Updated: Mar 6
An Introduction to Common Coffee Flavours
If you drink beer you can probably tell the difference in flavours between different brands and types. Someone who drinks wine a lot has probably worked out which are the fruity wines, the dry wines, the hint-of-berry wines.
When it comes to coffee, however, even frequent coffee drinkers are often hard pressed to notice subtle differences. More or less bitter and more or less nutty or chocolatey is about the length of it.
But variations and subtleties in coffee flavours are every bit as diverse and wide-reaching as differences in your favourite type of alcohol.
And no, we don’t mean adding a pump of caramel syrup into a cup of flat white.
Coffee beans can have distinct differences in flavour profiles depending on a wide range of factors, such as the exact type of coffee plant, soil conditions, and even altitude.
When judging a coffee’s flavours, there are a few important concepts to be aware of.
• Acidity is one of the key aspects of a coffee bean’s flavour. Acidity is good! It gives the bean brighter notes similar to citrus or acidic fruit. Lemon, lime, pineapple, regular apple — all of these notes are influenced by acidity.
• Aroma refers to the, well, aroma of the coffee — the smell. A coffee’s aroma is just as important as its actual taste (if not more so, depending on who you ask.) Even people who don’t like drinking coffee often enjoy the smell of freshly roasted beans or a freshly brewed cup in the morning.
• Body refers to the physical sensation of the coffee itself. This doesn’t necessarily impact flavour, but is an important part of the tasting experience. You may have noticed some coffees seem thinner, thicker, creamier, coarser — this is “body”.
The Basic Flavours
We touched on these in the introduction, but these are the most common flavour notes you’re likely to notice when trying different coffees.
These notes can be quite distinct and easily discernible even by someone who’s not trying to learn how to distinguish coffee flavours.
But, of course, there’s a lot more to it than that.
Refining The Flavour Subtleties
Coffee flavours are important. So important that the World Coffee Research organisation (yes, that exists) created a “sensory lexicon” of flavours. This lexicon breaks coffee bean flavours into 24 key attributes that are both “descriptive and quantifiable”.
This lexicon was designed to make coffee research consistent and easier to compare results, but isn’t necessarily that useful for the layperson. So, the WCR teamed up with the Specialty Coffee Association of America to make the Flavour Wheel.
The Flavour Wheel looks a little intimidating at first glance, but is actually very simple. You start in the middle, and work your way out. Each ring on the wheel refines the flavour of the ring below it.
So, you start with either Tastes or Aroma. You choose taste, and note that the taste is bitter. But is it a harsh bitterness, or a pungent bitterness? Harsh? Caustic like citrus juice or alkaline like a soda water?
Useful Coffee Flavour Terms
• Acrid refers to a harsh, sour taste.
• Bright, a pleasant taste with something of a tangy flavour (those acidic notes we mentioned earlier).
• Carbon, like burnt wood, either in taste or aroma. Common in darker roasts.
• Citrus, a popular term that covers a range of flavour subtleties such as lemon, orange, and pineapple.
• Earthy, a very popular coffee flavour term. An aroma of fresh soil, like a freshly dug flower bed or the smell of wet earth during the rain.
• Floral, used for aromas that have a flowery smell to them. Expect the coffee to tasty fruity or herbal.
• Spice doesn’t refer to chillies, but rather things like cloves, cinnamon — like a spiced Christmas drink.
• Tobacco isn’t as unpleasant as you might think. It’s more a particularly deep, earthy flavour.
• Woody is similar to the above — an earthy taste or aroma, like fresh cut wood.
Where do Flavours Come From?
There are three key components that give different coffee beans their flavours:
• Origin. Where did the coffee come from? Different continents and countries produce different flavour profiles of coffee. African coffees typically have fruit-driven profiles; American coffees offer very balanced profiles especially from Brazil; and Asian coffees from Indonesia are often deep, earthy toned.
• Roasting. Roasting can modify the flavour of a coffee bean and imbue it with different flavour properties. There are four degrees of roast — Light, Medium, Medium-Dark, and Dark — referring to how long the beans are roasted. There’s a lot of variation, but a rule of thumb is the darker the roast, the earthier the flavours and the heavier the mouthfeel.
• Altitude. The higher altitude the coffee is grown, the more pronounced the flavours become. Coffee grown at around 2,500’ above sea level are earthy and bland; the higher you get, up until 6,000+ feet, the fruitier and lighter the flavours.
How Do you Experience More Flavours?
The best way to learn different coffee flavours is to try different coffee flavours. Perth Coffee Exchange is dedicated to connecting local artisanal coffee roasters with coffee fans across Australia. You can sample different styles of coffee regularly via our Coffee Tasting Boxes, our Roaster of the Month Subscription or our Shop. It gives you the opportunity to discover all of the subtle notes and distinct flavours on offer from Perth's best coffee roasters.