It always helps to know the language when you’re discussing a subject with others. Coffee flavor is as complex as that of any good wine, and coffee tasters have developed their own language to describe the flavors of different blends and varietals of coffee. Here’s a quick guide to the terminology used by professional coffee cuppers.
Acerbic: A sour, acrid flavor that often develops from overheating coffee, as when you leave it sitting on the heater for too long after brewing.
Acidity: High acid (or acidy) 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. See sour.
Aftertaste: The flavor that remains in your mouth after the coffee is swallowed. It is created by the vapors released by the coffee. It may range from chocolaty, spicy, turpeny, carbony and other descriptives.
Aroma: refers 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.
Baked: A taste description given to under-roasted coffee, or coffee roasted too slowly at too low a temperature, so that the flavor is underdeveloped. See green.
Bitter: A 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.
Body: The 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.
Bouquet: The smell of ground coffee before brewing.
Bright: A descriptive used with acidity to describe a tangy taste to the coffee.
Buttery: Said of an oily body or texture in the mouth. Denotes full flavor and richness. Not a common description.
Cinnamon: Underlying spicy accent sometimes detected in the aroma of fine coffee, a flavor nuance. Not a common description. (Also a term describing a very light roast.)
Clean: Opposite of dirty. Characteristic of all fine coffees. Does not necessarily imply clarity of flavor impression (see natural coffee and wild). Associated with washed coffees.
Cocoa: Characteristic sweetish smell of completely stale roasted coffee. See stale.
Dirty: An undesirable unclean smell and taste, slight to pronounced. Dirty implies a defect, such as sourness, earthiness, or mustiness. See natural coffee and wild.
Earthy: A highly undesirable dirt odor and flavor taint picked up by coffee when dried on the ground; also called groundy. See musty.
Flat: A dull lifeless quality due to lack of acidity.
Flavor: (a) 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. (b) Specific taste flavors may suggest spices, chocolate, nuts, or something less complimentary-straw, grass, earth, rubber, etc.
Fresh: Opposite of stale. Applies to roasted coffees.
Fruity: A flavor taint said to come from overripe fruit pulp.
Grassy: A flavor taint from use of swamp water for washing, or from improper drying. Also used as synonym for green and past-croppish.
Green: (a) A flavor taint found in coffee harvested before fully ripe. (b) Characteristic taste of under-roasted coffee; pasty.
Hard: Opposite of sweet or mild; harsh. Description of Brazils between soft and Rio-y.
Harsh: Crude raw taste; used to describe certain Brazils and robustas.
Hidy: Smell of hides or leather from improper storage.
Light: Used to qualify aroma, acidity, or body; a light coffee would be delicate in flavor.
Mellow: Full, well-balanced, satisfying coffee; implies low or medium acidity. See winy.
Musty: A smell and taste taint caused by mildew; similar to earthy.
Natural Coffee: Aroma and flavor characteristics of coffees processed by the dry method. They are often blander than washed coffees and may lack clarity of flavor and pointed acidity; some may have intense, complex flavors and full, thick body. See wild.
Neutral: A characterless, flavorless coffee, inoffensive to insipid; without virtue (save for economical blending) but without defect. A desirable character in robusta and otherwise undistinguished Brazils.
Nutty: (a) Said of coffees that lack coffee flavor; also peanutty. (b) A specific flavor nuance, suggesting almonds, and so on.
Past-Croppish: Not to be confused with stale. Said of coffees that have deteriorated in the green state before roasting, and thus taste as if from a past crop. See strawy and woody.
Rancid: Extremely sour and very unpleasant.
Rich: Indicates depth and complexity of flavor and full, buttery body; overused.
Rio-y: A harsh, heavy medicinal or iodine flavor typical of the poorest grades of Brazils but encountered in other coffees as well. Said to be caused by allowing berries to dry on the tree.
Rubbery: Burnt-rubber odor characteristic of robusta.
Soft: Low-acid coffees are described as soft, mellow, sweet.
Sour: Not to be confused with acidity. A distinctly sour, rank, or rancid taste is a defect, often due to improper processing. See wild.
Spicy: Said of fine aroma or flavor suggestive of spices.
Stale: Roasted coffee that has faded in quality after excessive exposure to air. Aroma of stale coffee changes from flat to rancid and finally to cocoa-like; the flavor of stale coffee changes from bitter to rancid and tastes “cardboard”. Not to be confused with past-croppish.
Strawy: Characteristic scent of past-croppish coffees; hay-like. See woody.
Strong: Term used to indicate intensity of either defects or virtues (as in "a strong, sour taste" or "a strong, fine aroma"). A strong-flavored coffee is therefore not necessarily a fine-flavored coffee.
Sweet: Said of a smooth, palatable coffee, free from taints or harshness. Also soft.
Thin: Said of coffees with watery body and lack of flavor; typical of low-grown coffee.
Tone: The color and appearance of the coffee. It may be light, dark, medium or be described in other ways.
Wild: Coffees with extreme flavor characteristics, or odd, racy, tangy nuances in aroma and taste. Usually applied to natural coffees. These characteristics may be intriguing or undesirable. See dirty.
Winy: Sometimes used to indicate thick body and mellow quality, but also used to denote a sappy, vinous acidity. Characteristic of certain fine coffees.
Woody: A flavor taint caused by over-lengthy storage in warm wood sheds; also characteristic scent and taste of old, past-croppish coffees.