A Coffee Taster’s Glossary

by Robert Hensley (March 21, 2005)

Acidity High acid (or acidity) coffees have a sharp, pleasing, piquant quality that points up their flavor and gives them snap, verve, liveliness in the cup. Acidity may be high, medium, light, low, or lacking altogether in coffees, in which case the coffee tastes flat and dull. Acidity is characteristic of high-grown coffees and especially washed coffees using traditional fermentation tank methods. AromaRefers to the odor of the prepared coffee beverage. It may be lacking, faint, delicate, moderate, strong, or fragrant (also called aromatic), and distinctive as to character. BakedA taste description given to under-roasted coffee, or coffee roasted too slowly at too low a temperature, so that the flavor is underdeveloped. BitterA harsh, unpleasant taste detected on the back of the tongue. Found in over-extracted brews as well as in over-roasted coffees and those with various taste defects. BodyThe tactile impression of weight and texture in the mouth. Coffees may be watery, thin, slight, light, medium, full, heavy, thick or even syrupy in body, as well as buttery, oily, rich, smooth, chewy, etc. In texture. Easiest to detect in full-strength coffee. Burnt * A bitter, carbony flavor characteristic of dark-roasted coffee. May become charcoal like if taken to extreme levels. Buttery Said of oily body or texture in the mouth. Denotes very full and rich body. CinnamonUnderlying spice accent sometimes detected in the aroma of fine coffee, a flavor nuance. This term can be confusing as it also is commonly used in describing a very light roast. Clean Opposite of dirty. Especially characteristic of all fine wet processed coffees. Does not necessarily imply clarity of flavor

Dirty *
An undesirable, unclean smell and taste, slight to pronounced. Dirty implies a defect, such as excessive earthiness, or mustiness. This taint is often found in poorly processed unwashed coffees and very low grades.

A sometimes confusing term as it can be used to describe certain traditionally processed coffees that have a fresh garden soil like character which can be desirable in when subtle but judged "Dirty" and undesirable when extreme. Often associated with dry processed coffees.

Flat *
A dull lifeless quality due to a lack of acidity, body, or other distinguishing characteristics.

The total impression of aroma, acidity, and body; if the impression is strong, fine, and pleasant, the coffee is described as flavorful or ranked on a scale from poor, fair, good, to fine-flavored. May also be used in association with specific tastes suggesting spices, chocolate, nuts, or something less complimentary such as straw, grass, rubber, etc.

Generally refers to the liveliness of the aromas of recently roasted coffees when newly ground.

Fruity *
A flavor taint said to come from overripe fruit pulp. Generally considered to refer to rotted fruit and commonly used as an indicator of possible over ferment as it is one of the early developments in the taste of coffee that has begun to over ferment. Can be confusing as specific fruits are sometimes used to denote desirable qualities such as "lemony" in describing high levels of acidity.

Grassy *
A flavor taint from use of unclean water for washing, harvesting of unripe cherries, or from incomplete drying.

Green *
A flavor taint found in coffee harvested before fully ripe. Also used to characterize the grain like raw nut tastes of under-roasted coffee.

Hard *
Opposite of sweet or mild. Often used to describe metallic tastes.

Harsh *
Crude raw taste with strong bitter overtones. Often used to describe certain Robustas.

Hidy *
Smells of hides or leather from improper storage.

Used to qualify aroma, acidity, or body; a light coffee would be delicate in flavor.

Soft flavored coffees that are generally clean and pleasant but with low levels of acidity and low to medium body.

Musty *
A smell and taste taint caused by mildew, often occurring from overly long and improper storage.

Natural coffee
A term interchangeable with dry processed coffees these coffees can vary widely in clarity of flavor and acidity; some may have intense complex flavors and full, thick body others may simply be harsh and dirty.

A characterless, flavorless coffee, inoffensive to insipid; without virtue but also without defects. Often selected as a base for creating economical blends.

A specific aroma nuance, suggesting almonds, peanuts, etc. A key aroma found in the early stages of the roasting process and typically indicating good quality.

Said of coffees that have deteriorated in the green state before roasting typically from overly long storage. Past crop coffees can exhibit straw like and woody. Or sawdust like fragrance and taste. Can be limited with specific roasting techniques.

Rancid *
Extremely sour and very unpleasant. Usually found in dark roasted oily coffees whose shelf life has exceeded the time limit before the oils themselves begin to oxidize.

Indicates depth and complexity of aromas and flavors, and generally associated with fuller bodied coffees.

Rio-y *
A harsh, heavy medicinal or iodine flavor typical of the poorest grades of dry processed Brazils but encountered in other coffees as well

Rubbery *
Burnt-rubber like odor that can come from taints in the green bean as well as damage done from excessive water quench and overheating during grinding

Low acid coffees which are clean are often described as soft.

Sour *
Not to be confused with acidity. Whereas high acid coffees may also have a "tangy" character truly sour coffees exhibit a highly unpleasant rank aroma and taste. Sour unroasted coffee can be recognized by the red coloration of a part of or completely covering the entire bean.

Said of fine coffees with sharp distinct and desirable aromas or flavor s often suggestive of particular spices.

Stale *
Roasted coffee that has faded in quality after excessive exposure to air. Aroma of stale coffee can range from flat to rancid to cardboardy. Commonly distinguished in coffees stored for more that 21 days without any protective packaging.

Strawy *
Characteristic scent of past-croppish green coffees; hay-like. Can also be used to describe roast imperfections from under-roasting.

Term used to indicate intensity of either defects or virtues as in "a strong, sour taste" or a "strong fine aroma". Can also be used to denote brewing with a high coffee to water ratio.

Said of a smooth, palatable coffee, free from taints or harshness. Sweet coffees are often the most highly sought for coffees as they typically find the widest range of uses as a base in blends for many applications from espresso to drip brews.

Said of coffees with watery body.

Coffees with extreme and often inconsistent flavor characteristics, or odd racy, tangy nuances in aroma and taste. Usually applied to natural coffees.

A relatively rare quality usually used to denote a sappy, vinous flavor characteristic, or other wine like attribute.

Woody *
A flavor taint in green coffee caused by over-lengthy storage; also characteristic scent and taste of old, past-croppish coffees. Occasionally prized as a virtue in aged coffees and monsooned coffees.

* Denotes tainted characteristics