Coffee Words and Terminology

You don't need to be a coffee connoisseur to make good coffee at home. You'll know what you like and dislike about any coffee you try, without a sense of taste sophistocated enough to know that one has a more "winy" aroma or "clean" taste than another. However, it helps to know the taste terms used by connoisseurs so that you understand what to look for.

As you make better and better coffee, you will have a more sophisticated taste for it.

The Breakdown

Coffee tasters look for four things, and three of them are derivative of the fourth one. At the highest level is flavor. And what comes together to make up a coffee's flavor are acidity, aroma, and body. Coffee tasters will generally pinpoint characteristics of the acidity, aroma, and body to describe the quality of the coffee bean. Most of us do not have the sophistocated sense of taste needed to be a coffee-taster, but this profession has given the rest of us a way to describe coffee but especially what you should expect from a quality cup of coffee.


Acidity is an industry term, because for consumers, it can suggest the tie between acid reflux heartburn and coffee. Acidity in describing coffee actually refers to the very 'pop' that makes coffee taste like coffee. It refers to the high notes of coffee, without which your coffee will taste flat. If you've ever drank the coffee that was sold at McDonald's before they started bringing in professional roasters, you've had flat coffee. Try to remember the lack of any peak it had, almost a feeling of slight coffee-flavored hot water. That is the opposite of an acidy coffee. This is a term that people often misuse, but it should be used to describe the accent that makes coffee taste like coffee...remember the high notes.


Since the sense of smell is so closely tied to the sense of taste, aroma is the part of the flavor owing to what your sense of smell picks up. Without aroma, any taste has to be sweet, sour, salty, or bitter. The additional dimension of aroma adds an element of flavor described in words like floral or winy.


The body of the coffee refers to its heavyness or texture. A syrup has too much body for coffee, whole milk has a closer feel , while skim milk or water has little to no body. Coffee is meant to have a medium to heavy body and any good coffee you buy will have at least medium body. A coffee with a weak body might have other factors in its favor but will still feel in your mouth like it is not as thick as a coffee should be. A heavy-bodied coffee is often described as rich coffee.


Together, they describe a coffee's flavor, but even still, there are no end of ways to describe how the factors come together to create a specific flavor experience. A coffee could have strong acidity and aroma, and still be described with words like complex or balanced. While these two coffee terms are close, they are very different in meaning. Complex flavor means that there is a great variety of different coffee accents brought together into one cup. Balanced flavor means that the extremes of coffee accents are both represented in one cup. A way to differentiate between the two is that a complex flavor could consist of several different definable flavors, while a balanced coffee might contain only two accented flavors that complement each other and therefore cover a wide range of flavors between them. Another way to differentiate is that a complex flavor means an exciting coffee experience, while a balanced flavor means a more relaxing, sit-back-and-enjoy experience. Suit yourself, that's what's great about coffee.

Descriptive Flavor Terminology

Flavor is the homogenization of its acidity, aroma, and body. Here are some terms you'll hear:

  • Bitter: This is the basic taste most associated with coffee. Bitterness is the reason that many add sugar to their coffee to offset. Coffee that is too bitter will be unpleasant and disagreeable. Many associate bitterness with a dark roast, especially since the Starbucks coffees are dark-roasted and contain a strong bitterness meant for the coffee-lover. The two however are not so closely corelated.
  • Chocolatey: Sometimes described as a 'burnt chocolate' by those who are used to retail chocolate, this is an accent to coffee that comes out in the aftertaste like unsweetened chocolate.
  • Bright, sharp, snappy, dry These are derived more from acidity, and describe the peaks of what makes coffee taste like coffee.
  • Earthy: While it doesn't sound as pleasant as it is, the sense of soil flavor in your coffee. A hint of earthy flavor is just how it sounds, although too much of it is obviously overpowering and leads to the coffee tasting "dirty".
  • Fragrant: This is derived from aroma, and describes a sweet or floral taste.
  • Fruity: Just like it sounds, although obviously for as fruity as a flavor could survive in a strong coffee.
  • Mellow: A smooth taste, usually if the coffee is low in acidity but obviously not so low that the coffee is flat.
  • Nutty: As the name suggests, a hint of nut in the cup.
  • Spicy: This is a relatively subjective word because there is a broad range of spices (moreso than nuts or chocolate), but there is also a common enough use of this word to describe a coffee.
  • Sweet: A light tart in the flavor not artifically added by sugar.