Coffee is complex, with more than 1,000 different chemicals affecting the aromas and flavours. Your morning coffee can vary between sweet and sour, delicate to dense, nutty to fruity.
As with any beverage, we all have different preferences when it comes to flavour and style. Therefore, how to describe good coffee is somewhat subjective.
This is the official coffee definition: a beverage made by percolation, infusion, or decoction from the roasted and ground seeds of a coffee plant.
Coffee fruits or cherries grow on a tree with green and waxy leaves, that can reach over 30ft in hight. The plant will first flower, and then cherries will grow on the branches – the bean itself is inside the cherry.
Coffee cherries can take a few months to mature, and it takes around 5 years to reach total fruit production. Although coffee plants can live up to 100 years, they’re most productive between the ages of 7 and 20. Depending on the coffee variety, the trees can increase their production with proper care. One coffee tree can produce a total of 10 pounds of cherries yearly, this equates to 2 pounds of green fruit.
If we want to uncover what constitutes ‘good coffee’, we need to dive deeper into its definition. Collectively, aroma, intensity, and flavour notes create a coffee's flavour or ‘profile’, so it’s important to understand what each of these mean.
Coffee aroma is basically the smell of freshly brewed coffee. It can highlight the beans’ flavour attributes, which most tastebuds can’t precisely pinpoint.
The more we roast the beans the more we develop the aroma. But if we roast too dark, we might destroy some of the good qualities of the bean. Lighter roasted beans will have a distinct smell but differ from medium roasts. The most common aroma from coffee is caramel and nuttiness. Stale coffee beans often give off a musty smell or aroma.
What does coffee intensity mean? Testers might use the term ‘intensity’ to describe the strength and depth of the coffee aroma and richness. Roasted ground coffee beans give different flavours, ranging from fine acidity to bold bitterness. This intensity is also referred to as the level of ‘body’.
Coffee notes indicate the types of flavours and smells evoked by coffee. Tasting notes or ‘flavour notes’ are a taster's written description about the aroma, taste, and character of a coffee. These tasting notes can help guide us towards coffees we may like; or ones we may want to avoid.
Sweet tones or upper notes are usually identified by the tip of the tongue, while heavier notes or base notes are more prominent at the back of the tongue.
The Flavour Wheel was designed as a tool for coffee tasters to store common vocabulary when deciding how to describe coffee taste. It was created by the World Coffee Research Sensory Lexicon to help trained panels evaluate coffee tastes for research.
The Flavour Wheel includes 110 words to help tasters understand how to describe the smell of coffee in a single language. It has over 800 aromatic molecules, and flavours relating to the coffee’s sensory properties.
Each circle has a specific definition and includes a reference guide to help the tasters clarify specific attributes. You don’t have to be a professional to use the Flavour Wheel – even a beginner can decode the different aromas of coffee beans, thanks to the clear explanations of each word.
It’s best to start reading the wheel from the centre, where you’ll find 9 primary aromatic families: floral, fruity, sour, green, roasted, spices, nutty/cocoa, sweet, and ‘other’. The most general taste descriptors are near the centre, and they get more specific as the tiers work outward. So, after determining the main aroma, you then work outwards to specify and describe it further.