with distinguishing terms such as walnut-like.

P – R

Papery: A term used to describe a light roasted coffee that lacks the darker brews unique toasted flavour.

Past-Crop: Coffees that possess a distinct woody flavour, partnered with the absence of acidity. Usually found in green coffees held in storage for more than a year.

Quakery: A taste defect that lends brewed coffee a distinguishing peanutty flavour. This is caused when unripe, green coffee cherries are including in a harvest. After roasting, the beans remain pale in colour and visibly undeveloped. Also refers to a bad bean that can spoil a crop.

Rancid: A very bitter or offending flavour, used as a very negative characteristic.

Rich: A coffee with a bold, handsome bouquet.

Rioy: Coffees that have a distinct medicinal flavour; or having a grainy, starchy feeling in the mouth.

Rough: Creates a parched or thirsty feeling on the tongue or throat, occurs often with coffees that are too sharp or salty.

Rubbery: A harsh, burnt-rubber taste often found in robusta coffees, caused by allowing the coffee fruit to begin drying on the shrub.

S – Z

Scorched: A defect in both taste and appearance, it occurs when beans are heated excessively during the roasting process. Marked by the flat surfaces of a bean being charred, coffee brewed from these beans imprints an unpleasant, smoky-burnt aftertaste.

Soft: Used to describe coffees that are low in acidity, such as the Indonesian varieties. Sometimes also called mellow or sweet. Also used to describe a coffee that does not affect the tongue in any noticeable manner.

Sour: Occurring most often in lightly roasted coffees, it is a taste sensation mostly felt on the posterior sides of the tongue.

Spicy: A fragrance or taste that is similar to a particular spice; such as pepper, cardamom, or cedar. An attractive zestfulness that reminds one of sweet or savoury spices.

Stale: Describes coffee that was roasted from beans that were stored too long.

Stinker: That one bad coffee bean that can ruin the taste of an entire brew or batch.

Strawy: Tasting of hay or straw, usually the result of green beans that have been stored too long.

Strong: An overarching term that applies to coffees that possess a powerful presence of taste and odour, in relative proportion to the soluble solids to water in a given brew.

Sweet: A general term applied to coffees that are smooth and palatable.

Taint: An unexpected, most often negative taste.

Tangy: A bold bitterness that is almost fruit-like in nature.

Tannic: Used to describe coffees with too much tannic acid, resulting in puckering and a stinging sensation on the tongue.

Thin: Lacking in flavour, body or acidity. Can be due to the beans themselves or the manner in which they were brewed.

Toasty: Possessing an attractive flavour and aroma similar to toast, found in well-roasted coffees.

Wild: A term used to encapsulate extreme flavour attributes. It can be a strong taint, or a positive characteristic. Wild can also denote odd, racy, or even gamy nuances of taste and fragrance.

Winy: Used to describe coffees that share desirable attributes of red wine, such as heady or intoxicating.

Woody: Used to describe past-crop coffees that taste of wood. When less severe, is also referred to as Strawy.